Step into the garden of first longings and desires...

First love as experienced both during times of war and peace by men and women from different generations in Palestine, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq… Lebanese theater writer Chrystèle Khodr (April 2017’s artist of L’OLJ-SGBL Generation Orient ll), Syrian-Palestinian set designer Bissane al-Charif and Syrian director Wael Ali created an interactive, playful and slightly voyeuristic installation inspired by the Asmahan song “I Once Entered a Garden”.

We spoke with Khodr and al-Charif to find out more.

When an immersive and playful multimedia installation becomes a vehicle for private and intimate stories. Photo Amr Kokash

How did the idea of a common installation come to be?

Chrystèle Khodr: I first worked with Bissane on the play “Titre Provisoire” that I created with Wael Ali, and in which she was the set designer. This is when I discovered the artist in her throughout her world and her way of thinking. In reality, the idea came initially from Bissane: the topic of sex during wartime; most importantly, how people lived, remembered and narrated their “first time” in the midst of important political and social turmoil and changes.

Bissane al-Charif: I will add a nuance to what Chrystèle just said regarding my opinion on the subject. During the first years of the Syrian war, I had a big urge to speak out, to relay and to document through installations what was happening then. But with time, I came to realize that the big, violent changes I was living and observing as what I believed were unique experiences, had already been lived by other generations in neighboring countries. The topic of generation being a delicate one, I believe that Chrystèle experienced her childhood during wartimes differently than mine. I wanted to show that common daily life issues are created by repetitive wars and that those issues are shared by people who couldn’t be more different from one another. I wanted to come up with a project that would shed some light on personal and intimate stories of love and sex. Stories that would not focus on wars per se but rather on their recurrences.

Love in times of instability is a theme that you, Chrystèle Khodr, have already explored in “Beit Bouyout”, your first theatrical opus. Bissane al-Charif, you say that uncertainties, wars and upheavals are themes that “haunt” your work since the beginning of the Syrian crisis. Are the similarities of both your universes coming together in this installation?

C.K: I am often inspired in my work by the little stories told by others. I try as much as possible to think of the big story behind the little ones that can appear very common and unimportant. For me, theater is all about relating tales, and through the latter, I try to rebuild a memory that is slowly slipping away.

B.C: In my first installations, I felt the need to document and to recount the war. But with this one, I wanted to have fun and play around. I aimed at seizing happy moments and intimate details, even though these moments could get lost in dark periods.

How did you collect the testimonials used in your work?

C.K: During the research period, we decided on the age of the people we would interview. From Palestine, we wanted the testimonial of a man or a woman who would be older than the State of Israel; from Lebanon, from someone who has lived his/her adolescence during the 80’s; from Iraq, someone who lived it during the 90’s; as for Syria, we chose to talk to people who experienced their “first time” during a time of peace (years 1990-2000), as it would have been impossible to talk about a war that is ongoing until today. We started with people who were willing to share their memories and stories with us. I conducted the interviews, but the questions were previously prepared with Bissane and Wael. Both never met the interviewees. I would send them the recordings, and we would prepare another questionnaire targeted to the same person based on the first interview, and I would then proceed to a second meeting.

B.C: At the end, we chose four testimonials, four voices through which we started building a path, a search. We begun asking ourselves questions and imagining what would come next. We worked on the texts and on the stories, and in parallel, I was thinking of the space and the universe of these voices. The nine spaces that make up this installation are based on nine private objects belonging to the subjects. We then worked on relating the testimonial, the object and the space together. Each separate space has a title related to the intimate object, but the end result is a combination of both authenticity and fiction.

Who had the hardest time at sharing their first experiences? Men or women?

C.K: It was much more difficult to let the men open up. I have to admit that sharing this kind of information with a perfect stranger and for the purpose of an artistic project isn’t that easy. It is extremely intimate. That’s why I would like to show gratitude to all those who accepted to share their experiences. It is thanks to them that this project has come to be.

B.C: I don’t believe in generalization regarding this question. But I agree with Chrystèle. I noticed that it is easier to talk to women about issues related to the body and to get to the bottom of intimate topics such as sex.

Can you define each of your strengths? In other words, who did what exactly in this project?

C.K: Before this project, the world of installations was unfamiliar in my field. It took time for the three of us to be on the same wavelength. During the first phase of the project we were three with Wael. Today, I am very satisfied with the teamwork we accomplished. The real collaboration that was born gave me the push to do some contemplation and brain searching both on the theme of our project as well as on the artistic medium itself.

B.C: The three of us are used to working as a team since we come from the world of theater and have previously collaborated together. In a multimedia installation, we should have a global idea that ties together all the visual and sound effects as well as a method that allows us to each work efficiently within his/her domain.

Finally, what is the message that you would like to convey through this work that is all about changes and turmoil brought on by the first sexual and emotional encounters in societies that are themselves in constant disruption?

C.K: I personally do not have a specific message to transmit. This project has brought up in me new feelings, and more specifically, numerous questions.

B.C: I cannot summarize in one message the work we have accomplished. It is difficult for me to convey one clear conclusion. If this garden would give the visitors who stroll through it the chance to remember well-hidden memories and ties, to awaken in them the possibilities of improbable encounters, this journey could also remain open ended.

Dar el-Nimer, Clemenceau Street. The exhibition is ongoing until March 16th. “I Once Entered a Garden” is a project sponsored by Dar el-Nimer Foundation.

How did the idea of a common installation come to be?Chrystèle Khodr: I first worked with Bissane on the play “Titre Provisoire” that I created with Wael Ali, and in which she was the set designer. This is when I discovered the artist in her throughout her world and her way of thinking. In reality, the idea came initially from Bissane: the topic of sex during wartime; most importantly, how...