While much of Palestinian narrative cinema deals with the past, and the devastation of 1948, and documentaries tend to look at nostalgia and emotional attachment to the homeland, the experimental video work by Larissa Sansour rather focuses on the future, even if it is dystopian. In her films, a certain sarcasm is inherent to the playful attitude towards history and how it is made, both in voice and in image. She shows a stubborn resistance to the political, monological nature of the media, through a purposeful use of beauty, elegance and distance in the imagery of her films. In the Future they Ate from the Finest Porcelain, the final in her triptych, is part of two important exhibitions in the Nottingham and in Dubai.
Born in Jerusalem in 1973 to a Russian mother and a Palestinian father and educated in Fine Art in Copenhagen, London and New York, Larissa Sansour is a Palestinian experimental multi-media artist based in London who regularly works in Bethlehem. The activist-artist always shows an acute awareness of the problematic word “truth” in Palestine/Israel, and in the mediatized peace process. Her video art and installations express what she calls an “anti-alternative” to both the past and the future of the Palestinian nation-state or the Two-State solution. In the Future they Ate from the Finest Porcelain is the final in a triptych of experimental science fiction videos problematizing history, truth and language. The first two videos were Nation Estate and A Space Exodus. Her work is interdisciplinary, immersed in the current political dialogue and utilizes video, photography, installation and sculpture. Sansour’s latest film In the Future, They Ate From the Finest Porcelain was produced and co-directed with Danish Soren Lind and debuted at the Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF) in December, where it was nominated in the Muhr Short Competition.
Sansour’s work has featured in the biennials of Istanbul, Busan and Liverpool. She has exhibited at venues such as the Tate Modern in London, the Brooklyn Museum in New York and the Centre Pompidou in Paris. For a chance to see her work, she has two upcoming solo exhibitions: at New Art Exchange in Nottingham and Lawrie Shabibi in Dubai.
In the Future, They Ate From the Finest Porcelain is a 25-minute science fiction video essay inspired by the politicized archaeology carried out in present day Israel/Palestine. Made in a mixture of colour and black/white. Combining live action, CGI, animation and archival photographs, the film explores the role of myth and fiction for fact, history and national identity.
Taking the form of a video essay, the film features the recording of an interview by a psychiatrist of the female leader of a narrative resistance group. This conversation is fragmented and complex but does manage to slowly reveal the philosophy and ideas of the resistance group. The fundamental idea of the resistance leader, who calls herself a narrative terrorist, is that the writing of history is not based on fact, but rather on myth. As long as the myth is narrated and widely spread, it cannot be ignored. As she creates myth, she says, words become objects.
Her narrative resistance group makes underground deposits of porcelain, suggested to belong to an entirely fictional civilisation. Their aim is to influence history and support future claims to their vanishing lands. Once unearthed, this tableware will prove the existence of the people. By implementing a myth of their own, their work becomes a historical intervention, creating a nation. The longer a myth persists, the more likely it is to take on a physical form. In her own words, “myth not only creates fact, it also generates identification.” It is thus never a question of legitimacy, because, as she says “our rulers have long removed us from their equation: our lives are determined by a fiction forced upon us. Our rulers unsee anything inconsistent with their own truth. They only see us when we rebel. In times of quiet, we cease to exist.” So she creates a counter-myth, a new narrative, and as such, the future is the battleground, and archaeology the tool.
The leader’s thoughts on myth and fiction as constituting fact, especially in Palestine, are parallelled by poetic and science fiction-based visuals. At first sight these correspond, but as the interviewee states, “they are just images” and “I’m not sure it needs to make sense.” We see a sad female figure (Sansour herself), wearing a big hood and looking into the camera with big eyes. We also see the porcelain talked about in the voice-overs, beautiful, fragile plates with the pattern of the keffiyeh painted onto them, a clear reference to the fragility of the state of Palestine. They are talking about a barely functioning dystopia, about how creating an archaeology for Palestine can ensure that in the future there will be the belief that a civilization has existed. The narrator talks about crockery and porcelain, and how the myths she creates through her “narrative terrorism” in her view assure a future idea of Palestine even though the territories are rapidly disappearing into Israel.
The central imagery is porcelain, as the title suggests. The narrative terrorist has a recurrent dream of porcelain plates falling from the sky, first like a “soft ceramic rain, then increasingly strongly, like a porcelain monsoon.” The film starts and ends on this quote, and visualizes this dream. The psychiatrist asks what she thinks the dream means, but perhaps a meaning is unnecessary. It hints of course at the fragility of history and the uncertainty of the future, but reveals a strong belief strongly in the potential of archaeology. Crockery in archaeology is a source of information about personal histories, making up the greater narratives of the past. The protagonist here is instead focused on the future, and on creating this history purposefully for the future archaeologists who will, in this manner find “proof” of the existence of the Palestinian people and their lands, their myths and their existence: “future archaeologists will see how we have deposited things in the earth, and these facts will confirm the existence of this people we are positing.” This in turn will support any descendant’s claims on the land, thus creating a nation.
The experimental nature of this video, and the use of CGI and animation can be linked to this philosophy as well. One of the functions of animation is that it has the potential to compensate for a lost past. It can illustrate oral testimony and storytelling. It can replace the voice-over in its political meaning. As such it encourages a clearer understanding and deeper engagement with new knowledge. It has the potential to represent the unrepresentable. In this and in other films, animation acts as a substitute for missing live-action material. In the Palestinian context this is very apt, as so much of the past and the archives of Palestinian lives has been erased, destroyed or negated. In the narrative terrorist’s case it is also necessary to guard her identity, and deal with the traumatic nature of her life’s experiences, in which she has lost her sister, and has been arrested and tortured. Dealing with trauma, taboos and any form of censorship guides artists like Sansour in their chosen format. Experimental videofilms open eyes, close censors’ mouths and become an archive of alternative truths. In experimental video-essays, playing with concepts, words, images and the “truth”, the immensely complex history and future of the Palestinian territories can be engaged with on a deep psychological level, and it asks its audience to be critical of its sources, to ask questions, and to never stop thinking about dreams of the future, and the potential it holds. Archaeology then is created for the future, to confirm the narrative created in the present by a narrative terrorist.
Solo Exhibition in Nottingham, UK: 14 January – 13 March 2016
Solo Exhibition at the gallery Lawrie Shabibi in Dubai: 18 January – 3 March 2016