The return as a work of the mind

Considerations on Zineb Sedira’s exhibition at the Jeu de Paume

October 2019

Jeu de Paume, Paris

The Return as a work of the mind, Considerations On the work of Zineb Sedira, in 'A Brief Moment' exhibition catalogue for solo-show Zineb Sedira, Jeu de Paume, Paris, 2019

The most paradigmatic text about return, the Homeric Odyssey represents a perpetually sought for, but constantly failed return. At the same time, Odysseus’ trajectories in space and time also concur with a movement from unconsciousness to consciousness, which leads, in his search for his place of origin, to the discovery of his inner self. His journeys emanate from his algia (Greek for “longing”) for nostos (Greek for “return home”).

Many different cities of many different people did he see, getting to know different ways of thinking [noos]. Many were the pains [algea] he suffered in his heart [thūmos] while crossing the sea struggling to merit [arnusthai] the saving of his own life [psūkhē] and his own homecoming [nostos] […]. (Odyssey, 1:3–51)

I was thinking of the Odyssey when I saw Zineb Sedira’s videos to be included in this exhibition, as most of them seem to reload a mythical dimension of travel, in the sense of a return to one’s own home – seen as a cultural centre which forms and defines identity.

Similarly to Odysseus, who experiences the seduction of the non-return home during his Mediterranean wanderings, in Zineb Sedira’s works the points of departure and arrival remain indeterminate, while the sea connects partially lost cultural centres of reference. The author herself draws intellectual pleasure from drifting between these references.

The etymology of the Latin prefix “trans” is what most closely defines the movement in her still and motion pictures: transfer of information, transmission, transportation, transformation. The prefix standing for “across”, “beyond”, “through”, ‘on the other side of’ implies a flow that changes the identity of the objects in the act of crossing. As we see in such works as Framing the View II (2006) and Lighthouse in the Sea of Time (2011), the action of “trans”-cending challenges the national delimitations: concrete trajectories of migrations of people, objects and stories, national frontiers remain ambiguous.


Objects as imbued with temporal depth

The narration in these works unfolds between landscape, objects and human presences, which are holders of value and are often connected to a temporality beyond the present. As they become representative and exemplary cultural signs we can think of a process of museification – history is introduced as a space for reflection. In Transmettre en abyme, Part I (2012) we are initiated into the story of Marcel Baudelaire, a Marseille photographer born around 1900 who worked obsessively during the 20th century in photographing boats entering and leaving the port of Marseille. The work is exploring the life of this character through the lens of an archivist who took over his photographic legacy. But Zineb Sedira’s visual framing of this photographic collection is far more than a documentary, as it unfolds a subtle algia. Especially in Transmettre en abyme, Part II we are met by personified boats with fantastic and exotic names – evoking the loss or the anticipation and the craving for distant places spread around the Mediterranean basin. The title of the work even suggests the unfolding of the plot to an unpredictable point.

The material objects that populate her works – whether it be architectures or artefacts – are not only caught in processes of fading away and dissolving, which reflect the ends of historical eras – be it the colonial time, “modernism” or the industrial world. At the same time they open up important questions regarding the persistence of this heritage into the future.

Objects and landscapes seem to unfold a powerful agency that materialises sites of cultural belonging. They function like vestiges that are not static, but embody value in transformation, accessible through a journey of discovery. In Lighthouse in the Sea of Time, the lighthouse marks an archetypal centre, while the lighthouse keeper – himself incarnating a disappearing occupation – is the keeper of a legacy. Part 3 ends with a “museum of traces”, where we are subtly introduced into a midpoint of Franco-Algerian history, a maritime point between two lands with its memory of displacement, trauma and fusions. We notice that the fossilised objects included in this museum are of colonial French origin, but are at the same time appropriated and re-connoted by the lively presence of the Algerian lighthouse keeper.

