Arts Review SIFA 2021 Singapore

★★★★☆ Review: Gardens Speak by Tania El Khoury (SIFA 2021)

Planting the seeds of hope in this unique sound installation highlighting the casualties of war.

They say that a single death is a tragedy; a million deaths, a statistic. And for countries like Syria, where war has ravaged its citizens for years, the shadow of death is always looming, almost second nature at this point. For a Singaporean who has likely never witnessed or experienced any form of violence to this degree, it can be all too easy to feel completely removed from the ongoing chaos in the Middle East. How then can we bring ourselves to feel closer to what’s happening?

British-Lebanese artist Tania El Khoury does this quite literally, as her sound installation Gardens Speak has audiences pressing their ears against wet soil, to hear the recorded oral histories depicting the final moments of a Syrian’s life, before killed by a bomb. Playing at 222 Arts Club, as part of the 2021 Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA), there is something sacred about taking part in Gardens Speak, as we enter the space, closed off from the outside world, and are greeted by cold and silence.

It is almost ritual-like as we prepare by removing our shoes, donning a raincoat, pulling the hood over our heads. There is an air of religiosity, as if we are covering ourselves out of modesty or even mustahabb, as a form of respect before entering the next area. Here, we are greeted by a plot of land filled with soil, marked by wooden boards acting as headstones for the deceased; we learn that these Syrians have been buried in gardens across the city after their death, almost as if they are returned to the earth from which they came.

Audience members are each assigned a headstone to approach, the experience itself individual and personal. We feel the wet soil beneath our bare feet, lie on our front, and press our ears to the ground. In that moment of solitude, we ignore the dirt, the discomfort, the cold and the damp, and just focus on listening to this story. What we are greeted with is a surprisingly calm and gentle voice, in spite of the surrounding chaos and sounds of war.

Every story recounts the little joys and victories, the setbacks and tribulations they have experienced throughout their life. There is enough information to give us a complete idea of the person’s routines and personality, of how they are merely artists or a ‘boring’ office worker, before being caught in this war they never asked for, leading up to the point they die. It is reflective, almost objective in how they are looking back on their lives. But before we know it, the story is over, and we are left with the empty silence of someone who is gone too soon.

As the last words fade, we are asked to lie on our backs, listening to the words of the Qu’ran. We may not understand what they mean, but this voice makes us feel at ease, able to just relax in this state of mind as we find ourselves at peace, lying in this ‘garden’. The lights turn on and we are dazed, back in the silence and the cold, away from the sounds of bombs and gunfire.

In exiting the garden, we are asked to cleanse ourselves, washing our feet in a basin before stepping back outside. We think back to the experience, and realise that for us, this statistic has become a tiny tragedy. The dead may be physically gone, but we protect their memory by dedicating this pocket of time to hearing them out, to exhume their story and embed it, bury it in your consciousness. These people may be dead, but they will live on in your memory, with the hope that you will be the one to continue telling their life to others, immortalising them in your words.

Photo Credit: Arts House Limited

Gardens Speak runs from 19th to 30th May 2021 at 222 Arts Club (222 Queen Street) as part of the 2021 Singapore International Festival of Arts. Tickets and more information available here

The 2021 Singapore International Festival of Arts runs from 14th to 30th May 2021. Tickets and full line-up available here  

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