Zineb Sedira's lighthouses take on multiple symbols

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Zineb Sedira
At the Charles H. Scott Gallery until April 21

Lighthouses—those endangered structures—have been with us for centuries. The pre-Columbian Maya constructed them on the Caribbean coast and the great Pharos of Alexandria, built around 280 B.C., was one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Even as they are disappearing from the contemporary maritime landscape, lighthouses remain a potent symbol, images of hope for those travelling in darkness, and markers of strength and individuality.

In Zineb Sedira’s recent multidisciplinary work, lighthouses are a means of addressing important themes and subjects, including colonization, navigation, and cultural identity. She also uses lighthouses to examine lives perched on the interface between land and sea, nature and culture, past and future. Sedira, who was born in France to Algerian parents, studied photography and postcolonial theory in London, England, and is still based there. Elements of displacement and diaspora inform her art-making, and she frequently travels to her parents’ homeland to shoot films and still photographs, interview people, seek out telling examples of colonial architecture, and make sense of her origins.

Sedira’s complex, multicomponent film installation Lighthouse in the Sea of Time is built around a four-part projection whose imagery compresses two different days at two different lighthouses, Cap Sigli and Cap Caxine, on the Algerian coast. The work is shot, with great lyricism, on 16mm film, transferred to digital media, and augmented by an evocative soundtrack, which includes the singing of birds, the crashing of waves, and the plaintive suggestions of a distant foghorn. According to Coline Milliard, writing in the book Zineb Sedira: Beneath the Surface, the lighthouses, built during the French occupation, speak to Sedira as ”guardians of Algerian history”.

As dawn breaks at Cap Sigli, the great revolving light beams through the darkness and is then shut off, and we follow the sun across a succession of scenes, both inside the lighthouse, with its crumbling, white-washed walls, and outside, with its erect and adamant form and rugged natural setting. Sedira’s camera makes a romantic claim on the surrounding landscape, seascape, and rocky shoreline, posing these images against those of the keeper’s activities, which include cleaning the glass of the lamphouse and making handwritten entries in an old-fashioned logbook. At the bigger and seemingly more mechanized Cap Caxine lighthouse, a storm hurls itself against the coast, wind and surf roar, and rain lashes the windows. Eventually, the storm subsides, a more peaceable darkness encroaches, and the great light is switched on. Sedira honours both the structures and the people who make them work.

The installation also includes two sets of colour photographs and two shorter film works, each playing on a wall-mounted monitor. One of them is an interview with Karim Ourtemach, a devoted keeper at Cap Sigli, and the other records Sedira entering an old lighthouse and walking up its steep spiral staircase. She counts out loud the 117 steps as she ascends, and pauses occasionally to catch her breath. It’s as if, in making her way up the stairs that so many keepers have trodden before her, Sedira is recovering some aspect of her own past, re-enacting an ordinary yet historic task as a means of reclaiming a cultural identity. In this same short film, the camera scans logbook entries from 1961 and 1962, at the time of Algeria’s fight for and achievement of independence from France. The break with the colonial past is neatly encapsulated by the handwritten surnames of the lighthouse keepers, which make a decided switch from European to Algerian.

The second multidisciplinary work on view, Transmettre en abyme, is more curious but less compelling. In a somewhat indexical way, it communicates the obsessive photographic record of ships arriving and departing from the port of Marseille, made over a period of 60 years by a “shipspotter” named Marcel Baudelaire. The work traces a particular maritime history, but with little of the drama and romance found in Lighthouse in the Sea of Time.

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