The End of the Road (2010) puts forward the idea of a vehicle and its connecting themes of recycling of resources and environmental awareness. Here cars are fossils of technology and speak about mediation in space but also in time: what is coming after the end of the car?2 Maybe a new ecology? Beside commenting about the end of the technological era the work seems also to say that technology is not a goal in itself, but a medium. A subtle “algia” infiltrates this work too, in which the car becomes a symbol of mediation and ‘the end of the road’ mourns the disappearance of a heritage and the memory of everything it came with. Svetlana Boym comments on the connections between technology and nostalgia, particularly with regard to the 19th century: “Yet fundamentally both nostalgia and technology are about mediation. As a disease of displacement (home sickness), nostalgia was connected to passage, transits and means of communication. Nostalgia – like memory – depends on mnemonic devices. In the 19th century it was believed that the new technology of transportation to home could cure nostalgia. Instead nostalgia accompanied every new stage of modernization, taking on different genres and forms, playing tricks with timetables.”3

Similarly, in the series of photographs Framing the View (2006), the viewer is situated on an edge, while the point of departure becomes a point of no return and the sea forces them into the unknown. Nevertheless, the image brings with it the idea of history unfolded to the point of self-consumption – to the point almost that there is no trace left of what were probably strategic quarters built by the French in the colonial era. The ruined “here and now” functions as a capsule of information that transits time and needs to be transported “beyond” the present in order to persist and unfold fully its significance. The colonial history of appropriations of territory, objects, cultural, social and political identity happening in the maritime exchanges around the Mediterranean is not only evoked, but also re-enacted anew with every video and still image. The artist herself introduces the idea of the return in revisiting these places. She is evoking the Algerian descendants’ or Algerian French people’s “coming back” after decades to their former homes. Although objects, documents and ruins seem static, the work reveals the larger movements they are connected to: routes of migration, mobility, escape.

Objects are collected and recycled, persistently raising the questions: what is the future of the information they present? How can this legacy be recycled and re-signified for the needs of the present? This also becomes clear through the fact that usually history is passed over orally, while personal memory and the agency of subjectivity play an essential role in the constitution of collective memory.


Intangible heritage

In Sociology Beyond Societies: Mobilities for the Twenty-First Century, John Urry recalls that the anthropologist George Herbert Mead was the first to regard the past as a reconstruction of the present. Each moment of the past is recreated afresh into the present. So there is no past “out there” or rather “back there”. There is only the present in the context of which the past is constantly recreated.4

Mead writes also about time and how the emergence of the past into the present creates sense in the present and traces a direction: “This emergence stems from the interaction between people and the environment.”5 In the works of Zineb Sedira, these intersecting circumstances between characters and their environment (Baudelaire and his images taken in the port of Marseille, the lighthouse keeper in his living space) seem to function like information capsules that perform heritage.

It is again John Urry6 who stresses the connection between heritage and identity: “Heritage has an identity conferring status.” Like history, the concept of “identity” creates not only belonging but also continuity and it has a major role in remembering the Past.

In Zineb Sedira’s work we are met with various destinies that are connected to different moments of re-enactment of heritage. Heritage is not manifested solely by a set of material objects, but emerges especially through the way the individual experiences heritage. In fact, in her work heritage seems to be the experience itself. “There is, really, no such thing as heritage. Heritage is therefore ultimately a cultural practice, involved in the construction and regulation of a range of values and understandings.”7

In Uses of Heritage, Laurajane Smith regards heritage, in the tradition of Mead, as a cultural process that engages not primarily with objects but with acts of remembering, that create ways to understand and engage with the present. Heritage is doing something that creates the present. She does not regard heritage as information that belongs to a certain moment “frozen in time, as the conservation ethic tends to demand, but rather a process that while it passed on values and meanings was also creating new meanings and values”.8

For Laurajane Smith the act of visiting sites (places, locations) is a cultural tool that facilitates this process of enactment of heritage. As revealed in the interview quoted below, Zineb Sedira describes how even places that are not part of her biography and that she discovers in the present, can turn into places of her personal heritage by her artistic act of re-appropriation and re-signification.

In this sense, in her work she recognises the subjectivity of heritage – offering a counterpoint to the historic objectification of heritage, tightly connected to the colonial abuses that defined heritage in terms of a predefined “patrimony” that could be easily distorted and appropriated.

If heritage is a mentality, a way of knowing and seeing, then all heritage

becomes, in a sense, “intangible”.9


* * *


In the following fragment of a discussion that we had in May 2019, Zineb Sedira gets deeper into her approach to heritage:


Archives are part of my heritage, our cultural heritage. We have inherited historical documents so we can explore and further research them – which can be a way to help us make sense of the past and the present. But this does not mean that we cannot question or disallow the memories attached to it. This type of cultural heritage does not represent the sole truth and the ethos behind it has to be recognised and probed. Who collected it? Why? Where is this information stored? Is it accessible? I am thinking for example of official archives in Algeria, which were set up as institutions of power (and control) to legitimise the state.

