By Nat Muller
Larissa Sansour has a knack for casting herself in unexpected roles: a Mexican gunslinger duelling with the Israeli separation wall in her video Bethlehem Bandolero (2005), an elegantly dressed helmeted runner sprinting across the walled-in city of Bethlehem in the short clip Run Lara Run (2008), or an intergalactic superhero saving the world in her book project The Novel of Nonel and Vovel (2009). What binds all these diverse, and often humorous performances together is a refusal to be pigeonholed into orientalist or other essentialist identitarian denominations (victim/terrorist/refugee/militant). What better strategy to offset clichés than quoting and actively inhabiting the grand trashy receptacle of hackneyed Western fears and desires: pop culture. Whether she borrows from spaghetti westerns, American sitcoms, big brand advertising, horror films, or science fiction, Sansour is always sure to hybridise these elements with her own Palestinian experience and subjectivity. The outcome is a critical body of work that exists between the familiar and the unknown, the playful and the political. Her work is just about accessible and comfortable enough to lure you in for the ride, but then takes you on a whole different journey altogether.
Larissa Sansour’s exhibition at Photographic Centre in Copenhagen focuses on two projects, respectively Nation Estate (2011-2012) and A Space Exodus (2009). They both draw heavily on the tropes of science fiction and futurism, a genre that lends itself well to discuss issues of territory, history, geo-politics, identity, colonization, occupation, nation(alism), alien(ation), but also possibility, hope and resistance. Utopic and dystopic imaginaries are the bread and butter of science fiction. When they are scrambled up and softly and ironically collide, as they do in Larissa Sansour’s practice, then intricate parallel universes are created in which signifiers of power specific to the Palestinian condition, as well as universal values, are questioned, and eventually become re-contextualized.
Both Nation Estate and A Space Exodus formulate proposals for a “viable” Palestinian state within the increasingly dim-looking prospects of territorial contiguity due to land grab, expanding Israeli settlements, segregation measures and impeded mobility between Jerusalem, the West bank and the Gaza Strip. Nation Estate puts forward a scenario for a Palestinian state all concentrated into a prime vertical Palestinian real estate location, a colossal high-rise stretching into the clouds housing the entire Palestinian population. Each Palestinian city has its own floor; no annoying and time-consuming checkpoints or clandestine dirt road detours anymore. Just jump the elevator! A Space Exodus abandons the idea of a Palestinian geography on planet earth altogether, and seeks an intergalactic solution by traveling into outer space and ostentatiously planting a Palestinian flag – in a gesture of reversed colonisation – on the moon. In an ironic re-appropriation of the Zionist dictum that Palestine for the Jews was “A Land Without a People for a People Without a Land”, Sansour declares the unpopulated moon fit for settlement for the Palestinian People.
Nation Estate consists of a 9’ sci-fi short film, six large-scale photographs zooming in on particular sites of the Nation Estate tower, and the Nation Estate lobby poster welcoming visitors and residents to live “The High Life”. As with all of Sansour’s work, meticulous attention has been paid to detail, innuendo and highly symbolic cultural, historical and political references. As such, Nation Estate can be read as a glossary of the Palestinian condition. For example, the Nation Estate lobby poster is based on the iconic “Visit Palestine” poster designed by Franz Kraus in 1936, issued by the Tourist Association of Palestine, a Zionist development agency. In the original we see an olive tree framing the city of Jerusalem with the monumental Dome of the Rock and its golden cupola, placed in the centre. In Sansour’s version we see that same olive tree, but Jerusalem is substituted by a compound of skyscrapers – the Nation Estate building- surrounded by the separation wall. We can assume that the residents of Nation Estate will see the Old City of Jerusalem and the Dome of the Rock when they peer out of their windows from the top floor. The view and the dream of Jerusalem can thus be desired and consumed from a safe distance. It is of course no coincidence that Sansour echoes the utopian lingo of luxury property development, promising its residents a tailored and personalized “living experience” in a gated community. In real life many Palestinians literally live in gated communities, fenced off and walled-in, minus the luxury amenities.
