As you walk along the gravel paths of the Giardini di Castello, you traverse a parallel map of the world that is infused by the same atmosphere of international transit permeating places like the waiting area of the Marco Polo airport. Here, the major European powers France, Germany, and Great Britain are neighbours of Korea and Japan, and just a few steps will take you from the pavilion of Venezuela, empty this year due to the troubles in the country, to the Danish brick building on the other side of the road.
Just as the airport’s sterile transnationality is seasoned by local embellishments – bone-dry grissini and limoncello in bottles shaped like Italy – the pavilions of the Venice Biennale also find themselves on the horns of a dilemma arising from the clash between contemporary art, which is increasingly international in scope, and the idea of national representation that underpins the overall concept: a house for each country.
For this very reason, Palestine does not have a national pavilion at the biennale. But this year, the de jure state is indirectly represented by Larissa Sansour, whose project Heirloom occupies the Danish pavilion. Or, rather, parts of it: this year, the majority of the pavilion remains locked up, while Sansour’s work takes up two of the smaller rooms and a passageway leading out into the garden behind the pavilion.
The floor of this passageway is intermittently covered in tiles in a pattern that looks distinctly Middle Eastern. But, as is generally the case in Heirloom, the question of origin and nationality is not straightforward: the tiles, which also appear in the film that constitutes the pavilion’s main attraction and was shot in Bethlehem, are of a design that can be traced back to twentieth-century European art nouveau. And, just as it is hard to determine the exact place of origin of the tiles, pinpointing their time frame is also fraught with difficulty: are they fragmentary ruins of the past, or is this a piece of as-yet unfinished paving pointing towards a new beginning?
Heirloom is based on this kind of dichotomy. The show’s focal point, the twenty-seven-minute film In Vitro, is set in an undefined future following a major natural disaster caused by climate change. The opening scene shows us a flashback of this disaster, a tsunami of viscous black liquid gushing through the narrow alleys of Bethlehem as the city is shaken by powerful explosions that shroud towers and domes in thick black smoke. A nun in a gas mask rushes up a staircase in search of shelter, and in the middle of the apocalypse, a mother and her young daughter flee the city before it all explodes.
We meet the daughter again in the film’s main storyline, which consists of a tightly intense dialogue between two women. One is older, on her deathbed, the other is her young, beautiful replicant and successor who has never experienced the world outside the underground bunker where the movie is set. Nevertheless, the two women have the memory of the past in common: one experienced it for herself, being the young girl who escaped when the apocalypse struck, while the other inherited a collective memory that has been technologically implanted.
This memory forms the starting point for the dialogue that takes place between the two women. Belonging to different generations, each is, in her own way, cut off from both time and place. One is dying and shackled by the trauma she experienced as a child. The other is alive, but trapped by a memory of a past that is not her own. One lives in exile under the city that is her home, while the other is subject to an exile of a more abstract nature: she yearns for a particular place and time, but at the same time she is a stranger to them. As a refugee, she occupies a state of temporary refuge that has become permanent because she has never known anything else. Both women are trapped in a transient position, but have conflicting ideas about what is needed to set them free.
“My exile is not your exile,” says the young woman, her intense eyes welling up as she asks to be released from the traumatic memories she has inherited. “We need to preserve these things in your memory,” the other argues, to which her successor replies, “maybe we have to lose memory in order to move on.”
This type of dialogue, seeking to rid yourself of what was bestowed on you at birth in order to create your own reality, is probably familiar territory to most; we have all had such conversations with our parents in one form or another. In In Vitro, this conflict is heightened, taking on a razor-edged acuity up against the backdrop of the trauma associated with being forcibly displaced and trapped in the past. The elderly woman cherishes her memories as if they were artefacts in a museum, but she also impels her double to live in a world that no longer exists and is constructed out of nostalgia and a fierce insistence that their identity is bound up with a specific geographical location.
The film operates between two poles: employing a classic and enormously beautiful black-and-white aesthetic, it establishes a contrast between the two women, speaking to each other across generations from their own separate screens in this double projection. Occasionally, the projections merge into one image to show us the contrast between the underground bunker, which is their present, and the ancient city that is their past. In between the implanted flashbacks, we find sequences of grainy footage chronicling Palestine’s chaotic history, reminding us that the past which sent Sansour’s own family into exile may well become our shared future when, as a result of climate change, rising sea levelssubmergelarge expanses of land in just a few years.
In the second room of the pavilion, one of the most mysterious elements of the video work steps out of the screen and takes on sculptural form. Monument for Lost Time is a huge black sphere that fills the room from floor to ceiling, accompanied by an ominous soundtrack that also underpins the scenes of disaster in In Vitro. In the film, the sphere represents the accumulation of memories, traumas, and stories passed on from one generation to the other; it is loaded with so much meaning and significance that the replicant cannot possibly carry it around. But in the space of the pavilion, it becomes remarkably empty: it stands firm, a threatening impenetrable sculpture, a monument to some loss or absence that cannot be immediately decoded.
Personally, I could have done without the heavy-handed symbolism inherent in the sphere’s emphatic manifestation of absence, but at the same time one is easily caught by the pathos that permeates both works. Heirloom is entirely devoid of the humorous tongue-in-cheek approach to the theme of national affiliations found in so many biennial pavilions in their efforts to relate to the sheer anachronism of national representation.
Instead, Sansour delves deep into the dark core of trauma with a project that exposes the construction of identity as something universal, exemplified here by a state of exile, but which nevertheless applies to all of us. In this sense, her project has topical relevance to a degree where it ought to be compulsory viewing, not just in schools, but for all those who deal with refugees and migration politics – not least in this election year, where nationalism is washing across the Europe like a black wave.