Larissa Sansour, Nation Estate - main lobby
On December 20th Palestinian artist Larissa Sansour issued a press release that her nomination for the prestigious Lacoste Elysée Prize awarded by the Swiss Musée de l’Elysée was revoked on grounds that her work was 'too pro-Palestinian'. Regretting Lacoste’s censorship, the Musée de l’Elysée had offered Sansour a solo of her work. Following a barrage of articles in the art and mainstream press, the Musée de l’Elysée caved in and cancelled the whole prize. Nat Muller caught up with Larissa Sansour now the dust has slightly settled.
Apart from making the headlines in the art press, and platforms like Electronic Intifada
, your story has also featured a.o. on the BBC
, The Independent
, The Guardian
and the Washington Post
, and has inspired protests in France in front of Lacoste flagship stores. Did you ever imagine your story would have sparked such outrage outside the art world? Do you think that perhaps the events of the 'Arab Spring' have sensitised people more?
'I did not imagine that the story would spark that much interest. I think the spirit of the Arab Spring had a strong influence, this feeling and belief that people can make a difference if they put their mind to it. Lacoste being quite a famous clothing brand probably also made a big difference. Even so, the massive attention the story got came as a complete surprise to me. After my nomination for the prize got revoked, I decided that I could not accept their decision to remove my work in silence. And the obvious censorship on political grounds simply seems to have struck a note with most people hearing the story. It is also a very clear-cut illustration of a violation of artistic freedom, and the episode certainly raises a lot of questions about corporate involvement in the arts. I think what made this story so widely covered is its relevance to a wide audience, ranging from Palestinians and political activists to artists, journalists and others around the world. This incident touches upon many issues, human rights, censorship and freedom of artistic expression.'
Larissa Sansour, Nation Estate - Jerusalem floor
The Musée de l’Elysée caved in a day after your press release was circulated. Do you feel this was a matter of damage control, or is there something else at play here? What is your relationship with the museum now? Are you still considering collaborating with them on a solo show?
'I know that Lacoste has put the museum in an uncomfortable position and they were trying to find ways of dealing with this problem without canceling the prize. They were also concerned about the other contestants. Needless to say, no matter how you look at it, it would have been impossible for them to decide on any form of alternative action without coming across as accomplices in the act of censorship itself.
As a direct result of the massive outcry against Lacoste’s actions, the Musée de l’Elysée eventually decided to break off their Lacoste ties, cancel the prize and side with the artist instead the corporate sponsor. Naturally, I applauded this move, as did many of the people rallying behind me. But, of course, I do think they should have decided on this course of action long before the incident became public.
The museum is still interested in having a show with me. No final decisions have been made in relation to that.'
Larissa Sansour, Nation Estate - olive tree
Can you speak a bit about your proposed project for the Musée de l’Elysée, Nation Estate, and how it ties into your artistic practice as a whole, and former projects?
'Nation Estate is a project that I had in mind for some years now. In the past years, my work started to increasingly shift into a more surreal realm. One example of this is my 2009 film A Space Exodus in which you see the first ever Palestinian astronaut landing on the moon. Although outlandish in its setting, the work posits a new formula in addressing the political situation in Palestine. The work that I proposed for the Lacoste Elysée Prize takes the context of a parallel or alternative fictional universe even further. The Nation Estate project is a sci-fi photo series conceived in the wake of the Palestinian bid for nationhood at the UN. I developed three preliminary sketches especially for the prize. Encouraged to approach the theme of the competition, ‘la joie de vivre’, indirectly or even with irony, I decided on a slightly dystopic approach. Set within a grim piece of hi-tech architecture, this narrative photo series entitled Nation Estate envisions ‘la joie de vivre’ of a Palestinian state rising from the ashes of the peace process. In this vision, Palestinians have their state in the form of a single skyscraper – the Nation Estate. Surrounded by a concrete wall, this colossal high-rise houses the entire Palestinian population – finally living the high life. Each city has its own floor: Jerusalem, third floor; Ramallah, fourth floor. Intercity trips previously marred by checkpoints are now made by elevator. Aiming for a sense of belonging, the lobby of each floor reenacts iconic squares and landmarks – elevator doors on the Jerusalem floor opening onto a full-scale Dome of the Rock. Built just outside the actual city of Jerusalem, the building has views of the original golden dome from the top floors. The photo series is part of a bigger project that involves a sci-fi video of this future Nation Estate, in which we see a short narrative unfold. The main story takes place mostly in the elevator, but various floors from the building will also be revealed. I will be playing the main character in the film.'
What are the most difficult artistic~political balancing acts you have to deal with in your practice? How do you walk the tight rope between being an artist, being Palestinian, and simultaneously taking on so many other different roles. Do you see dangers for artists being co-opted as spokespeople or representative for causes they, as artists, insist on giving a very individual and specific take on?
