When I first saw Palestinian artist Larissa Sansour’s film Nation Estate, at Paris’ Anne de Villepoix gallery in 2012, I got into a fight over it. While I championed the film’s exuberant use of clichés as a sardonic strategy, my gallery-hopping companion brushed it off as heavy-handed symbolism set in an overpolished blockbuster aesthetic. Such an argument is standard fare in debates about Sansour’s work: where some see syrupy optimism for a Palestinian national solution, others see a sly framing of its impossibility. Yet the parallel universes that Sansour creates in her works rarely leave viewers indifferent.
As the name indicates, “Science Faction,” at Dubai’s Lawrie Shabibi Gallery, showcased Sansour’s appropriation of sci-fi in her ongoing dissection of the Palestinian impasse. The slick “Nation Estate” project (2012)—comprising the aforementioned nine-minute film, alongside “outtake” photos—was accompanied by the placid A Space Exodus video from 2009. Beyond the artist’s sci-fi influences, the show captured a maturation in Sansour’s use of humor and formalist balance. Exhibiting only two films separated by a mere three years, “Science Faction” neatly revealed her deepening message and increasingly sophisticated vision; it managed to freeze-frame an artist on the cusp of a ripened critical sensibility.
In Sansour’s work, the concept of sci-fi perfectly mirrors the Palestinian condition—they both project to the future, but are mired in worn-out symbolism. Inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), with a tinge of Neil Armstrong’s moon walk the following year, A Space Exodus is ultimately an examination of power. A Palestinian astronaut (played by Sansour) plants a flag with her national colors on the lunar surface—the disenfranchised are suddenly mighty colonizers instead of stateless masses. The irony and wit here is razor sharp, despite the film’s unsettling ending (the protagonist eventually loses contact with home base in Jerusalem and drifts off into the unfathomable cosmos). An army of “Palestinauts”—toy replicas of the Palestinian spacewoman—teemed below the screen, further underscoring the accessibility and wry humor of A Space Exodus.
Nation Estate employs sci-fi tropes as part of a more sophisticated examination of identity. “The struggle is what defines us as Palestinians,” says Sansour. “If you take that away, what is left?” Symbols, of course: olive trees, keffiyeh, flags, keys. Nation Estate features an explosion of symbols—a knowing, formalist gesture within a high-gloss, antidocumentary strategy.
In the film, we follow a heroine, clad in a folklore-meets-futurism outfit, in her elevator ascent through the sterile Nation Estate skyscraper—the solution to Palestinian statehood in a land of greedy settlers, which has left the local community with nowhere to build but up. Each floor houses a different Palestinian city, with iconic landmarks nestled under neon strip-lighting (such as the Dome of the Rock on the Jerusalem floor) and resident flats presumably splayed out behind them. Settled into her own apartment, our protagonist performs domestic chores such as watering her olive tree. The metaphor is knowingly heavy handed; the aesthetic is brash, polished and grandiose. Here, Sansour is going head-to-head with societal expectations of Palestinian art.
The medium of documentary film—hand-held, low-fi recording of on-the-ground reality—is the norm in Palestinian art today, yet Sansour prefers to utilize slick CGI productions to showcase the absurdity and surrealism of Palestinian existence. But blockbuster aesthetics are costly: funds for the project came from a Middle Eastern support spree in the wake of the 2011 Lacoste Elysée Prize censorship scandal, when Sansour’s initial nomination for the award was quickly withdrawn when her proposals for Nation Estate proved too “pro-Palestinian” for the fashion company.
Despite some art-circle concerns that Sansour remains known exclusively for the Lacoste controversy, she is actively cultivating new work that promises an interesting level of critical depth. Tackling Israel’s ongoing archaeological digs to “prove” the existence of Jewish settlers in the region before Christian and Muslim times, Sansour plans to bury porcelain bowls (props from Nation Estate) in Palestine, and to dig them up later as fossilized “proof” of a killed-off culture. Clearly, it has the makings of a show that will incite another heated debate among its viewers.