At the Whitechapel

Brian Dillon

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The first room of Zineb Sedira’s exhibition Dreams Have No Titles (at the Whitechapel Gallery until 12 May) is both inviting and confusing. A dancefloor has been framed on the parquet, labelled here and there with small crosses of coloured tape – whose moves are being plotted? On the outskirts: café-style chairs and tables, almost-art-nouveau bar stools, a fringe of potted shrubs. Overhead, six mirror-balls compose a glam orrery, and project a slow-moving star chart onto the well-stocked bar beyond. There are two large radios, a wall clock stopped at a quarter to twelve, a bottle and a couple of glasses (slightly dried up) of Vin d’Algérie on the counter. Behind the bar, black-and-white photographs that might be film stills; you want to peer closer, like Jack Nicholson in The Shining. What year is it, anyway: 1924, or a century on?

The installation is a partial reconstruction of the main set of Ettore Scola’s 1983 film Le Bal: a Parisian ballroom of indeterminate era, with a bar at one end and mirrored walls. A stagey, already retro present gives way in turn to seven moments from 20th-century French history, including the wartime intrusion of a German officer, the arrival of American GIs and Coca-Cola, an Algerian man beaten up in the toilet and some soixante-huitards ducking into the dancehall for safety.

Sedira reminds us of her cinematic source and its late-night lock-in masquerade: there are tall lights on tripods at the corners of the scene, a metal flight case off to the side, an old Super 8 camera on one of the bar stools. So much machinery for a time travel quite distinct from Scola’s. Here it’s the spectators who perform their historical juncture, with the help of some elegant ghosts: a pair of dancers who perform a tango at intervals during the run of the exhibition.

While some of its parts derive from older works, Dreams Have No Titles was first put together for the Venice Biennale in 2022, when Sedira became the first artist of Algerian heritage to exhibit at the French Pavilion. As at the Whitechapel, the catalogue at Venice consisted of a newspaper in which the artist and various collaborators explored relationships between avant-garde film in Europe, the history of Algerian cinema and a larger context of postcolonial film. (William Klein’s documentary The Pan-African Festival of Algiers, from 1969, is a key reference.) Sedira was born in 1963 and grew up in the Paris suburb of Gennevilliers, where her father took her to see Egyptian films, Italian epics and spaghetti westerns. She has lived in London since 1986. Her art frequently returns to North Africa; she has made films and installations that touch on histories, borders and passages in the Mediterranean, featuring lighthouses, archives, maritime photography.

If Dreams Have No Titles seems in some ways her most personal work to date, it is partly because the artist is playfully present in the work. Behind the Le Bal set, amid more reminders of film-making and viewing – cinema seats, more lights, a greenscreen backdrop – is a model, set in a vitrine, of what seems to be a Pop-hued 1960s living room. Garish movie posters, G Plan coffee table, Ladderax modular shelving, earthy lamps and vases: all of it in flat maquette, including a miniature Sedira, standing with her hands clasped, behind the sofa. The model is both a mock-up for a later work in the show and a clue, in case we still need it, that Sedira’s purchase on migrant history comes this time in the form of theatrical fakery and domestic trompe l’oeil. (Another film that haunts the show is Orson Welles’s 1973 F for Fake, with its documentary account of meticulous art forgery and Welles’s hokey presence as presiding magus.)

Upstairs at the Whitechapel is a room modelled on an interior from The Battle of Algiers (Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 film was banned in France until 1971). Sedira’s version of the set, with its heavy furniture, hand-coloured family photographs, delicate lace and glass, is surrounded by film-making paraphernalia, old and new – an Arriflex camera on a wooden tripod, modern lights and rolls of bright tape. The tape on the floor, meant to mimic actors’ marks, suggests both absent bodies and a crime scene. A clearer statement about film and death (maybe also about the death of film) comes in the next room, where Sedira has made a less teeming, more schematic representation – complete with architect’s or set designer’s drawings – of a morgue scene from Luchino Visconti’s 1967 adaptation of Camus’s L’Étranger. Perched on its trestle, a rough-hewn coffin rhymes with the tripods and cameras elsewhere in the exhibition.

Versions of Algeria in European arthouse classics, visions of Europe in an Algerian artist’s imagination: the postwar convolution of aesthetic and political radicalisms is Sedira’s wider subject in Dreams Have No Titles. But also, the way that films sink and resurface in the memory and in reality. While she was researching Algerian cinema for her Venice exhibition, Sedira discovered the first international Algerian production: Ennio Lorenzini’s 1964 documentary about the newly created state. It had not been seen for 57 years. In the Whitechapel show, a large film-editing table in round-edged and hammered metal stands in front of ceiling-height shelves of 35mm film canisters. A few have titles: Trans-Europ-Express, Les Derniers jours de Pompeï, Carmen Miranda: Bananas Are My Business. Most are unnamed and mysterious, some of them rusting, but as if waiting to be rediscovered, filled with potential.

The coffin and the editing console comprise an uncharacteristically austere portion of an exhibition that is more often joyous than mournful about the lives, images and histories it reanimates. The penultimate room is a full-size version in three dimensions of the miniature domestic interior from earlier in the show. That is, a replica of Sedira’s own living room in Brixton. Alongside the hire-purchase modernism of postwar homemaking, relics of radicalisms past are hung on the walls, tucked into bookshelves, strewn on the record player. A Black Panther newspaper, a copy of Klein’s film, LPs by James Brown and The Temptations, the left-wing Italian magazine Cinema Nuovo. The room is an archive of sorts, a bristling and vibrant museum not only of writings and pictures, but of the conversations that have gone on there.

In the final part of the show, a film with the same title as the exhibition ranges across the constellation of filmic and historical elements that we’ve seen so far: revolutionary and postwar Algeria; Welles in his magician’s cape; a miniature Sedira deposited inside her living-room model, while from above her hand arranges the doll’s-house decor. At the end, the artist becomes one of the women in Le Bal, and dances alone against a blank screen.