Heirloom, Or the Inheritance of a Future Atlantis

Christopher Sand-Iversen

Christopher Sand Iversen lives in Copenhagen but grew up in Wales. He is an invaluable member of the TCR team. He is also the director of SixtyEight Art Institute, an independent arts organisation in Copenhagen.


The video work In Vitro, part of Larissa Sansour’s installation Heirloom at the Danish Pavilion in Venice, begins with a computer generated wave of black liquid surging through the streets of Bethlehem. The liquid looks thick, you might almost say unguent, were it not for the apparently unstoppable motion with which it is propelled forward, splashing at the edges. It inundates the Church of the Nativity, spreading through the nave and submerging it. Although the film is black and white, the dense blackness of the liquid and its slightly viscous motion indicate that it represents oil rather than an inundation of water. Nevertheless, it is difficult for me not to associate the wave of black liquid with flood water when my visit had been delayed by a day due to an acqua alta of 1m 56cm, which closed most of the Venice Biennale and inundated St Mark’s Basilica for the second time in three days. The exceptionally high tide kept me inside my lodgings at the former Palazzo Cavagnis for several hours in the middle of the day; periodically I peered out of a high window at the arc of the Ponte Cavagnis, which levitated above the murky turquoise substance, a mix of salt water, fresh water, and whatever tincture of effluence and detergent had been flushed from the drains, levelling canal and calle. On this modest hump of respite intrepid tourists would halt, tilt their upper bodies forward to facilitate the raising of one leg at a time into the air, and pour the water out of their knee-high designer rubber boots.

The Ponte Cavagnis seen from above. Photo: the author.

Later that afternoon, I trudged through the wet streets in a pair of farmer’s wellies I had once picked up in a general store on Fehmarn in my festival-going days, whipped by a cold and heavy rain, and splashed with possibly E.coli infested sludge. Pasted onto a wall in the San Polo district, I encountered an A3 flyer with a text condemning the construction of the lagoon’s flood defence system, Il Mose, not only for its incompletion and corruption scandal, but for having necessitated the removal of two moles or sand bars, which, so the anonymous author claimed, had destroyed the centuries-old equilibrium of lagoon and Adriatic Sea. This was but the first complaint of many I was to encounter over the coming days: from frustrated residents eager to talk, in conversations overheard amongst them, or from flyers and television programmes.

The citizen’s group Gruppo25Aprile, a “civic (and nonpartisan) platform for Venice and its lagoon”, posted on its blog an English language press release regarding the 12 November flood: “…the artificial island of the Mose no doubt played its part in contributing to the speed with which the mass of water, forced into two narrower inlets at the Lido, entered the Lagoon: the change in the currents caused by the works in progress can in any case be readily seen by anyone who gets around by boat.” In short, it became impossible to write about Heirloom or indeed the Biennale without writing about the actual situation, for the ineluctably corporeal reason that getting around involved wading up to your calves in the Adriatic.

• Marco Gasparinetti, Spokesman of Gruppo25Aprile: Press release on the Venice floods of 12th November, 13 November 2019

A recurring complaint I heard was that the Mose simply wouldn’t work. Nor had they, the citizens, ever been consulted about whether they wanted it. An article written in the local organ, Comune Info, a few days before, spoke of how “everything proceeds without reconsideration” despite the existence of “hefty documentation of the criticisms which show the project to be useless and detrimental.” Criticisms of the project that “demonstrate its technical defects, propose alternative solutions that would have less impact, be more functional, less expensive, and take into account the rise in sea levels which is underway, and be more responsive to the equilibrium of the hydrogeology and ecosystem…” Furthermore, the story of the Mose “includes years of protests against the works. … Thousands of citizens (remember the slogan: ‘Il Mose, useful only to those making it’), a scientific world formed of eminent scientists not in the pay of the Consorzio Venezia Nuova, the Ministry of the Environment, a mayor of the Municipality of Venice, many committees and associations, none have succeeded in blocking it.”*

