Artist Larissa Sansour on representing Palestine in the Danish Pavilion at the Venice Biennale

The Palestinian-Danish artist on why the Venice Biennale’s Danish Pavilion perfectly suits her disturbing work on identity

‘In Vitro’, starring Hiam Abbass, left, and Maisa Abd Elhadi, directed by Larissa Sansour, far left, is at the Venice Biennale as part of Heirloom, an installation curated by Nat Muller. Courtesy Larissa Sansour 
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At the core of Heirloom, Larissa Sansour's installation for the Danish Pavilion at the 2019 Venice Biennial is the short film In Vitro, set in a post-­apocalyptic bunker in Bethlehem. Flashbacks show surging waves of black sludge flooding historic streets.

In this science-fiction setting, two survivors of an ecological disaster – Dunia (Hiam Abbass), a dying elderly fighter and Alia, (Maisa Abd Elhadi), her young successor, engineered from salvaged DNA, talk of the past and the future. Playing in two projections on a divided screen, the film engages dualities – old and young, open and closed spaces, truth and fiction, the natural world and man-made environments. 

Middle Eastern science fiction

The film and installation in the Giardini della Biennale of Venice are the work of ­Jerusalem-born artist Sansour, 46, who has made science fiction the improbable genre for telling stories about Palestine and much more. Also in the pavilion are a massive spherical sculpture – Monument for Lost Time – and a selection of ceramic tiles from the West Bank city of Nablus. But ­Middle Eastern science fiction? "I don't mind the term," says Sansour, "I contextualise ­Middle Eastern politics in futuristic settings.

"It's about a group of scientists who managed to escape the surface of the Earth, just days before the apocalypse, and they recreated civilization in a bunker underneath the city of Bethlehem, raising a whole generation that has never seen the face of the Earth and has only experienced life in that bunker," Sansour explains.

There are a lot of twists to In Vitro, too. "One of the two characters finds out that she is a clone, which plays on the title," she says. An exchange between them runs:  

Alia: I don't believe in ghosts. We're not rebuilding the past.

Dunia: There’s no need to. The past is still there, as intact as ever.

Alia: Maybe your past is, the only past I know is here. Everything else is just fairy tales.

Dunia: Entire nations are built on fairy tales.

Much of the film takes place inside what looks like a pyramid – in fact, it's an art gallery in an abandoned school in Oxfordshire, England. The enclosed space gives the drama the intensity of intimate theatre. In Vitro is shot in black and white, presenting another of the film's many binaries. "Black and white also has a gravity to it," says Sansour, who names Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky and Swedish master Ingmar Bergman as inspirations.

Sansour cites Persona, Bergman's 1966 drama built around two female characters as a big influence. "In my last film, previous to this one, there was also a confrontation between two women. Bergman's films are very beautiful. They're also quite conceptual, in a way. I love the fact that they reside between art and film. These two worlds are worlds that I inhabit as well, and I try to make sense of where I fit in." Once again, there's a duality: "Somehow I like being in between instead of belonging to just one domain," she says.

Palestinian artist Larissa Sansour. Photo by Lenka Rayn H
Palestinian artist Larissa Sansour. Photo by Lenka Rayn H

In a previous film, Nation Estate, which played throughout Europe and in Ramallah in 2015, Sansour depicted Palestinian territory as a multi-floor building, bordered by Israeli watchtowers and the Separation Wall, where Palestinians travel between cities by elevator.

Sansour deployed that whimsical humour "to resist the binary of the Palestinian as a victim or terrorist," says Nat Muller, curator of Heirloom, a collaborator of Sansour's for the past 15 years. Over that time, says Muller, who is Dutch, Sansour's perspective has shifted from absurdist to dystopian. "The works have also become darker and more complex. You cannot really pin it down and say that this is only about the Palestinian condition. It's so layered."

Finding a connection

Of the solemn In Vitro, Muller says, "The world that we move in; the possibilities for humour have shrunk. I think science fiction is an interesting trope to create possibility where perhaps in real life those possibilities are shrinking."

One of those possibilities, for Hiam Abbass, involved "standing in front of a realistic place, in Bethlehem, but you know it's going to be completely transformed in a science fictional way. It's ambitious, and that was really thrilling," she says over the phone while filming in Scotland.

I feel I was the representation of Palestine in the Danish Pavilion, which wanted to challenge the idea of national identities and how those are constructed

Sansour was raised in Bethlehem, where parts of In Vitro were filmed, and other sections appear in archival footage. "I left Palestine after the First Intifada, in 1988. My parents sent me to boarding school in the UK because all our schools closed," she says. After a brief return to Palestine, she went abroad again to study. "I've lived all over the world. I moved to Denmark with my Danish husband, and I lived there for 10 years. I'm part of the art world there," says Sansour, who has Danish citizenship, but exhibits everywhere from Dubai to Dublin. Since there was no Palestinian Pavilion at the Venice Art Biennial, she says, "I feel I was the representation of Palestine in the Danish Pavilion

, which wanted to challenge the idea of national identities and how those are constructed.  

“Part of the work that I made is about national identity, so it made sense in that way.

At the end of the day, the whole idea of national pavilions is so archaic, yet many pavilions try to challenge that concept as well," she continues. "There's something nice about it when it becomes more like a diplomatic mission, when we all meet in one exhibition."

Plans for a longer film?

Sansour started out as a painter. "I don't paint or draw any more because I'm so consumed by filmmaking, really." She acknowledges that her filmmaking doesn't fit neatly into the standard science fiction template. "There are a lot of visual effects, but that doesn't make it science fiction in the Hollywood sense of the term. It's more science fiction in the Tarkovsky sense. It is used as the backdrop for what happens, but it's not what propels the story."

Yet In Vitro is likely to be a stepping stone to a feature film that explores the same subject – the meeting of two women, old and young, in a post-­apocalyptic setting.

“They had the idea for the feature already, but doing the short gave me the taste of the necessity to make this movie,” said Abbass, “It has to exist in a feature, and if Larissa wants me to be part of it, I will be part of it.”

Sansour would not discuss eventual casting or when she might start shooting, but she says to expect something different, with more of a story, when the feature finally gets made.

"It's funny how much the film world wants narrative. They really want the story, regardless of how the story gets told, she says. "The industry is tired of its own films, but they can't get out of that framework."

The Venice Biennale runs until November 24