'I think there is a difference between being a spokesperson and making work that comments on or takes reference in politics. I often find it uncomfortable to be put in the position of a political spokesperson devoid from the artistic context. The mere fact that my artistic work is immersed in politics should not mean that I have to resort to the same methods of commentary as people outside the field of art. There is a potency to political art that should be preserved as unique and its impact on the political dialogue cannot be underestimated. That is why it is a difficult act for me to juggle all these positions. I think this last incident with the Lacoste Elysée Prize is a clear example of how instrumental a work of art can be, even when it functions according to its own premise. Lacoste apparently deemed it dangerous enough to censor and by that luckily achieved the complete opposite result. The work has not only gained significant exposure in the art world, but also in mainstream newspapers and social media like Facebook and Twitter. It is overwhelming to see how people from different backgrounds related in such an engaged way to a work of art. That was such an incredible outcome and so much more than I could have ever hoped for.'
Larissa Sansour, still from A Space Exodus, 2009
You have indicated that as a politically involved artist you’re not a stranger to opposition. Can you elaborate a bit more on that? Does this predominantly come from the ranks of funders/sponsors/boards, or are there also problems on curatorial levels? And do you ever experience any problems of contestation in the Arab world with your work?
'This kind of opposition is not uncommon, and it has expressed itself in various forms over the years. I have experienced several calls to close down exhibitions I have featured in. These calls normally come from special interest groups opposing any kind of rights, let alone statehood to Palestinians. But there have also been attempts at muffling my work from people initially favourable to it. I have been asked by gallerists showing my work to change the title of my exhibition or a specific piece in order to avoid controversy.
On a curatorial level, in Europe and the US, I am often accused of being one-sided – not showing the Israeli perspective. Of course, it is offensive to ask the occupied to represent the occupier, but this form of blind automatic political correctness that hides behind its ignorance of what the political situation really is, is very prevalent in the art world and beyond. There are so many curators out there who want to work on politically and socially engaged projects, but seem to only touch upon the mere formality of what a political exhibition should look like, rather than have a true knowledge of the subject at hand. It is disturbing that shows of this sort happen on a regular basis. The Arab Art world has its own set of problems ranging from the sponsors that these various shows get and their strong control of what gets shown, to the fact that a lot of these shows, unfortunately, are run by alliances that lack curatorial transparency. Fortunately, there are quite a few institutions in the Arab World emerging in the past few years that seem to have taken an independent and more genuine interest and approach to artists from the region.'
Lacoste’s censorship of your work points once again to the problems of corporate involvement in the arts. While in the US we regularly hear these stories, this is rarer in Europe. However, with public funding for the arts being dramatically cut across Europe, I fear this will become far more common. How do you see the relationship of artists, freedom of content vis-à-vis institutions and their sponsors develop? How should or could art workers and art institutions insist on keeping their critical independence, whilst staying financially afloat?
'I am certainly not opposed to the idea of corporate sponsorship per se. Administered well, financial support from institutions that can afford it is a valuable asset to artistic production, especially with the recent dramatic cuts on public funds across Europe. But the rules of the game have to be respected. Art prizes are not advertising campaigns for the sponsoring corporation. As soon as a sponsor blocks, censors or attempts to limit the artistic freedom, the system has failed.
The Lacoste Elysée Prize is a clear example of how corporate sponsorship of the arts is problematic. Art institutions can choose not to enter into a relation with a corporation that insists on having a big stake in the artistic selection process. In the case of the Lacoste Elysée Prize, there were three members from Lacoste among the eight members of the jury, and that is too many votes to grant any corporate sponsor. It is also important that cultural workers run a background check of the sponsors that they get involved with.'
The Lacoste scandal has generated much interest in your work from galleries, institutions and collectors. Will this experience with Lacoste and the Musée de l’Elysée change how you assess whom you collaborate with in the future?
'Yes, definitely. The overwhelming amount of interest in my work from galleries, institutions and collectors is of course great and I am very happy to see that my work has reached so many people, but it is also a very pressurising time for me. This has all happened too fast and I am uncertain how to discern and assess all the requests I am getting from all over the world. I am very concerned about making the right decisions and entering into the right professional relationships.'
Finally, can you share with us what you are currently working on?
'I am more determined now than ever to complete my work Nation Estate. I would like to finish the photo series as it was originally intended. I am also working on the Nation Estate film, I have started the pre-production and I am currently fundraising for production and post-production. I am working with a really unbelievable group of people who are all excited about this project and trying to make it happen. Among the people are a Danish theatre costume designer who is working on the futuristic costumes in the film, an Iraqi musician responsible for the digitised Arabic music and soundscapes and a production company making the sci-fi interiors for the Nation Estate building. One of the funniest bits about this film is coming up with hi-tech Arabic food served in the building, but I think that bit is coming along fine. As the project requires a lot of special effects and computer generated imagery, it needs more funding, but I hope I will get lucky enough and be able to have the film out in 2012.'
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