Listen to the Dead – Tania El Khoury’s Gardens Speak

What may well be the most powerful, unique and mesmerizing work in all of Miami Art Week is buried in a room at the side of the Fillmore Miami Beach. In Tania El Khoury’s Gardens Speak, the dead come alive and speak directly to us.

The piece is an indefinable mix of installation, story-telling, sound, performance, and ritual – a visceral, physical, immersive experience that will leave you shaken. To say how and why is impossible without describing the piece in detail, which would eliminate the surprise – even shock – at the heart of the work’s impact.

But I will say this: Gardens Speak is unlike any of the hundreds of performances that I have seen in my life. You have two more days, Friday Dec. 8 and Saturday Dec. 9, to see it. If you possibly can, go. (One bit of practical advice – wear shoes you can slip off and casual clothes, if you can.)

Presented by MDC Live Arts, the work is part of Ojala/Inshallah: Wishes From The Muslim World, a season of performance by Muslim, Middle Eastern and North African artists representing a culture rarely seen or heard from in South Florida.

A Lebanese artist based in London and Beirut, El Khoury was moved to create Gardens Speak by the phenomenon of Syrians who have buried thousands of loved ones in their gardens. In a program note, she calls these garden graveyards as a “continuing collaboration between the living and the dead.” The Assad regime often targets funerals of those who have opposed it, El Khoury writes, or lies about their lives or how they died. “The oppression follows people even after their death, forcing a narrative upon them,” she continues. “It is in this context that telling the stories of ordinary people, writing their names on tombstones, and singing for them is a necessary act of resistance.”

For Gardens Speak El Khoury spoke with friends and family of ten people buried in Syrian gardens, reconstructing their lives and their deaths. We hear their stories in an unnervingly intimate way – only ten people can visit the installation per performance, and each person in the audience experiences a single story – another source of the work’s power.

At a moment when it is easy to be numbed or overwhelmed by the horror of the Syrian war, when people, and especially refugees, from the Middle East can seem immeasurably distant and foreign, Gardens Speak brings the lives and deaths of ten of them very close. At the end, you are asked to respond. To do so will seem the most human and necessary thing in the world.

Gardens Speak takes place at:

Friday Dec. 8 at 2pm, 3pm, 4pm and 6:30pm, 7:30pm, and 8:30pm

Saturday Dec. 9 at 12 pm, 1 pm, 2 pm and 4:30 pm, 5:30 pm and 6:30 pm

Performance is in the Gleason Room on the south side of the Fillmore Miami Beach, 1700 Washington Ave., Miami Beach. Tickets are $28 at mdclivearts.org

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