On Larissa Sansour’s Fictional Futures: ‘Isn’t The Most Radical Activity Formed in Trauma?’

Larissa Sansour’s In the Future They Ate From The Finest Porcelain recently opened at The Mosaic Rooms in London:

By Sinéad Murphy

Murphy and Sansour from a talk on the 29th.
Murphy and Sansour.

“Very few raptures are instantaneous,” artist Larissa Sansour narrates in In the Future They Ate From The Finest Porcelain — but her new work is certainly one of these few. In The Future and its accompanying exhibition opened on June 2 in The Mosaic Rooms in London, delivering the visitor an intense, contemplative interrogation of the interstices between myth, fact, and historiography, in the context of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

In the Future is a 25-minute science fiction piece, which Sansour describes as a video essay, focusing on the heavily-politicised role of archaeology in contemporary Palestine and Israel. Narrated by Sansour in Arabic with English subtitles, the script for the film was developed by Sansour and artist Soren Lind from audio footage of the female leader of a narrative resistance group.

The leader’s meditations on the motivations and philosophy behind the group’s activities form the key premise of the film: interrogating the pliable boundaries between fact and fiction through the idea of myth. Since “our lives are already determined by a fiction imposed on us,” the narrator muses, it is possible to stage a resistance through a counter-narrative, an alternative fiction. Myth, it is argued, “generates identification,” establishing itself as material fact as it gradually draws people into a shared narrative.

Within the film, a mission is undertaken to bury porcelain plates whose age has been scientifically altered throughout Palestine. It is hoped that this planted archaeological material will act as an intervention into future narratives of the Occupied Territories which seek to occlude their Palestinian inhabitants. Through “depositing facts into the ground,” the narrator proposes that the buried porcelain plates will provide an incontractible claim to the land, a claim thus far denied to the physical bodies of Palestinians. It is an act of subversion — an underground movement — in the most literal sense.

In its primary themes, In the Future recalls Eyal Weizman’s research on the “The Architecture of Violence,”[1] which analyses the manipulation of the built environment as an act of “slow violence” in the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Sansour’s film similarly understands that “the apocalypse is never that single cataclysmic event. It sneaks up on you.” Its languid pace and use of prolepsis and analepsis create a sense of tension both constant and accumulating, a fitting expression of the precarity of life for displaced Palestinians.

Augmented by an ominous soundtrack by Iraqi electronic musician Aida Nadeem, the film both opens and closes with the narrator recounting a dream of “a porcelain monsoon…like a biblical plague.” Pictured at a long dinner table with a motley assemblage of figures, the scene evokes a kind of Last Supper. We learn that the protagonist is troubled by a recurring dream of her sister, and a depiction of this “ceramic rain” shattering around the protagonist accompanies this revelation. Although the narration emphasizes that “after a certain point, death is no longer about the single life lost,” it is clear that the protagonist is profoundly and irreparably affected by this personal loss.

In the Future oscillates between large-scale aerial shots and extreme close-ups of our unnamed protagonist, visually capturing the scale of the occupation as something experienced on both individual and collective levels. The viewer is constantly confronted by the closed eyes of the dreaming protagonist, a reminder of the ineluctable distance between viewer and subject, and between this stylised cinematic experience and the gritty reality on which it is based.

dishesSupplementary to Sansour’s film is an installation of visual art across two separate exhibition rooms. The first features three large-scale pieces in which archival photographs have been combined with futuristic illustrations of an imagined Palestine. Immediately confronting the viewer on entry a photograph in which a diminutive but iridescent Palestinian village is nestled between three intersecting hills. The most illuminated feature of the room, dominated otherwise by muted, metallic tones of copper, lead-like silver and mauve, this emphasis sets the tone of steely resistance which underlies all of the work in the exhibition.

The landscapes pictured feature archival images depicting various forms of historical colonisation of Palestine as well as the hooded, futuristic resistance fighters which populate Sansour’s film, in an oddly syncretic mix. Facing us head-on in one of the photographs is a close-up image of an elderly Arab man, the vibrant depiction of whom is reminiscent, albeit far more vivid than, the detailed depiction of an ageing Palestinian tour guide in Joe Sacco’s graphic novel Palestine.[2] Scattered across the photographs are bombs cracked open to reveal intact porcelain contents. A metaphor for the unstable and uncertain circumstances for Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, perhaps, the gesture suggests that the innate fragility of the porcelain does not compromise their capacity as objects of resistance.

The material in the exhibition’s second room is an apt physical manifestation of this equilibrium between delicacy and strength which pervades every aspect of Sansour’s film. Immediately striking in the darkened room are five illuminated sculptures in the shape of replica bombs, which form a key element of Sansour’s Archaeology in Absentia installation. The shape of the bombs recalls both a small Cold War Russian nuclear missile and a Fabregé egg. The combination serves at once as a self-reflexive nod to the often-debated role of artistic practice in contexts of conflict and political contention, and the suggestion that the two are to an extent inextricable. Inscribed upon the bombs are the co-ordinates of various sites at which porcelain plates, hand-painted in the unmistakable pattern of keffiyeh, are buried in Palestine. The objects in the room are thus an echo of ‘absent’ artefacts which facilitate a would-be historical intervention into narratives of national belonging and identity in occupied Palestine.

“This isn’t just an academic exercise. I’m not defending a thesis here” – indeed, Sansour’s new work is both highly cerebral and deeply committed to the material realities in Palestine on which it comments. The final dystopian image which Sansour delivered viewers in Nation Estate[3] finds itself here both anticipated and remembered, as the uncertainty of the future in the Occupied Territories is met with an equal sense of the possibilities of archaeological and narrative resistance. In a film in which past, present and future coalesce, In The Future disrupts notions of history as static or stable, encouraging reflection on the “radical activity formed in trauma.”

[1] See http://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/rebelarchitecture/2014/06/architecture-violence-2014629113556647744.html for further details, and access to Weizmann’s short film.

[2] See: Sacco, Joe, Palestine (Seattle, WA: Fantagraphics Books, 2001)

[3] http://Tagswww.larissasansour.com/nation_estate.html

Sinéad Murphy (@S1nead_Murphy) is a second-year PhD candidate in the Department of Comparative Literature in King’s College, London. Her research is an AHRC LAHP-funded project on contemporary Arab speculative fiction in English. She completed her BA and MA degrees in University College Dublin, Ireland.

She is the administrator for the Kings Fantastic Talks series with Dr Rhys Williams, and the co-organiser of the Department of Comparative Literature 2016 PGR conference, Seeking Refuge (http://seekingrefugekcl.com/).  Her primary research interests include science and speculative fiction, contemporary Middle Eastern literature postcolonial theory, and theories of comparative and world literature.