Julia and I spent part of the afternoon experiencing a most unusual and unsettling art installation at the National Building Museum in Washington. The installation is entitled Gardens Speak and is the work of Tania El Khoury. The installation in Washington was produced by Laila Abdul-Hadi Jadallah. From Washington, Gardens Speak goes on to Cairo, Beirut, and Amsterdam, and, I hope, many other locations. An extensive article on the artist and the work can be found in The Guardian.
The installation program guide describes the piece this way:
“Gardens Speak is an interactive sound installation based on the oral histories of ten ordinary people who were buried in gardens across Syria. Each narrative has been carefully constructed with the friends and family members of the deceased to retell their stories as they themselves may have recounted it. They are compiled with audio and video traces of their final moments.”
I will honor the artist’s desire for the work to be experienced without prior description, but I will say that the essence of the experience puts one on and in the ground with the dead to hear their stories, relating their (permanent) and our (temporary) relationship with the earth of the garden in which they lie.
A young woman spoke to me from the grave. She spoke of her family garden where she drank tea in the afternoon. She spoke of wanting to protest the Assad regime. She spoke of her mother, father, brother, and husband forcing her to stay away from the protests to protect her and the fetus she was carrying. At prayer, in the safety of her home, a shell burst through the roof of her parents home, killing her and her unborn child.
Coming out of the experience, we sat and talked about everything but the installation with a group who had gone through with us (a maximum of ten can go through at one time). Later, at dinner in one of our favorite restaurants, having had a little space to think, Julia and I talked of the experience. I had to excuse myself to find a private place to wipe the tears from my eyes. Even those who truly care about the horrors that make up the everyday lives of millions who are caught in war and tyranny can become numb and insensitive to suffering. Sometimes, it takes an experience like Gardens Speak to pull one back from the intellectual appreciation of peacebuilding to the visceral feelings that a lack of peace may generate.
The last step of the installation was an invitation for each visitor to write something to bury in the soil, possibly to be sent to the family of the victim who spoke directly. I wrote the first rough draft of a short poem.