When the Venice Biennale opens next week, the Danish Pavilion will be covered in hand-painted Palestinian tiles in a traditional black and white pattern. This architectural intervention is part of Larissa Sansour’s exhibition Heirloom, which represents Denmark at the 58th Venice Biennale.
Larissa Sansour was born in 1973 in East Jerusalem, and is a graduate from Maryland Institute College of Art and New York University. Engaging in constant interactions between fiction and reality, she works with film, photography, installation, and sculpture in works that often address the political situation in Palestine, but also consider more general issues concerned with nationhood and belonging. This is also the reason why the Danish Arts Foundation chose Sansour for the Danish Pavilion this year.
In a September 2018 press release publicly announcing Sansour’s selection, Danish Arts Foundation committee chairman Lisette Vind Ebbesen said: “We have chosen Larissa Sansour because her art addresses issues that are relevant not only to people in Denmark, but also to the rest of the world. She delves into current political issues as well as more universal aspects of the human condition associated with identity and sense of belonging.”
Sansour has felt, very directly, how working with national issues can be controversial, and carries the risk of being misunderstood. In 2011, she was excluded from a competition at the Musée de l’Elysée in Lausanne, Switzerland because Lacoste, which sponsored the exhibition, found her proposal too pro-Palestinian. In 2018, in connection with the screening of In the Future They Ate From the Finest Porcelain (2016) at the Barbican Centre in London, the Board of Deputies (an umbrella organisation representing British Jews) demanded that the film be removed. However, it was allowed to stay after a Barbican representative publicly defended the poetic visions of the work and its use of fiction.
The film is part of Sansour’s most famous series of works, a sci-fi trilogy first launched in 2009 with A Space Exodus, where she herself appears in the role of a so-called “Palestinaut” travelling to the moon to claim the nationless planet for her country. This was followed by the award-winning film Nation Estate (2012), where a luxurious skyscraper simultaneously becomes a utopian and dystopian image of a future Palestinian state.
Sansour moved to Denmark in 1999, where she was a guest student at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts. Today, she lives in London. “It’s the busiest time of my entire life,” she says, in a remarkably calm voice, when Kunstkritikk caught her on the phone.
Maria Bordorff: First of all, for someone who grew up in East Jerusalem and deals so insistently with the political situation in Palestine, what’s it like representing Denmark at the Venice Biennale?
Larissa Sansour: I am happy to be chosen for the Danish pavilion. Other than it being a great honour and a big responsibility, it makes me feel as if I belong somewhere – as I have lived in quite a few places. It’s interesting how human psychology works in this. Besides, I hope I was chosen because my work deals with universal themes too. Themes that reflect the current political climate and can engage audiences in a dialogue.
MB: Part of your exhibition is a new film called In Vitro. Can we expect a classic Sansour sci-fi?
LS: It’s certainly related to my previous films, yes. It’s staged in Bethlehem decades after a climate disaster – or underneath Betlehem, to be more precise – where the founder of an orchard is on her deathbed. She tells her younger successor the story of what happened before they all had to escape into an underground bunker. As the film unfolds, the successor realises that all of the stories are already present in her as personal memories, although she’s born underground and has never experienced the past. In a nutshell, the film is about inherited trauma, exile, and collective memory.
MB: What do you mean by “inherited trauma?”
LS: I’ve been speaking to a geneticist, and it’s quite interesting what’s going on in genetic research right now. Some behaviour usually associated with the mind could prove to be passed on by DNA. This means that phenomena like déjà vu could be part of experiences or traumas that our ancestors had.I decided to develop that idea further. So, in the film, a group of scientists have preserved seeds in order to sustain vegetation after the climate disaster, but they also secured DNA from children who died during the apocalypse to use it – and hence their memories – in a cloning program.
MB: A recurring theme in your works is national identity and the roles that history and memory play in identity making. Does this apply to Heirloom too?
LS: Yes, very much. In In Vitro, for instance, the reason behind the cloning program is to make sure the past is stored securely and passed on through generations. This closed idea of identity touches upon the exile condition: new generations born abroad are brought up on memories of the place the older generation left behind, while their own experiences of the present are marginalised, creating a sense of generational rift.
MB: By staging a climate disaster, are youturning away from the more local political conflict, so present in your previous works, between Palestine and Israel?
LS: While the framework is more universal, that conflict is still very much part of the work and features in the dialogue between the two protagonists, but possibly as a more discreet subtext than in previous works. The film addresses the state of exile and questions the very idea of national identity in the wake of a climate apocalypse. In the case of Palestine, I guess what I’m most interested in is understanding identity when effected by trauma. The Palestine psyche is suspended between the past and the future; between the exodus of 1948 and the prospect of a Palestinian state. As a result, the present disappears. In Heirloom, there is a sculpture called Monument for lost time; it’s a large monument to the void of the present.
MB: What made you move into fiction from working primarily with documentary years back?
LS: When I was showing my films fifteen years ago, people would think of my work as propaganda. They had this perception of Israel being the only democratic nation in the Middle East. So, it felt like a dead end to me, actually. What I wanted instead was to abandon clichés and certain ways of understanding the world through the lenses of documentary and media reporting. When we talk about Israel and Palestine – and so many other places for that matter – we have predetermined ideas of what those places are like and what the problem is about. It became increasingly important for me to separate myself from those narratives, and to make my own vocabulary for discussing this issue.
MB: Still, some of your recent works have been seen aspropaganda too.In the Future They Ate From the Finest Porcelain even got accused for being anti-Semitic. Is it not allowed, dealing with politics in art this way?
LS: Well, when you are confronted with these claims, at first you’re sad and frustrated that such silencing tactics are still in effect, but then you realise that people wouldn’t be scared of art in such a way, or try to suppress it, if it wasn’t for the fact that they think art has a potency. I mean, I wouldn’t be working with art and politics if I thought there would be no use for that in the art world. But, I think it can only work if it functions according to its own rules.
MB: How so?
LS: In the case of Nation Estate and the scandal around my name being removed from the competition at Musée de l’Élysée, the whole thing ended with the museum cancelling the show and dropping the sponsorship of Lacoste in defence of artistic freedom. A strong political statement from an institution that perhaps didn’t want to be that involved. And because of the scandal, people started buying the sketches that I did for the proposal – and they were selling like cupcakes – in order for me to fundraise the film. I actually made Nation Estate solely on people buying the sketches. That’s how mad this story is.
MB: Are you worried that your exhibition in Venice could cause new controversies?
LS: It’s impossible to predict the reactions to work about Israel and Palestine. The emotions involved are very strong, and once the work is out there, people will interpret according to their own views and principles. That said, I don’t think anything in Heirloom is controversial enough to spark a new controversy. But, I have been been surprised before.
MB: And last, what do you actually think of the context of a biennale based on the representation of nations?
LS: In a way, it’s interesting and, at the same time, quite problematic, of course. There is so much effort put into an art show where countries come together, which I do find exciting. So, I guess the question is: how can we do this in our contemporary time?