Danish-Palestinian artist Larissa Sansour’s project for the Danish Pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale is comprised of two key elements: a sculptural installation comprising a large, dark orb; and a science-fiction film titled’ In Vitro’, depicting the relationship between two women after an ecological disaster has driven them to live underground.
Together, the works explore notions of memory, trauma and identity in contested geographies. ‘Heirloom’ both specifically evokes the current political situation in Palestine, and also considers the broader potential for more geographies to become contested in the process of climate breakdown and ecological collapse.
Sansour’s work suggests that while human conflicts in Palestine and elsewhere are important, they also act as a distraction from the widespread, more insidious conflict taking place: that between humans and the natural world. This is a conflict, she implies, that we are inevitably bound to lose, even as we seem to be getting the upper hand.
‘Heirloom’ is built on dichotomies and dualities. Geographical, political and generational differences are delineated and emphasised through the structure, medium and content of the exhibition. The exhibition space is divided into two rooms, while the video work is split across two screens and uses the stylistic formalism of black and white cinema.
The film ‘In Vitro’ explores the notion of generational differences and shifting priorities through the relationship between two women. The elder, Dunia, is lying on her death bed; she has lived in the old world, and we see her in a flash back, running with her daughter from an oil slick which splashes through the pale city of Bethlehem. We might assume initially that the younger woman, Alia, is Dunia’s child, but we later find that she is a clone, created to tend to the underground orchards planted by the older woman.
Alia has been implanted with memories of the outside world, but she finds them useless and unnecessarily distressing. The older woman, on the other hand, clings to memories and to the past. “I don’t believe in ghosts,” Alia tells her, “We’re not rebuilding the past.” Dunia replies: “There’s no need to. The past is still there, as intact as ever.”
Their exchange raises questions of what memories and heritage mean when everything that created them has been destroyed. It’s a pertinent problem for our time. In an age of environmental breakdown, what is the value of nostalgia or of keeping up traditions that may be swept away by rising seas or made unfeasible by species loss?
The film features a black sphere, which acts as a repository for memories. This object is made palpable in the exhibition, in the form of a large orb which looms over the viewer in semi-darkness. Although it is evidently three-dimensional, looking at the black sculpture is like staring into a void or an abyss, suggesting an overwhelming sense of erasure or meaninglessness.
Through a veneer of sci-fi escapism, ‘Heirloom’ forces us to confront the question of where we might find refuge after the possible ravages of environmental disaster or political catastrophe; and, once we find it, how we will look back at the present.