Black oil rushes through the streets of the Palestinian city of Bethlehem engulfing the city. Suddenly the town explodes, erupting in fire and smoke in the opening sequence of In Vitro (2019) by Danish-Palestinian artist, Larissa Sansour, co-directed with Søren Lind, and curated by Nat Muller for the Danish Pavilion of the 58th Venice Biennale.
The black and white, two-channel, Arabic language film is set in the aftermath of this eco-disaster, in a dystopian, sci-fi world. Time is discussed between the characters Dunia, an elderly women who is hospitalised and Alia, “a clone” that visits her. The first words are spoken by Dunia: “Each morning I wake up to the Underground’s sound of rumbling”. This experience evokes a sense of entombment as both characters live in an underground bunker, which protects and represses them. They are both scientists; Alia was created “Underground” to act as the predecessor to Dunia, the leading scientist whose objective is to reform Bethlehem.
In Vitro’s epistemological meaning is “in the glass” and is contemporarily defined as a biological process, restricted to a laboratory. Alia, a product of experimentation describes how she can feel the “fire burning on her face”, in a particularly haunting moment. This is because Alia holds the collective trauma of the those who were killed in the plague, symbolised by the black oil that Dunia’s world succumbed to. Her recollections are a painful archive to delve into, as the individual traumas of those who perished are re-lived. In the film, Dunia remarks to Alia, “We will be archived for someone else to make sense of”, suggesting a possible output of the scientific organisation who cloned Alia; to use the clones as memory vessels and activists, though this is never articulated. Many parts of the film are left for us to assume or guess, leaving black holes in the narrative, which often shifts in time across the two-channel film installation.
The film invites thoughts on nostalgia and asks if we can or should resign ourselves from the past. There are two distinct perspectives: Dunia, who longs for a resurgence of her beloved home, as she advises Alia that she should be respectful of memories, such as their shared peaceful memory of harvesting olive trees. Alia, on the other hand, wants to focus on the world that is being reformed – to create her own sense of self, away from the memories that have been implanted inside her. There is a back and forth between the characters; an attempt at understanding why these memories are important to retain and share, which Alia refers to as “fairy tales”. Dunia quickly comments, “Nations are made on fairytales” as facts are “too sterile”, pertaining to the formation of history and identity, demonstrating generational shifts between these perspectives.
A pivotal moment in the film is when Alia is shown alone in an underground room with a large, black, foreboding object or “void”. This object enables Alia to reconnect to past memories, suggesting that she is torn between what she truly wants amidst this huge pressure and responsibility. In another room across from the film, which is reachable by a passing decorative tiled corridor, comprised of 500 tiles made in Nablus in the northern West Bank, there is a large black sculpture, titled Monument for Lost Time (2019).This oval-shaped object reaches the full height of the ceiling, dwarfing visitors and mirrors the sculpture we see in the film. Reflecting on painful memories is a human reflex. Dunia, is a maternal character which is present in how she speaks to Alia. It becomes clear that Dunia lost her daughter in the eco-disaster, perhaps why she believes memories are the most precious thing to possess. Curator, Nat Muller describes the “void” or “repository of memories” as a “hollow vessel, a reminder of loss that can no longer be defined, but only be sensed achingly like a phantom limb.”
Accompanying the sculpture there is a soundscape by Mons Niklas Schak, which plays synthesised sirens and the cracks of old industrial buildings akin to the soundtrack in the film that he composed, invoking a sense of disaster. I see a visitor have their photo taken, reaching out to touch the void – comically re-enacting a moment from the film, which somehow demonstrates the quality of this work to communicate a complex narrative in a modest 27-minutes. Heirloom, the title of this exhibition, suggests that memories are property, that are passed down generations. The tiles, which have been added to this pavilion as an intervention are an example of a traditional Palestinian craft, subtly indicating that we cannot move forward without addressing the past, or in Dunia’s words: “The past never was, it only is.”
Laura O’Leary is a writer and curator, based between Derby and Birmingham, UK. Laura’s research trip to the Venice Biennale was made possible with a Jonathan Ruffer Curatorial Research Grant from Art Fund.