Comune Info continues that, taking into consideration the warming climate, “the closing of the mouths of the lagoon no longer represents, in the medium to long term, the solution for averting the scenarios of changing sea levels expected in this century.” The increasingly frequent isolation of the lagoon from the sea caused by the need to raise the Mose’s floodgates, will impede the hydraulic process in which the lagoon’s fresh water is renewed with salt water, thus “suffocating the lagoon through lack of nutrients, and reducing the capacity for purification and oxygenation”.* Indeed, this refreshing and cleansing process was visible to the naked eye. The day after I was able to go to the Giardini and see Heirloom, the city was inundated by another acqua alta, the water this time rising to 1m 60cm. Wandering through the receding waters in the afternoon, the extent to which the influx of sea water had cleaned the canals was evident. The water was simply clearer than the day before. But it is obvious that the cleansing process is insupportable when the water level, at its apex, reaches thigh height. If the Mose cannot be used because of its detrimental effects, it will perhaps remain unused — as it did throughout December’s exceptionally high tides — a monument to corruption and personal gain, to folly and bad decision-making. The writer of the Comune Info article takes a more pessimistic view: “… [it] will in fact be a negative element in the survival of Venice and its lagoon. It may therefore be presumed that it will have to be removed, abandoned, condemned.”*

* Armando Danella: Sul Mose torna una marea di bugie. Comune Info, 13 November 2019.

Massimo Cacciari, the former mayor mentioned by Comune Info, has written that “two fatal decisions” have marked the project. First, the decision that both the defence of the lagoon against acqua alta, and the entire complex of works to safeguard and maintain it were given to a single consortium, the above mentioned Venezia Nuova, in the form of a monopoly “eliminating any obligation to call for tenders, thereby drastically reducing the possibility of enjoying reasonable discounts on bids, rendering entirely random the controlling functions which should first and foremost have been conducted by the Water Authority.”•• Second, according to Cacciari, this political decision, executed in contravention of a 1995 law against granting monopolies, has a cultural background, namely “two radically opposed strategies, the first centralising, anti-autonomous, focused on the myth of a great work of salvation; the second, consistent with the whole tradition of public works in the lagoon, founded on the need to guarantee continuous maintenance, through always correctable, reversible interventions, taking into account not only the ‘physics’ of the city, but also its economic and social fabric.”••

•• Massimo Cacciari: “La mia guerra di vent’anni contro il Mose a Venezia”. L’Espresso, 19 June 2014.

The flood defence of the Venetian lagoon is undoubtedly a complex undertaking. In addition to several localised forms of defence, such as the raising the levels of fondamenti (waterside pavements) while preventing water from filtering into the subsoil, it involves being able to close three large openings. These lie between the sand bars that cordon off a long stretch of the coastline, from Chioggia in the south to the Lido of Venice in the north, from direct contact with the Adriatic. At each of the three openings, large hydraulic systems have been built which allow the raising of bright yellow floodgates which, at normal sea levels, lie hidden below the water. At the Lido, two lines of floodgates are joined in the middle by the artificial island mentioned in the 12 November press release, on which the technical installations stand. The promotional material for the Mose project includes animated sequences in which the bright yellow barriers rise majestically, their colour materialising slowly in the turquoise water. More recently, videos of the testing show the barriers breaking the surface of the water, leaving behind them pools of smooth water surrounded by turbulence. Time-lapse videos of boats approaching the barriers suddenly reveal the massive scale of the yellow barriers, which dwarf even medium-sized vessels. “The spectacularisation of the Mose project,” wrote Massimo Cacciari, “the image of the floodgates rising from the waves, the force of the appeal for ‘Venice saved’ thanks to Superior Technology, exerted a formidable ‘seduction’ on all the governments of the last twenty years [in 2014], crushing any reasonable discussion.”••


The curator of the Danish Pavilion, Nat Muller, writes that Heirloom “presents a world that has gone underground after ecological disaster”. What kind of ecological disaster we encounter in In Vitro remains unsaid. We learn that the daughter, Alia, has come to visit her bedridden mother, Dunia, by travelling underground. Between passages of their conversation, we glimpse a young girl in a landscape and in a room in a large house, who we come to understand is not Alia, but Dunia’s lost biological daughter. Alia, it turns out, is a clone fabricated from fragments of DNA. At one point Alia and Dunia speak about saving beehives and releasing bees into an orchard. The conversation is accompanied by a brief sequence apparently of the same landscape as we had seen in the shots of the young girl. Over the course of the film we come to understand that this orchard too must be underground, that Dunia’s entire life since the disaster has taken place without seeing the light of day. In these and other ways, the film plays with sci-fi tropes that are both well known and which may seem more and more prescient as we become increasingly cognisant of entering a time of great climatic and technological change. But In Vitro is more than this.

