Larissa Sansour: The Nation Estate
Larissa Sansour, The Nation Estate (production still, 2012)
It has been some months now since the 20th of December 2011, when Larissa Sansour sent out a press release with the subject heading, ‘No Room for Palestinian Art’. At the time, Sansour was shortlisted for a Lacoste-sponsored photography prize by the Swiss Musée de l’Elysée in Lausanne. Offered a €4,000 production fee, the London-based artist was invited to develop a proposal for judging. She professed to being allowed free reign by the museum staff with whom she was in contact. However, in December, Lacoste made demands that Sansour’s nomination be revoked, deeming Sansour’s work ‘too pro-Palestinian’ to support.
The artist’s dismay continued when the museum asked her to sign an agreement, which asserted that she had chosen to withdraw herself from the competition. Within 24 hours of sending out her own press release, there ensued an outpouring of support for Sansour from around the world, gaining such leverage that – days later – the museum decided to cancel the prize altogether, and to forego its associations with Lacoste. While the ordeal could be interpreted as a depressing indication of our current socio-political condition, not to mention our increasing reliance in Europe on corporate sponsorship, the flipside is arguably reassuring. The way in which Sansour was able to gain momentum from online activists, news outlets and the press may well be evidence that an informal system of checks and balances exists within certain realms of the European cultural sphere.
The work that triggered this scenario was a proposal entitled The Nation Estate – a film and photography project that built on Sansour’s previous science-fiction short film, A Space Exodus (2009). It was a pastiche of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), which proposed that outer space might well be the only home for Palestinians. The Nation Estate was to extend this playfully Utopian proposition, and found Sansour proposing an epic skyscraper with the potential to house the Palestinian territories in their entirety. Here, each Palestinian city adopts a different level: Jerusalem is transposed to the third floor; Bethlehem to the fifth; Hebron to the eighth, and so on. The narrative would have followed a female protagonist as she returns back from Amman, Jordan – she exits the elevator and into Bethlehem, waters her olive tree, before preparing a futuristic meal based on traditional Palestinian dishes.
As this description suggests, The Nation Estate (which is currently in production) is a conceptual work of art that utilizes appropriated pop-cultural forms (in this case, sci-fi). And while Sansour confirms that the impetus behind the work came from the political climate during the time when Palestine was requesting full membership to the United Nations (and which led to a pending US veto), the piece – just like any work of art – is by no means directly representational. Although it may function as a conduit for alternative readings of a current socio-political situation, in and of itself, it is curious that The Nation Estate could stir such definitive animosity from a sponsor. Neither directly horrific nor demonizing of the Israeli occupation it critiques, the work boasts a humour that has the potential to open up different ‘readings’ into the ongoing Israeli–Palestinian conflict. Lacoste’s brazen decision on the other hand, has temporarily halted such possibility, transforming the discourse around the current work in progress into one that has much more to do with issues of corporate finance and its relationship to artistic expression and integrity.
When I asked Sansour about what may have triggered such adverse feelings from Lacoste, she confirmed that it was the politics of the piece that propelled the financial backer to take the standpoint that they did. Asked about the relationship between politics and artistic expression, Sansour argued:
Granting an artist complete artistic freedom and then limiting this freedom as an afterthought because you don’t like what you see is completely inappropriate. And stating a desire to remain apolitical as a brand simply does not cut it. The apolitical argument is fundamentally flawed. Politics is omnipresent. The Lacoste Elysée Prize being a photo award, it is crucial to understand how politics plays a part in so much photographic work, in portraits, in architectural photo series, etc.
While Sansour agrees that corporate sponsorship can be invaluable to realizing ambitious artistic projects, Lacoste’s attitude towards her most recent work opens up wider questions regarding canon formation in an institutional structure that is reliant on such corporate affiliations. What would have occurred had the artist been lesser known than Sansour, or more likely, had the censorship not related to the headline-friendly topic of the Palestinian condition? Perhaps this occurrence requires that a more formal ethics committee or legislative force be formed, which particular countries or institutions may be able subscribe to. This could ensure a democratic process for the assessment of artistic work, and prevent organizations from succumbing to the self-interested motives of their affiliated economic agents.
In the UK, we are well aware that some of our largest and historic organizations – from the Tate to the ICA, in London alone – have either relied or continue to rely on a form of private patronage, which to some extent or another, defines the parameters by which the contemporary visual arts canon is formed. With certain individuals or sponsors supporting particular commissions, exhibitions and acquisitions, not only is artistic freedom made vulnerable, but we are also in danger of losing the novel experience that occurs when an institution takes a risk on a contentious or provocative idea from an artist.
In the case of Larissa Sansour, things may well be ending on a high note. The exposure that the Lacoste ‘scandal’ created has developed an interest for the project, which is enabling her to work on a scale that she professes never to have experienced before. Others might not be so lucky however. As practitioners in the field, we all bear an implicit responsibility in ensuring the integrity of the artistic and curatorial process.