Critics’ Picks

Larissa Sansour & Søren Lind, In Vitro,2019.

Larissa Sansour & Søren Lind, In Vitro,2019.


Larissa Sansour

Copenhagen Contemporary
Refshalevej 173 A
December 13, 2019–May 10, 2020

“Science fiction doesn’t try to predict the future,” Samuel R. Delany has said, “but rather offers a significant distortion of the present.” His description aptly applies to the work of the Palestinian Danish artist Larissa Sansour, whose speculative videos and installations have been called “Arabfuturist” but are, above all, imaginative refractions of current political conditions. The distortions within science fiction have permitted Sansour to critically reframe contentious realities, such as the occupation of Palestine, in forums as visible as the 2019 Venice Biennale, where her exhibition “Heirloom” was first presented.

The centerpiece in “Heirloom,” In Vitro, 2019, recodes Palestinian dispossession as an ecological disaster. Co-directed with Søren Lind, the roughly thirty-minute, black-and-white film, displayed in split screen, opens with spectacular visual effects of oily fluid coursing through Bethlehem, setting buildings aflame. The narrative, however, largely unfolds in an austere underground shelter. From this Brutalist bunker, a purgatory which doubles symbolically as a Palestinian refugee camp, there is no exit until the ethics of memory in the wake of catastrophe are worked out.

A sci-fi scenario scripted with the gravity of a Sartre play, In Vitro centers on a tense tête-à-tête between the aging, bedridden scientist Dunia (Hiam Abbas), who underscores the importance of preserving communal history in exile, and the young Alia (Maisa Abd Elhadi), who has been cloned from the DNA of those lost to the disaster and rejects her replicate recollections as nostalgic remnants of a tired nationalism. (The film visualizes the source of Alia’s memory as a black sphere, which Sansour has materialized as Monument for Lost Time, 2019, a fiberglass-and-steel sculpture, sixteen feet in diameter, whose imposing form and nonreflective black paint figure inherited trauma as equally opaque and onerous.) As a formally elegant portrait of two psychically fused women, the work evokes Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966). But In Vitro’s inescapable subtext—evident in on-location shots in Bethlehem and archival images of a pre-1967 Palestine that flit by as flashbacks—is the specifically Palestinian dialogue between an elder who experienced expulsion and a young exile who has never known home.

On view in an adjacent room are three videos, previously known as Sansour’s “sci-fi trilogy.” Extrapolating alternative Palestinian realities, such as a future state-as-skyscraper furnished with simulacra of national symbols (Nation Estate, 2012), they offer oblique yet incisive perspectives on present political confines—and mark a significant contribution to today’s decolonial futurisms.