The opening sequence of the black flood is followed by a brief panoramic view of the city’s rooftops, in which the fireballs of explosions rise from some of the buildings. In this way the introduction or prologue to the film appears to indicate that whatever disaster has befallen the people here, whatever the nature of the flood, human actions have played their part — as indeed the Biblical flood was the punishment of Man. An image of a burning bush occupies the screen for some moments, after a scene in which Dunia and her daughter are seen walking away from a burning Bethlehem. Their lonely exodus would seem to be religious as well as political. The burning bush stands in mute (there is no crackling of fire on the audio track) recollection of God revealing himself as compassionate, as he who has seen the misery of his people and has come to rescue them, and bring them to a good and spacious land. But it is answered in inverted grayscale on the adjacent screen, perhaps as a negation of God’s act, since that very land of milk and honey is the one Dunia and Alia are now forced live beneath, perhaps both biblical and prosaic: a divine burning bush that does not burn up and an actually incinerating piece of the living world.

In Vitro intentionally collapses ecological and political disasters onto one another, as indeed they are overlaid for Palestinians, if we understand within the concept of an ecological disaster not only an overarching threat such as climate change, but also the very tangible disaster of the loss of land. For many, perhaps even the majority of Palestinians, the practice of a centuries old way of life is no longer possible (and to what avail does divine compassion manifest in such a compassionless actuality?) Nor can the opening oil spill as inundation be overlooked as a reference to the oil imperialism that plays both a decisive role in the politics of the Middle East and the hegemony of the nations which keep the Palestinian people in their current situation, and a significant one in the looming disaster of a changing climate: the burning of oil contributes to the warming of the world to the extent that US military models suggest water shortages and rising temperatures in the Middle East will increase social conflict in the region.** Ecological disaster thus threatens to make even the land which has not been lost useless, and the exodus and underground existence which In Vitro visualises imaginable in multiple ramifications.

** Geoff Mann and Joel Wainwright, Climate Leviathan, A Political Theory of Our Planetary Future. Verso, 2018.

Under the ground, in a futuristic setting where Dunia lies in a circular room as though in isolation, Alia paces around in disquiet. This is the place they have been forced to occupy after the film’s alluded to disaster, and here they conduct a discussion about nostalgia and memory, about the remembrance of the past and the desire for a different future. Their discussion is in this way about what lies beyond or outside the space they inhabit. The only time this underground world becomes the focus of their attention is when Alia, with a certain trepidation, approaches a large black shape in the space. It is described in the dialogue as a “black hole”, a “dense volume of emptiness”, which fails to return light and matter to their place of origin. As such, it forms part of the metaphor of the bunker as an image of the Palestinian condition: a non-place intended to isolate, caught between past and future. Palestinians can neither return to their origins on the land nor emerge from their enforced state of suspension and build a new life for themselves. In the installation in the Danish Pavilion, this black shape is refigured as a huge sphere, Monument for Lost Time, that towers over the visitor, sucking in light and emitting a low frequency rumbling, an abstract, unapproachable sound. We might see it as Dunia and Alia’s bunker existence invading our physical space, an almost mute and voiceless manifestation of the lost time of all those many people, imposing in its monumentality, louring on the edge of our comfortable reality.

