Sifa 2021: Put your ear to the ground in a garden of the Syrian dead

Gardens Speak by Tania El Khoury.
Gardens Speak by Tania El Khoury.PHOTO: JESSE HUNNIFORD

SINGAPORE - During the Syrian war, they were killed and buried in gardens.

Now, the stories of these 10 ordinary people can be heard in Gardens Speak, a haunting sound installation by Lebanese-British artist Tania El Khoury.

When the work comes to the Singapore International Festival of Arts (Sifa) in May, people at 222 Arts Club - just 10 of them each time - may place their heads on the ground to listen to these intimate narratives.

"The piece has 10 speakers buried in four tonnes of soil," says El Khoury, 38.

"The audience is invited to go into that space and dig the soil with their own hands - to get closer to the sound, lie down and listen to it whispered into their ears - and then bury it back."

The intimate, first-person narratives, originally written in Syrian dialect, are based on interviews with friends and families of the deceased. Singapore audiences will hear these stories in English.

About 400,000 people have been killed since the 2011 uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime spiralled into civil war. El Khoury recalls that there was "a lot of hope" at the start of the uprising.

"Gardens Speak reminds us that these were people who went out, and took to the streets to protest an oppressive regime, decades of dictatorship - and were targeted, demonised and killed by the regime."

She says that the form of the work has political potential.

"When you are involved in a multisensory experience, you are not just viewing as a spectator. You are smelling, touching the soil, and being there, lying there. It places you in other people's realities and evokes your own mortality, your own vulnerability, your own humanity."

Gardens Speak was a co-commission by the Fierce Festival in Birmingham and Next Wave Festival in Melbourne. Since 2014, when it was first mounted, it has travelled to about 30 cities, using the soil of the land where it is staged.

"In Australia, it was all sandy where we presented it. In Oslo, I think it was like ice," she adds.

"I don't try to do a realistic representation of a Syrian garden. On the contrary, it's a designed space, a theatrical artistic experience and an invitation to remember those people in their own way, with their own connections."

El Khoury's other Sifa piece, As Far As Isolation Goes, is a collaborative project with musician and street artist Basel Zaraa. The intimate 20-minute performance unfolds online in real time and will invite audiences to draw on their own arms as they explore the mental and physical state of refugees.


Gardens Speak

Where: 222 Arts Club, 222 Queen Street, #01-01/02

When: May 19 to 30, at 6, 7.30 and 9pm (Wednesdays to Fridays); 11am, 12.30, 3.30, 5, 8 and 9.30pm (weekends)

Admission: $35

Info: Singapore International Festival Of Arts' website

As Far As Isolation Goes

Where: Online

When: May 21 to 23; and 28 to 30, on Fridays and weekends in slots from 5.30pm to 9.35pm

Admission: $20