Zineb Sedira

Iniva at Rivington Place

Floating Coffins, 2009, the central work in “Currents of Time: New Work by Zineb Sedira,” presents footage of the rusting hulls of fishing vessels grounded off the coastline of Mauritania. The immense, fourteen-screen video installation occupied Iniva’s largest gallery, with eleven flat screens in three sizes congregating on the back wall of the darkened space and three screens placed on the side walls. Eight round speakers playing a single stereo sound track hung at varied heights overhead, inviting visitors to move about to obtain different perspectives on the imagery.

The saturated color footage, shot in HD video, paints a visually stunning but melancholy portrayal of this graveyard of ships, interspersed with shots of the seascape during sunset and of the coast’s wildlife. As the ships sit baking in the sun, most half-submerged in the murky Atlantic water, men in oil-drenched, ragged clothing move about their ruined shells, paid to scavenge for materials. Anonymous figures who never acknowledge the camera, they add to the sense that Sedira has captured the passage of everyday life with aesthetic distance. Because the sound track of seagulls, crashing waves, and brisk wind is often out of sync with the imagery, the experience is one of evocation rather than the precise documentation of a visual-aural moment in time. The multiple screens mix fixed-frame shots of the ships from land, slow pans of details, and handheld views that bob with the surf, diversifying viewpoints. Close-ups of the abstract patterns of the rust-eaten metal, sumptuous views of green ropes lying in the golden sand, and shots of pink flamingos mingling in an inland pool combine to produce a disjunctively picturesque image of this forsaken and foreboding place.

Given that the video was shot on the outskirts of Nouadhibou, known to be a popular port of migration for Africans seeking passage to the Canary Islands and from there to Europe, Sedira’s title, suggesting containers for corpses, throws us into the realm of metaphor—the ships evoke the tragically failed journeys of those seeking a better life, even while no obvious migrants are shown. The work builds on the artist’s recent lyrical engagements with migration, as in her films Saphir, 2006, set in a hotel in Algiers built by the French in the 1930s, and MiddleSea, 2008, focusing on the passage between Marseille and Algiers.

The fragmentation of Floating Coffins was repeated in Sedira’s photographic light-box installations, including Scattered Carcasses, 2008, and Architecture of the Forsaken, 2009, displayed in a second-floor gallery. Yet here the photographs of the sunken boats lost the subtly ephemeral aspect that downstairs countered the risk of surrendering to the coastline’s overwhelming beauty. Floating Coffins is neither exactly the monumentalized, cinematic poetry of Doug Aitken, who has explored similar desert coastlines in southwest Africa, nor the discursive, ethnographic approach of Ursula Biemann, whose video essays have investigated the migration patterns that flow through this same Saharan region. Rather, Sedira’s array of images, presented without voice-over analysis, encourage a heightened and variegated perception of a visually fascinating place without pedagogical framing. The decaying ships dotting the seashore echo the monitors floating on the wall, and in this way Sedira’s installation gracefully enacts a contrapuntal scene of geopolitical inequality, juxtaposing a Western art of advanced technology with an impoverished African geography that encourages exodus.

T. J. Demos