The hyper-capitalist idea of craving and consuming by proxy something you cannot have, in this case Jerusalem, mobility, or a real Homeland, is also what paradoxically offers Nation Estate its comic relief. In the beginning of the film, recalling many a sci-fi flick, we see Sansour coming back “home” from a trip abroad, though conceptually and cinematically here is where her true journey begins. The many tunnels, the intricate escalator system of the Amman Express, and the oriental electronica soundtrack all enforce the drama of a beginning voyage. The difference here is that she’s not really on a mission to discover a new frontier and in Trekkie style “go boldly where no one has gone before”. On the contrary, she’s coming back to what is the only option of home: a home away from home, when home no longer exists. A commodified version of Palestine is the final frontier. The Nation Estate brand of Palestine is one with apartment lobbies figuring as iconic squares, a “Gaza Shore” restaurant situated on the Mediterranean floor promoting the best sushi on the block, a Nation Estate souq (market) in the basement complete with Nation Estate tote bags, and traditional Palestinian dishes such as kibbeh, moghrabieh and tabouleh packaged as meals-ready-to-eat. National belonging is reduced to swiping your key card with a Palestinian flag across your apartment door, and entering a simulation of a “could-be” world.
This replica of reality might look polished, but a closer look will reveal that it is coming apart at the seams. A photograph from the Nation Estate series depicts Sansour watering an olive tree in her apartment. The walls show large cracks, and on the table her finjan (cup of coffee) is spilled, suggesting that the coffee grounds are ready to be read. What will the future bring? On the one hand the spilled coffee signals a wasted future, on the other hand, the puddle of coffee reflects Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock. Her chair is facing the window that shows a panorama view of Jerusalem, with tacky rays of sun peeking out from the clouds. However to the left we see the observation tower with its surveillance cameras and the separation wall. Even if she wanted, Sansour would not be able to fully indulge in the constructed fiction Nation Estate is offering her. In a defiant gesture, Sansour turns her back on this version of reality. In effect, in the film we often see Sansour’s back turned to the camera, reminiscent of Palestinian cartoonist’s Naji al-Ali’s character Handala, a symbol of the Palestinian plight, who always appears with his back to the viewer, hands clasped behind his back.
Throughout the Nation Estate project there is a sense of simultaneously being in transit and being imprisoned. With her suitcase dragging behind her for most of the film, Sansour is a traveller coming “home”, but she remains out of place, something that is characteristic of the diasporic condition many Palestinians find themselves in. The sensibility of being disconnected is amplified in the project A Space Exodus, which is made up of a video, four video stills and a group of fifty very cute vinyl sculptures, the Palestinauts. In a quirky take on Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) the video shows Sansour as a Palestinian astronaut, a Palestinaut, in her spacecraft. She is in outer space, en route to the moon. Similar to Nation Estate the details of her costume with its traditional Palestinian embroidery, her shoes with the turned-up noses and the arabesque soundtrack, combine cinematic and popular culture references with Palestinian folkloric markers and ethnic clichés. Nevertheless, the visual imagery is strikingly restrained and minimalist. The crux of this piece is to be found in the sparse lines she speaks. “Jerusalem, we have a problem”, she communicates to HQ, echoing the contested status of occupied Jerusalem, and the stalled political negotiations between Israel and Palestine. As the film progresses and she asserts her presence on the moon in a Neil Armstrongesque move, the distance between Palestinaut and earth increases visually, but also politically. Earth is waved goodbye, as it is simply not a viable option anymore for a Palestinian state.
In the last scene we see Sansour lost in outer space, severed from her spaceship, calling out to no avail to Jerusalem. Jerusalem, of course, never answers her call. It has disappeared from the intergalactic map and Sansour is left to her own devices, floating in a deterritorialised cosmic void. Many Palestinians would identify with this hyperbole. They are themselves left within a geo-political vacuum as refugees marooned in neighbouring countries, or scattered across the diaspora and the bits and pieces of the Palestinian Territories. Not only Jerusalem seems to be ignoring their call, but it seems much of the rest of the world too. What makes Nation Estate and A Space Exodus so extraordinary is that they both deal with the harsh realities of the Palestinian context, but manage to do so through an unexpected playfulness and with a stout dynamic conviction. The worlds and futures Larissa Sansour has created might not be ideal ones and do not fulfil the national aspirations of the Palestinian people, far from it, but they do embrace and insist on the value – and agency – of exploration. Fantastical and dystopic (with a twist) as Sansour’s narratives may be, they do achieve pulling the perception of Palestine and the discourse on it, out of the stasis of its political status quo. Nation Estate and A Space Exodus are in that respect also very much about the makeability of the future, whether reaching for the clouds in the former, or lost in the galaxy in the latter. These works show us that, at least, in the imaginary realm of art, the sky is the limit.
Nat Muller is an independent curator and critic based in the Netherlands and specialises in media and contemporary art from the Middel East.
The essay was originally published in relation to Larissa Sansour’s solo exhibition “Living the High Life” in Fotografisk Center Aug-Oct 2012. Larissa Sansour is representing Denmark at the Venice Biennial this year (2019) and this blog post is in recognition of her work.
For more information on Larissa Sansour, please visit her website.