MADRID — What do archaeology and science fiction have in common? The first answer would be history, albeit running in different directions: Archaeology is excavating the past and science fiction is imagining the future, but these temporal borders are both unstable and interchangeable. Science fiction can sometimes appear like archaeology in reverse, unearthing artifacts and narratives from possible futures and rearranging these disparate elements into a continuous and unified whole that is molded into a rational world. While that world is often familiar to us and to a degree as predictable as our own, there is also no science fiction without terror, risk, and danger: “Science fiction films are not about science. They are about disaster, which is one of the oldest subjects of art,” wrote Susan Sontag in 1965. But is science fiction necessary today when the aesthetics of destruction and violence are no longer a chapter in the technological imagination but an everyday reality?
“The apocalypse is never that single cataclysmic event,” remarks a resistance leader of an imaginary nation to her psychiatrist in a conversation at the heart of “In the Future They Ate From the Finest Porcelain” (2015), the most recent film of Palestinian artist Larissa Sansour and the central piece in her solo exhibition at Sabrina Amrani Gallery. In the film, a resistance group is on a mission to produce a future history for a made-up civilization: by making underground deposits of elaborate porcelain, the group supports its claims to the existence of a people before their obliteration by a colonial power. In line with the classical sci-fi format, the digital film is set in a dystopian territory without a future, or at the very end of historical time. The master narrative of the end-of-times is not an event but a condition: Disaster becomes not sheer bad luck, but a fixed lens through which history is narrated.
Throughout her film, Sansour explores archaeology as a battleground and hints to the mechanism of both nation-building and the politics of cultural extinction, proving how in both archaeology and science fiction science becomes irrelevant and is quickly replaced by myth: “Archaeology galvanizes public sentiment, confirms myths of the past and defends them against scrutiny.” The reference to the historical construction of the state of Israel and its claims over Palestinian land based on archaeology is difficult to miss, yet at no point in the narrative is there a sense of the real. It is precisely that absence of the real which makes the film such a powerful psychological essay on the tragedies of Palestinian history.
As Sontag notes, “But another one of the things that fantasy can do is to normalize what is psychologically unbearable, thereby inuring us to it.” Fiction is here not a mechanism of evasion, but a critical framework that challenges the view that the unbearable realities of Palestine are natural and irrevocable.
Sansour first explored these themes in “Nation State” (2012), another short sci-fi film in which Palestine, and the Israeli occupation, is presented as a vertical, futuristic high-rise that is divided into floors which can be accessed only through a series of elevators and throughways; political reality becomes a labyrinthine maze in which the protagonist — Sansour herself — is lost, accentuating the radical sensory loss that is a consequence of the ongoing occupation. Palestinian identity is suppressed and reduced to national symbols, mainly porcelain bowls.
The vast majority of cultures from the ancient world have been dug out and reconstructed based on everyday objects made of clay, porcelain, stone, and metal. Porcelain is here a two-fold reference: to the lasting narratives imbued in domestic tools and also the fragility of material culture. Shattered objects torn from their original setting cannot be reconstructed in situ, though they can be reinterpreted and relocated. For instance, the appropriation and erasure of Palestinian material history, which is oftentimes discarded or manipulated to trace modern Israel’s Biblical origins (as in, for example, Jerusalem’s Bible Lands Museum, where relics varying from pre-classical cultures through the Middle Ages are streamlined with the creation of the modern state as its rational justification and official history). “In the Future They Ate from the Finest Porcelain” shows how the documentary filmmaker, whose analytical eye emphasizes accuracy and truth telling, becomes a neutralized observer, and therefore, in a scientific manner, immune to violence and destruction. The documentary format — quintessential to those doing work about Palestine or conflict zones in general — has a tendency to portray victims as defenseless and depoliticized, without agency or free will. Fiction, on the other hand, catapults Palestinians into an active future, in which the past is experienced as continuity and not as rupture. By manipulating the dating of porcelain, the film restores the lost history of a ‘counterfeit’ people and halts their imminent disappearance.
When archaeology is used as a rational tool, as Sansour suggests in the film, the past is altered constantly in order to resolve the anxieties of the present, and the study of material culture becomes a platform of ideological configuration, subject to falsification. How, then, can the invisibility of the oppressed be corrected when it’s at the service of a documentary hyperrealism that suspends judgment and confines subjects to an abstract existence, left in the shadows of history? That Sansour deliberately chose to set the Palestinian narrative in the future is a gesture of empowerment, no matter how uncertain or fraught with contradiction such a future may be.
There has been a recent surge in popularity of science fiction in the Arab world; in addition to the work of Larissa Sansour, there’s been Hassan Blasim’s projected futuristic anthology “Iraq +100,” Sophia Al Maria’s video work “The Gaze of Sci Fi Wahabi” (2008), the panels on science fiction held at Arabic cultural festivals, and the rediscovery of 20th-century Arabic science fiction, which all point to a larger trend: It is not that Arabs want to escape the bleakness of a present fraught with violence and horror; instead, they are driven by the irresistible desire to imagine the unlikeliest futures when the present is collapsing under its own weight — to be at home in the future, to inhabit its borders, and be nurtured by its possibilities. In Larissa Sansour’s films — the result of extensive visual research and teamwork between the artist and her partner Søren Lind — cinema becomes an additional continent, in which the experiences of Sansour’s permanent exile in Europe are made manifest: Subjects are disentangled from their own lives, and it is precisely this distance that opens their eyes and permits them to see our world as a site of absurdity and homelessness.
Larissa Sansour: In the Future They Ate From the Finest Porcelain continues at Sabrina Amrani Gallery (Calle de la Madera, 23, 28004 Madrid, Spain) through April 27.