This week, an unusual artistic performance in honour of Syria’s victims wrapped up its eight-day rollout across four cities on three continents. Starting in Tel Aviv on May 21 and successively moving through Vienna, London and Buenos Aires, native Arabic speakers slowly and deliberately read out the names of those killed in the Syrian conflict. In each city, roughly 16 speakers “performed” over two days each. Audiences could attend the venues in person or watch from anywhere, live on the internet. The entire reading covered both sides in the conflict — the rebel dead as well as those among the Syrian government forces — across the period March 15, 2011 to December 31, 2016.
It was sombre and moving, but was it properly representative of Syria’s suffering? Can such creative commemoration by outsiders ever be more than a form of cultural appropriation?
This particular idea was conceived by Santiago Sierra, a Spanish artist, who has previously been criticised for “careerism masquerading as a mission”. And it is notable that Sierra’s Syria work was executed in locations not directly connected to the conflict. So, what value might such art have to Syria in particular and to the world’s social conscience more generally? Was it art at all or just a stunt?
There is no right answer to the question but it may be worth considering other artistic works that attempt to stir the social conscience.
Was Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s most celebrated work, Sunflower Seeds, which consists of 100 million or so individually painted porcelain seeds, a stunt? Or was it a thought-provoking examination of several possible themes about his own country: Made in China consumerism; China’s brief moment of cultural freedom in 1956; the hope that many flowers will bloom in China’s future?
Was Picasso’s Guernica, which is said to be the best known anti-war painting in history, self-consciously aiming to press emotional buttons with its stark black-and-white photo effect? The same question arises from L S Lowry’s “matchstick men” — struggling little faceless human creatures — who barely populate the industrialised north of England.
And what of the more contemporary improvisational work of Lebanon’s Mazen Kerbaj in his attempt to represent the toll of war on innocent city dwellers? In a much discussed piece on the 2006 war when Israel bombed Lebanese towns, villages and infrastructure, Mr Kerbaj took up his trumpet and performed a duet with the boom of falling bombs and rumbling of fighter jets. He recorded the piece, titled Starry Night, on his Beirut balcony, complete with real time sounds of war. It was lavishly praised by some, as enabling the creative individual to fight the forces of mass destruction. Rather ridiculously, it was even likened to Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, which rejoices in cannon fire near the end. But others criticised its histrionics and overweening theatricality.
But perhaps art has to seek attention to make a connection? Most artists know this instinctively and make suitable provision. Picasso, for instance, unusually allowed a photographer to document the 35-day process of painting Guernica. Even though it was his companion Dora Maar who observed him through the viewfinder, it was a sign the great artist knew the merits of publicity for the anti-fascist cause and for the reception afforded to Guernica. And Lowry probably chose his disorientating signature feature of matchstick men because he knew it was distinctive, memorable and hadn’t been done before.
Something similar might be said of Sierra’s performance art on Syria’s dead. Whatever the artistic merit or the lead artist’s motivation, the eight-day performance hit at least one high note. It cut through the confusion about whose dead to count, those of the rebels or of the regime. Sierra’s work counted both, using the 144,308 names painstakingly gathered by the Grupo de Investigación sobre el Conflicto en Siria. Led by Pedro Brieger, Middle East sociology professor at the University of Buenos Aires, the GICS compared the widely quoted high numbers offered without evidence by opposition activist groups such as the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the “non-existent” death toll claimed by the government. It noted that anti-regime NGOs generally exclude the dead from different pro-government militia.
So, GICS took the data provided by the NGO Violations Documentation Center in Syria, and tallied it up with that of other groups.
It counted up people who were identified by their full names or by a clear relationship to another identified person on the list. And it arrived at 144,308 people who were definitely and identifiably killed in the Syrian conflict from 2011 to 2016. Of this number, it said, 16,272 should be listed as “non-identified” or without their full names.
Before the performance, Mr Sierra told an art website his motivation was a mix of sadness and shame about events in Syria and Europe’s treatment of Syrian refugees. He wanted, he said, to honour the dead in a “monumental” and “radical pacifist” way. “As a contemporary of this massacre I am inevitably connected to it,” he added, linking everyone alive at this moment in time in a shared sense of loss.
There is something deeply affecting about that. As is the bringing together of Syria’s conflicting sides, at least in a listing of the dead.