“Silence is the master,” says a voice translating from Arabic to English in Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s Saydnaya (the missing 19db) (2017). The voice speaking in Arabic belongs to an inmate kept in Saydnaya prison during the Syrian civil war.
Over the course of the twelve- minute audio work, presented in a darkened listening room, the voices of prisoners and a translator are interspersed with the artist’s own as they describe the sonic biography of atrocity. The title derives from the change in the sonic character of Saydnaya from the time when it housed various types of inmates to its conversion into an instrument of political violence. The “safe” decibel level for inmates to whisper to each other dropped by nineteen decibels over this period. The inmates describe the fear they felt when guards heard them making unauthorized sounds, and the way in which beatings became increasingly silent as victims suppressed their own screams in an attempt to bring their ordeals to quicker ends. Inside the listening room, the darkness and silence almost seem to take on weight, exerting downward pressure on a visitor.
Venturing into the main space, one finds the work Earwitness Inventory (2018), which presents the tools used to recreate sounds described by various “earwitnesses” of events. Animated texts elaborate upon the process of producing and inventorying these sounds. The objects are incongruous, ramshackle, surreal; the viewer moves amid an inflatable swimming pool, a helium balloon anchored to the floor with a ceramic weight, and plastic soda bottles. Projected on the gallery’s east wall is Earwitness Inventory’s text component. The events and locations the text mentions — the rooms and doors of Saydnaya prison, sinkhole events, Reeva Steenkamp’s murder trial — all explore the ways in which memory, space, and sound interact. The text is fascinating, and the events it recounts are profound chronicles of the sonic imprint of violence, but there is a strange, almost whimsical, quality to standing among the objects themselves. In an exhibition so concerned with the invisible, the objects feel like a concession of sorts. After a work as powerful as Saydnaya, one understands how hearing becomes believing; in such a context, seeing is almost superfluous.