I first encountered Larissa Sansour at the Braziers’ International workshop in Oxford where she was exercising her political performance muscles as the ‘Bethlehem Bandolero’. And here she is, all these years later, representing Denmark at the Venice Biennale. With ‘Heirloom’, Sansour has come a long way as a film maker from her joyfully DIY pastiche of the Western movie-genre I remember (it’s still great), taking a stand against the conditions of her exile and kicking up dust at the celluloid source of many gender and cultural stereotypes. But her essential concerns – contested geographies, dispossession, who records history and how it’s committed to cultural memory – remain, if a little more slick in execution.
The installation, curated by Nat Muller, comprises a two-channel film (directed with Søren Lind) and an architectural intervention featuring props from the shoot: a giant black sphere, which sits in the space like a dark and immovable thought, and floor tiles imported from Palestine’s West Bank. Both elements are gloomily sumptuous and collectively they deliver a bravura performance in dignified biennale-pavilion theatricality.
Images © Francesco Galli/La Biennale di Venezia
‘In Vitro’* is a visually stunning and emotionally compelling film, the action split between two zones and, at points, the thin bisecting black line appears to make an optical game out of the big themes in play here: notions of time, home, memory and truth. It’s the script, however, which keeps you in the moment and prepared to watch all over again when the credits roll. Every word is a gem, every poetically fragmented sentence delivering a piece of hard-won wisdom, or personally resonant philosophical proposition.
I was raised on nostalgia…
..the past spoon-fed to me…
..my own memories replaced by those of others.
They appear personal and intimate.
They’re not real, but seductive…
..like lavish illustrations in a children’s book.
Out of touch with life down here…
..like a bacteria planted in me.
It’s set post-eco-disaster in a future where humans have had to adapt to living underground (beneath Bethlehem, where Sansour was born) to ensure survival. The central relationship is between two female scientists: Dunia (Hiam Abass), an older woman on her deathbed who can remember a time of living out in the world as a child, and Alia (Maisa Abd Elhadi), a young female clone whose existence and knowledge of the past, and of the places they plan to return to, has been ‘inherited’ from the cells and lived experiences of others. As Dunia reflects on the radical changes that have occurred in her lifetime, so Alia grapples with her own sense of self as the living construct of a history she could never be party to; a humanoid time capsule loaded for utilisation in an uncertain future.
Like past generations in this place.
They all tried to redeem their present…
..lit it up with old stories
..and decorated the void with promises of things to come.
While we are clearly being presented with life through a heavily stylised and fictionally focused monochrome lens, the powerful symbolism of Sansour’s re-imagined world (edited with actual documentary footage of events in the region’s history) chimes with many situations of the present, in a variety of geopolitical contexts. Of course the Israeli-Palestinian conflict looms large as we witness Bethlehem under attack and the traumatic displacement of people. But the oil/blood-like tsunami wave that threatens to wash out the ancient city is a metaphor that implicates all in re our treatment of one another and the environment. And it raises questions about our capacity to learn from the past.
Regardless of any overarching plan (or in the case of making a film, the script), we are only ever between places and moments, Sansour seems to suggest. The impressive Brutalist building that houses ailing Dunia, and that Alia walks us through, perfectly evokes the futuristic aspirations of another period. So, too, does Alia’s Rhythm Nation-era-Janet-Jackson outfit, which suggestively pitches us between military uniforms and high fashion*; the most serious of times and the small details that inevitably punctuate our experiences of them.
For all the potential evidence of her own history in this work – and that of her homeland, which like any account of humanity has and continues to be recorded in many different and conflicting voices – Sansour creates an open narrative arena in which the many possible versions of an event and the complex human motivations at its core can co-exist. The present, she reminds us, is not a delineable zone between the past and the future, but a time-fluid state of perpetual processing, an endless attempt to make sense of what has already been.
The only past I know is here.
Everything else is just fairy tales.
Entire nations are built on fairy tales.
Facts alone are too sterile for a cohesive understanding.
*This literally translates from the Latin as "in glass"
**The role of design in the implementation and propaganda campaigns of political movements
All images courtesy of the artists and La Biennale di Venezia, unless otherwise stated