Larissa Sansour and Søren Lind. In Vitro, 2-channel black and white film. 27 mins 44 secs, 2019. Courtesy of the artists. Larissa Sansour and Søren Lind. In Vitro, 2-channel black and white film. 27 mins 44 secs, 2019. Courtesy of the artists. Larissa Sansour and Søren Lind. In Vitro, 2-channel black and white film. 27 mins 44 secs, 2019. Courtesy of the artists. Larissa Sansour and Søren Lind. In Vitro, 2-channel black and white film. 27 mins 44 secs, 2019. Courtesy of the artists.

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.

Larissa Sansour and Søren Lind. In Vitro, 2-channel black and white film. 27 mins 44 secs, 2019. Courtesy of the artists.

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.

Larissa Sansour and Søren Lind. In Vitro, 2-channel black and white film. 27 mins 44 secs, 2019. Courtesy of the artists.

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.


Curated by Nat Muller, a postgraduate researcher at Birmingham City University, Larissa Sansour’s exhibition Heirloom is now showing at the Venice Biennale. The project is reviewed by Laura O’Leary and is on show at the Danish Pavilion at the Giardini until 24 November 2019.

In June 2018, I had the opportunity to experience the 10th Berlin Biennale We Don’t Need Another Hero for the energetic, coffee/kebab fuelled, gloriously sunny opening week.


This was my first experience of this renowned biennale and my second time in Berlin. I went to consider the themes posed by the curator Gabi Ngcobo, with a curatorial team made of Moses Serubiri, Nomaduma Rosa Masilela within the biennale’s context of Berlin. It was described in the press release as “explore[ing] the political potential of the act of self-preservation, refusing to be seduced by unyielding knowledge systems and historical narratives that contribute to the creation of toxic subjectivities”. The biennale title – a Tina Turner song – indicated to not finding answers. Rather, the curators invited “contradictions and complications” of “willful disregard for complex subjects”, typified by this funny, assertive and lyrical title.


Over the past couple of years, I have learnt that art fairs and festivals are a time for quiet contemplation and an opportunity to see a huge amount of art. I was profoundly moved by two works in the biennale, which I saw at the KW Institute for Contemporary Art. Firstly, Liz Johnson Artur’s video work “Real…Times” (2018) and secondly, the mixed-media exhibition “Untitled (Of Occult Instability) [Feeling]” (2016-18) by Dineo Seshee Bopape, that included works by Jabu Arnell, Lacell Workman and Robert Rhee. Dineo Seshee Bopape’s practice has been eloquently described by curator Osei Bonsu as “So complex are the fragile constellations … [they] evade the easy didacticism of a casual description.” Which I can only say from my experience, is true; this exhibition was an exceptional experience. The sounds of Nina Simone’s live 1976 performance of Feelings played around the amber-orange, industrial, dilapidated landscape as water droplets fell from the ceiling into buckets that were strewn across the floor. Each artist inhabited their own part of this environment, cumulatively creating an environment that invited exploration.


Dineo Sheshee Bopape, Untitled (Of Occult Instability) [Feelings] Other works on view include: Jabu Arnell, Discoball X (2018); Lachell Workman, Justice for___ (2014); Robert Rhee, EEEERRRRGGHHHH und and ZOUNDS. Photo: Timo Ohler


Liz Johnson Artur’s exhibition, showed work from her Black Balloon Archive that includes photographic representation of people of African descent. I watched her video work “Real…Times”, which lasts just over 15 minutes twice fully, and would have watched a third time if it were not for the queue that formed behind me. The work was filmed in London and showed a man preaching in the street and being arrested, women presenting on the radio, a young man – these are part of the visual components of this work that faded between each scene as a montage – moments in time that were overlapping one by one. The work felt so honest, hand-crafted and deeply personal – it is one of the best pieces of moving image I had ever seen and I look forward to watching it again to fully explore this work. Liz Johnson Artur has her first solo exhibition at South London Gallery opening in June 2019 which I am very excited to see! Also, Dineo Sheshee Bopape has an upcoming exhibition at Towner Art Gallery in Eastbourne, opening in June this year which I am looking forward to if anyone would like to see these artists work in the UK.


Liz Johnson Artur, Real…Times video from Black Balloon Archive, 1991–ongoing, installation view. Image courtesy of Berlin Biennale. Photography by Timo Ohler.


In a biennale context, spending an unusually long period of time with an artist’s work and to not quite know why is a great feeling – usually emotional – as you start taking your questions and thoughts around the festival with you, gauging a deeper sense of the biennale themes. It felt as though these artworks were here for me as they offered some meaning or truth. Of course this is not the case but with an overwhelming amount of art to see, these moments are precious and long-lasting. Another work that consumed all my attention was Mario Pfeifer’s film “Again / Noch Enimal” at Akademie der Künste – a feature length 60-minute work. The luxury of having so much time to give to each exhibition was an absolute joy.


Whilst in Berlin I visited artist collective Lou Cantor and discussed their work with them, which was an academic, insightful and fun conversation. We discussed the internet, AI and lots of other topics, including their recent publication Intersubjectivity Vol II – Scripting the Human (2018). I had the delight of working with Lou Cantor on my Masters project in 2017 and it was great to finally meet them face-to-face. Serendipitously I became friends with Scottish artist Caitlin Hyne who was studying in Germany whilst I was in Berlin. Her work and company was/is most stimulating. It was useful to meet other curators and artists whilst in Berlin – a couple of whom I have kept in touch with. Another artist’s work that I had the pleasure of seeing was Sam Samiee’s exhibition at ZK/U, which is a “production site” for research and artist residencies. I found the forms in Samiee’s work inviting and curious, and on reflection I wish I had written about this work in-situ as I feel I would have gained a lot out of this process. I follow Samiee on Instagram and always look forward to seeing what he shares (@aarsaam). Following these artists on Instagram is a useful way to “follow” the many artists you come into contact with in fleeting moments – whether it’s productive is a concern for another day.


Sam Samiee, The Unfinished Copernican Revolution (2018). Mixed media. Exhibition view: We don’t need another hero, 10th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art, ZK/U – Center for Art and Urbanistics, Berlin (9 June–9 September 2018). Courtesy the artist. Photo: Timo Ohler.


Biennale themes, titles, guest curators, branding, catalogues, the parties and even tote bags can be indicative of that year’s particular objective – one driving theme. Yet, as a visitor, when in the midst of a biennale, the expansive programme spread across many venues isn’t a succinct experience to take in during one week. Therefore the curator’s approach, drawing to the fore the complications and contraindications of socio-political issues worked well, as it wasn’t a didactic programme – it was expansive. I enjoyed that I didn’t leave with a singular opinion but left grateful to the organisers for sharing artists and exhibition possibilities that were previously unknown to me.


Thank you to New Art West Midlands for providing me with a Micro Bursary which was hugely helpful for this trip. I am grateful for non-tangible research outcomes. My current area of interest is thinking about festival models and curation, and having the opportunity to see the 10th Berlin Biennale was an enriching experience that feeds into my developing curatorial practice. I am delighted to say that I will be visiting the Venice Biennale (for the first time ((and my first time in Italy!)) and this trip has been supported by the Art Fund’s Jonathan Ruffer Curatorial Grants. Going to a festival for research is an incredibly exciting opportunity and valuable for developing curatorial methods, and specifically, developing ways to engage with visitors.


Laura O’Leary is Programme Assistant at QUAD, Derby and a freelance writer.

Curator Laura O’Leary used her Engine Micro Bursary to visit the Berlin Biennale back in June 2018. Read more about her research here.