Bearing witness: Gardens Speak at NYUAD Arts Center

We’re used to seeing the Big Picture: news isn’t news unless it’s accompanied by gunfire and explosions, crowds running and people screaming, buildings shattered and countries devastated. The bigger the better, especially if it’s served up in short chunks of video or two-sentence interviews with politicians or generals.

That’s one reality, but all too easily it obscures another. Individual histories get swamped by the careless sweep of global politics; the loss of normal life, of normal lives, is just too complicated and too slow for the news channels.

As Tania El Khoury says: “During big historic events, it’s the small voices, the individual human voices, that get lost”. Gardens Speak is her response to one of those big historic events, the Syrian uprising that has stumbled into bloody civil war and proxy geopolitics.

Tania El Khoury (right) is an artist whose practice is based on involving the audience actively in her installations and performances. So the audience an essential component of the artwork rather than just a passive consumer. She won the €30,000 ANTI Festival International Prize for Live Art last September; the Prize – now in its fourth year – is the world’s only international award for live art.

In Gardens Speak, you won’t hear what the gardens have to say unless you dig in the ground to uncover the small speaker playing an audio file. The ground is actually a grave mound and the speaker is in a cushion that you’ll have to lie on to hear the story of the person who might have been in the grave, a story constructed by talking to the family and friends of the dead person and using material from diaries, letters and YouTube.

Secret back-garden burials of those killed in the uprising were common in the uprising, and can be seen as an act of resistance – cemeteries have been shelled during formal funerals are taking place, and El Khoury has heard that sometimes no burial is allowed before the families have signed documents exonerating the Assad regime of their loved one’s death.

Gardens Speak gives a voice to some of those who would otherwise be unheard and a place to those whose burials often have to remain unmarked. The Red Theater at The Arts Center of NYU Abu Dhabi has been laid out with ten wooden gravestones set in earth; the members of the audience – just ten at a time – are each directed to one of the graves, where they must dig in the soil to uncover a cushion and then lie down head on the cushion to hear the story.

The voices of ordinary people tell extraordinary stories about their lives, the horrors of war, the indifference or cruelty that they faced. Some have political views or comment on the geopolitics of the uprising, but as El Koury says “it depends on the person – some of them were not involved politically and hated politics”. But it’s no coincidence that the audience lying on the ground make the room look like a cemetery.

Gardens Speak has been shown around the world for a couple of years now, and it has garnered some powerful opinions. “Eerily absorbing” said the London Evening Standard, which emphasises the theatricality but seems to miss the point somewhat; the New York Times seemed more in tune when the review called it “a stark, moving theatre piece” that “brings us into painful intimacy with the human cost of the war”.

And here’s the chair of the ANTI Festival International Prize: “The sensitivity of this artist’s work in orchestrating audience experience is extraordinary. It stays with us, is sometimes literally written on to us. She has foregrounded some of the burning questions of our time by creating resonant experiences that generate conversation and exchange. Tania’s work is urgently needed and we thank her for it.”

Bill Bragin, executive artistic director of The Arts Center, calls Gardens Speak “an important work that opens important conversations”, which seems an apt summary.

Tania El Khoury is happy to let the gardens speak for themselves. “As an artist, I try to avoid projecting on my audience what I want them to feel or understand,” she told us. “The nature of interactive work is that each person interacts differently. I might have hopes and these are also linked to the artistic form: an invitation to embody the lives and deaths of these ten martyrs, and to position oneself as listener inside their stories. Bearing witness, I would say.”

Performances are sold out, but there may be returns and possibly additional ticket releases – check the website for the latest. In the meantime, Tania El Khoury will be giving a talk at 6:30pm on 28 April at the NYUAD Institute on her work.


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