Meet Larissa Sansour

Learn more about the Danish-Palestinian artist, who focus on the role of nations, identity and gaps between generations in a dark and post-apocalyptic setting.

Larissa Sansour on set of 'In Vitro' which is shown at the Danish Pavilion 2019. Photo: Lenka Rayn H

How did you react when you received the invitation to The Venice Biennale?

I received the invitation in early July 2018. I was extremely surprised but delighted. And as soon as the reality of it set in, I started feeling overwhelmed at the prospect of finishing a new body of work in such a tight timeframe, knowing that my works often take much longer to complete. So I started working almost immediately. It has been a very intense and exciting period, and I can’t believe I actually managed to complete the work in time.

What are your thoughts on the format of national pavilions intrinsic to the Venice Biennale?

It is always exciting to see all these countries coming together in one big art show. Nations and nationality are usually not decisive factors within an art context where the works and ideas prevail over the national make-up of the artists. And in the current political climate, the concept of nations is inseparable from the notion of nationalism. That said, there is something very exciting about each country selecting a single artist or a group of artists to represent a country. That classification by country is part of the magic of Venice. And as a Palestinian, I am, of course, painfully aware of the importance of nationhood. I guess that’s also part of the reason why it means a lot to me to represent my adoptive home country, Denmark.

What are your thoughts on representing Denmark?

I usually attend the Venice Biennial and always make sure to see the Danish Pavilion. That means that I knew the space quite well before starting to develop my project. It was always a dream of mine to show at the Giardini, so it is really such an honour and a thrill for me to get to show my new works at the Danish Pavilion. It is also very daunting to know that the eyes of the art world will be on Venice. To exhibit at a national pavilion comes with great responsibility, I think, and I am really looking forward to showing my new work in May.

Still from The Danish Pavilion 2019, exhibition Heirloom by Larissa Sansour. Photo: Ugo Carmeni

The exhibition in the Danish pavilion consists of three main elements: a science fiction film, an architectural installation and a sculpture. How do they relate to one another? 

The film is entitled In Vitro. It is a b/w 2-channel sci-fi short shot in two different aspect ratios. The story is set in an underground bunker under the biblical town of Bethlehem, where two protagonists present two different and opposing arguments. On her deathbed, the leader of a group of scientists recalls stories of her past above ground before an eco-disaster. Her successor, born underground, is reluctant to accept those memories and their relevance to their reality underground. Their conversation explores the interplay between fact and myth, the interchangeable nature of collective and personal memories and historical narrative. 

The film is accompanied by a large-scale sculptural installation entitled Monument for Lost Time. The installation takes a psychological element from the film and converts it to an imposing physical fact. The musical composition for this installation also forms part of the film’s soundtrack. Similarly, the architectural intervention also ties in with the film. Historical floor tiles seen in the film were replicated by a tile maker in Nablus, Palestine, and brought to Venice, again reiterating that very interplay between myth and history.

How does the exhibition in the pavilion relate to your former work?

My recent work, especially my sci-fi trilogy, deals with the concepts of nation building and the blurry line between truth and fiction in forming a national identity. The exhibition in the Danish Pavilion, Heirloom, continues this line of reasoning, by questioning the role of nations, memory and identity in post-apocalyptic setting. How much of our vocabulary becomes obsolete in the face of extinction? In the void following a complete annihilation of everything we know, does memory of things past still matter, or do we need to formulate a new language by which we can survive?

How do you utilize the potential of science fiction in your work?

Even though my work is often set in the future, the politics it addresses is firmly grounded in the present. Science fiction allows me to build my own universe, one that can function according to its own rules and logic without being dictated by current political jargon. This for me is a crucial point. I think framing the political dialogue in an unexpected context is essential to finding new strategies and ways in reinventing a discourse.

Would you describe your artistic practice as political? 

Yes, my work is informed by the current political dialogue and the way history has unfolded politically, especially through colonial and post-colonial times. Any new project of mine always starts with a socio-political argument, which then invariably turns into an idea for a film. From that central idea, other work emerges, in support or extension of the founding arguments. 

What are your thoughts on arts’ relation to politics?

It is hard to separate art from politics, since art does not and cannot function in a vacuum. My work is informed by the context that I find myself in. I would find it hard to work on politically relevant work, if I did not think that it plays an important role in the political discourse. I think the malleable nature of art makes its contribution to revising set notions and structures invaluable.

What does an event as the Venice Biennale offer its audience? 

The Venice Biennale is one of the biggest art shows on Earth. It is amazing to see art from all corners of the world in one place, with the entire city of Venice transformed into one big art museum. It is an incredible experience, also because Venice itself is an amazing backdrop for an art show.

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