Q&A: Larissa Sansour

The Palestinian artist discusses her new exhibition at the Bluecoat, Liverpool. In the Future, They Ate From The Finest Porcelain runs until 24 June

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Can you please tell us about the work you have on display at Bluecoat?
I am showing a body of work which has been evolving over the past three years. The main work is a 29-minute science fiction short film exploring the role of archaeology for national identity and nation building. The film’s protagonist buries elaborate porcelain for future archaeologists to excavate, and she does this in order to tamper with history and the concepts of heritage and belonging in the hope of influencing the political dialogue currently in her own people’s disfavour.

A related piece is a sculptural and performance project entitled Archaeology in Absentia. This piece converts the film’s fiction to fact. After the completion of the film, I picked 15 locations in Israel/Palestine and buried porcelain in collaboration with local art institutions. The porcelain is absent from the exhibition, but the geographic coordinates of each deposit are engraved into metal discs inserted into small bronze sculptures modelled on a Russian nuclear bomb. The idea is that the institutions exhibiting these sculptures become the remote protectors of the porcelain deposits for the duration of the exhibition. This work also comes with a photo series documenting the burial performances. A third work at the Bluecoat is entitled Revisionist Production Line. It’s a large conveyor belt producing the porcelain for the historical interventions I am undertaking.

The last piece at the Bluecoat is a large-scale suspended installation made up of 1,500 polyresin spaceships. The spaceships are 20cm in length and assume the shape of insects, so that as a group they appear as a dark locust swarm. With the reference to the plagues of the Old Testament, the installation becomes a futuristic doomsday vision with biblical undertones. The title of the piece is a paraphrase of a quote from Exodus. The piece is part of my ongoing work on the role of myth and fiction on collective psychology, narrative structures and history writing.

How do the themes of science fiction, archaeology and politics inform your practice?

I was never seriously into science fiction in my younger years, but the Palestinian predicament which I deal with in my work lends itself well to the discipline. Despite its high production value and glossy imagery, sci-fi tends to allow for a specific kind of almost nostalgia-framing of the topic at hand. Even the slickest sci-fi almost invariably carries within it a sense of retro; ideas of the future tend to appear standard and clichéd at the same time as they come across as visionary.

In the case of Palestine, there is an eternal sense of forecasting statehood, independence and the end of occupation. The ambitious ideas that we hope to achieve have long since become so repetitive that the odd mix of nostalgia and accomplishment that the sci-fi genre often embodies suits the topic well.

The past is also very present in Palestine, and this is where the archaeological interest comes in. In the absence of a viable peace process in Israel/Palestine, archaeology has long since become a battleground for settling territorial disputes. In the pieces at the Bluecoat, I attempt to reverse the archaeological methodology in an attempt to influence colonialist narratives and manipulate history.

Who are your artistic influences?

I am hugely inspired by a range of contemporary artists from the Middle East and beyond, and I also find inspiration in old photographic archives and film footage. Being very interested in film as a medium, many of my artistic influences come from the realm of cinema, with Bergman, Kubrick and Tarkovsky as main inspirations.

How has your practice developed since you began making art?

In earlier video pieces, I worked mainly with a documentary approach. This soon developed into an interest in partially staging and scripting politically charged discussions, blending documentary and fiction. Gradually, fiction seemed more and more suited for the topics I wanted to address, and during the last decade, fiction has transitioned into science fiction.

Also in your show is your award-winning film combining live motion and computer generated imagery. What themes does the film explore and what are your favourite art films?

In the Future They Ate From The Finest Porcelain follows the leader of a narrative resistance group which makes underground deposits of elaborate porcelain. Their aim is to influence history and support future claims to their vanishing lands. By implementing a myth of its own and supporting archaeological evidence for this myth, their work becomes a historical intervention – de facto creating a nation.

The film takes the form of a fictional video essay. A voiceover based on an interview between a psychiatrist and the female leader of the narrative resistance group reveals the philosophy and ideas behind the group’s actions. The leader’s thoughts on myth and fiction as constitutive for fact, history and documentary translate into poetic and science fiction-based visuals.

As the film progresses, the narrative and visuals alternate between the theoretical and the personal. The resistance leader’s deceased twin sister makes a crucial appearance as the story takes the viewer deeper and deeper into the resistance leader’s subconscious.

Formally, this film is inspired by Bergman’s Persona, which is one of my favourite films, but there are also traces of Kubrick’s The Shining in there, just as Tarkovsky’s Stalker was an inspiration.

What areas of research did you undertake in the making of your work?

The main area of research for this film was archaeology as a political tool. This involved researching methods for ceramic dating and the scientific implications of instrumentalising archaeology. I also spent a lot of time going through comprehensive image archives spanning the past centuries of Palestinian history, just as exploring sci-fi tropes in order to develop a visual identity for the film was key.

You previously showed at Bluecoat in 2013 as part of the group show I Exist in Some Way. Can you tell us about that project and how it connects to your current work?

In 2013, I showed part of my Nation Estate project at the Bluecoat. This project envisions the Palestinian population relocated to a single skyscraper. Each city has its own floor – Jerusalem on the third floor, Ramallah on the fourth floor, and so on. In this building, the residents had designer plates and bowls just like the ones featuring in my latest film. So essentially, it was the fiction of Nation Estate that gave rise to the premise for the new film.

In the Future, They Ate From The Finest Porcelain runs at the Bluecoat alongside Louisa Martin’s Proxy – a new installation of choreographed light and sound

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