Larissa Sansour’s Controversial, Pro-Palestinian Installation Goes Back on View

The silvered skylines of Middle Eastern cities like Qatar and Dubai sometimes seem like the stuff of sci-fi. ’s multimedia installation Nation Estate (2012) tests the boundaries between reality and fiction by pairing computer generated imagery—familiar from architectural renderings and real-estate sales videos—with human actors (the artist herself is the protagonist). In digitally enhanced photographs and a surrealistic short film, Sansour evokes a dystopian future at a certain remove from real-life.
Nation Estate previously stirred debate in 2011 when sponsors of the Swiss Musée de l’Elysée photography prize Lacoste asked for the work to be disqualified as a finalist for being too “pro-Palestinian.” A wave of support for the artist’s critical but humour-charged practice rippled throughout the world, eventually causing the Lausanne museum to sever its ties with the sports brand altogether. Now that the furore has subsided, Nation Estate has won much acclaim, and the work is currently on view in Sansour’s first solo exhibition in Italy at Rome’s Montoro12 Contemporary Art.
The sci-fi lens provides Sansour with a portal onto the present-day reality of the Israeli occupation, while keeping some distance from direct representation. An extension of her past films A Space Exodus (2009), which took inspiration from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 Space Odyssey (1968) to suggest that outer space may be the only place left for Palestinians to live, Nation Estate constructs an imaginary skyscraper with each floor housing a different city. Bethlehem, Ramallah, Hebron, and Jerusalem (the artist’s hometown) are each given high vantages over a speculative urbanity. Security checks in the lift when travelling between each level police the architecture, while symbols of the state’s national identity are presented in the lobbies as relics. It is a sterile, cold setting made hyper-real by Sansour’s graphics and an electronica soundtrack.
Apart from the film, Nation Estate includes still photographs and limited-edition prints in the style of vintage travel advertisements. Sansour harnesses the potential of hypothetical fiction as a contrast to common news images of her home country in destruction. It’s a fantasy that looks to escape, but not forget, the problems of reality—which despite its glistening towers keeps one foot on the ground.

—Hannah Gregory

Larissa Sansour – Nation Estate” is on view at Montoro12 Contemporary Art, Rome, May 14–Jun. 20, 2015.