Alia has been raised underground, and so for her it is reality, is ‘natural’. Alia’s complaints about the “alien” memories implanted in her revolve around the mismatch between what she ‘remembers’ and what she has experienced. Importantly, “the loss I feel was never mine”, and she says to Dunia, “The only past I know is here.” Here again Sansour addresses the tendency of Palestinians, having “no viable present to speak of,”••• to dwell on the past in order to project a future. Alia wants to reject this, but the question must also arise in the viewer of what form of consciousness emerges from such a state. Her remarks about her memories having been synthesised recall Blade Runner, where Rachel, implanted with false memories, has some to suspect her true nature as a replicant. This reference is made explicit with a close up of a Alia’s pupil and cornea, recalling the scene in Blade Runner in which Deckard is shown assessing whether the other is a human or a replicant. The narrative of Blade Runner is underscored by existential questions about what forms of consciousness are defined as life in the human sense, and who gets to decide over those lives.

••• Anthony Downey (Ed.), Larissa Sansour: Heirloom. Research/Practice 03. Sternberg Press, 2019.

While Rachel, in the course of the emotional development the false memories are intended to foster, becomes dimly aware that they are not hers, Alia is well aware that she is a clone. The question for her is of what use and value these borrowed, invasive, memories are. The discussion of memory touches upon ideas not unrelated to the postwar insistence that we must never forget the horrors of the Holocaust, precisely so that we can avoid repeating them. This western humanist ideal no doubt has a contingent and problematic status for Palestinians, who live every day with the threat of extermination, and the implicit or explicit support of that threat by western nations. So it is that Alia, as both a sociocultural and genetic product of the “disaster”, is able to raise the question of whether it would not be better to be free of these memories, a question which to a western audience might almost seem a heresy. It is significant in this regard that her mother Dunia counters, not that she will with this knowledge be able to avoid past mistakes, but that she will know whether she is repeating the same mistakes.

Transposing these ideas from the discourse of the dominant culture (represented in Blade Runner as trying to preserve itself against a perceived threat) and allowing them to be articulated by ‘survivors’, In Vitro asks what the value of cultural memory is, with Alia insisting “We’re not rebuilding the past. … The only past I know is here. Everything else is just fairy tales.” To this Dunia objects vociferously: “Entire nations are built on fairy tales.” Within the immediate setting of the film beneath what was once Bethlehem, and recalling the image of the city with explosions at the beginning, it would be easy to conclude that this remark takes aim at a specific history. But taking into account the parallel ecological disaster themes, such a reading does not seem to be the film’s only or ultimate aim. In the end, Dunia’s rejoinder points rather to how the figment of an idea has a tendency to carry more weight than well-reasoned argument, that rhetoric often wins over fact, form over content, in a sense enacting a form of ‘seduction’.


The third component of Sansour’s Heirloom installation consists of tiles that replicate a ‘traditional’ motif. The original tiles are to be found in the Ottoman villa in Bethlehem where several scenes were filmed, though in the opinion of a tile-making company in Nablus they were probably art nouveau tiles imported from Paris or Vienna.** In showing them in Venice, Sansour wished to return them their place of origin, “Europe”, yet on their journey from fin de siècle Europe through Ottoman culture to the Middle East and back again, they have undergone transformation, becoming examples of Palestinian heritage. It is an irony of our times, that removed as replicas to the reservation of the Biennale’s Giardini, they are suddenly at risk of flooding (at least until they are taken up and continue their journey to Denmark, jet setting around their new home in “Europe”). Suddenly, the risk of destruction rudely rushes into the privileged confines of the art world, into our physical space, making itself felt on our bodies, not just on the bodies of others.

Louring on the edge of our comfortable reality is perhaps not only the lost time of one people, but the potential for disaster to befall us all and time to be lost for us too. A pocket of land raised out of the water by human endeavour, Venice is both a potent symbol and a most vulnerable place. It is in articulating the existential questions that arise out of the Palestinian situation in a form that speaks about how we will continue to organise life on earth, in making ethnic and political specificities resound in the broader issue of eco-political justice, that the ultimate strength of Heirloom lies. The question for the Venice Biennale, is how it addresses being part of the machinery of mass tourism which also inundates the city, forcing it into an economic model which is as unsustainable for the coherence of the local community as the threat of more frequent and worse flooding. How does one of the primary showcases of contemporary art reconcile the expression of the latter’s supposed critical discourse with the capitalist drive of both the art market and the art event itself as mass attraction, particularly when the exceptional space of its garden is positioned quite literally at the cusp of the rising water?

© Christopher Sand-Iversen