Using these types of archives can generate a critical approach to history, especially in the context of an authoritarian regime or for example in France, where particular historical accounts are rendered invisible especially around its colonial past.

As an artist, I found interesting the tension between individual memory, the problematic construction of “collective memory” and historical memories. Using and questioning what we inherited, is in itself a political act.

I often use archival material (whether French, Algerian or British) because they are legacies I am entitled to. It is my prerogative to create counteracting or alternative stories – to “hijack” the official histories – and to generate a personal narrative: “A story told with differences”. The artwork (with the hereditary archive) will become another archive, a customised heritage thus creating a mise en abyme. Places, oral stories, encounters explored in my artwork are part of my legacy; they become part of my identity.


The understanding of heritage that emerges in the works of Zineb Sedira – and especially her take on landscape – is close to Salvatore Settis’s vision of heritage, developed around 2004. The art historian, who was against the “museification” of heritage, insists that cultural heritage’s main role is the safeguarding of “the soul of the place” – an invisible character that historic places and circumstances possess and that should be seen also in relation to its surroundings, to landscape.10

For him landscape should be regarded as a carrier of collective values that reveals collective and individual memory and is tightly connected to historic and artistic heritage. Settis was advocating that in order for landscape not to turn into a capital for investment, we should conceive of heritage as a collective civic responsibility and deduce its social role from that.

His conception of heritage recalls mid-nineteenth century nostalgia connected to the spread of provincial museums and urban memorials and which gave rise to a debate between the defenders of complete restorations of monuments of the past and the lovers of the unintentional memorial of the past: ruins, eclectic constructions that were “guarding” the spirit of the past. The intention here was to experience historicity affectively, as an atmosphere, a space for reflection on the passage of time11.

Similarly, Zineb Sedira introduces us to heritage – landscape or built heritage – through a “spirit”/a soul that is constantly changing and closely connected with the human.


Nostalgia as a cultural act

Returning to the journey of Odysseus evoked at the beginning of this essay and its two defining notions that seem to circumscribe the works of Zineb Sedira – nostos (“return home”) and algia (“longing”) – we discover that they are at the origin of the fundamental concept: nostalgia. Nostalgia is usually linked to a dimension of mourning and a turning to the past. I have nevertheless tried to show that in Zineb Sedira’s work the longing for a return home – understood as a collective and personal heritage – is envisioned as directed at the future. Unlike melancholia, which is a manifestation of individual affectivity, nostalgia is about the relationship between individual biography and the biography of groups and nations, between personal and collective memory and a concern for becoming (of what becomes the past), which is very present in Sedira’s works. Time slowed down, the objects in Transmettre en abyme, Parts I and II, The End of the Road and Don’t Do to Her What You Did to Me (1998–2001) and the landscapes in Lighthouse in the Sea of Time, Parts I, II and III and Framing the View express a longing not for the past, but for its future, for the becoming of the past.

In fact, the idea of nostalgia being linked to the future had already emerged in the discipline of psychology in the mid 20th century. It was Mike Nawas12 who was the first to link the suffering caused by migration to nostalgia. He recalls that nostalgia is a response to change (historic or social change) and represents a symbolic return to those features of the past that have been perceived as having gratification value. As nostalgia is at the same time a tool for defining identity, it includes not only the dimensions of past and present, but also that of an anticipated change. Nawas regards nostalgia as a confrontation not so much with the past, but rather as a concern for the future and the “being in becoming” that it implies.13

In her cultural history of nostalgia, Svetlana Boym calls nostalgia “a rebellion against the modern idea of time, the time of history and progress. The nostalgic desires to obliterate history and turn it into private or collective mythology, to revisit time like space, refusing to surrender to the irreversibility of time that plagues the human condition. . . . Somehow progress didn’t cure nostalgia but exacerbated it. Similarly globalisation encouraged stronger local attachments.”14

This prospective character of the connection between nostalgia and travel is evident in works such as Transmettre en abyme, as well as in the new work commissioned by the Jeu de Paume for this exhibition dedicated to the pan-African festival of Algiers. As in the myth of Odysseus, travel is mostly an inward travel of the artist searching and questioning for the sources of her identity.

“Modern nostalgia is a mourning for the impossibility of mythical return, for the loss of an enchanted world with clear borders and values; it could be a secular expression for a spiritual longing, a nostalgia for an absolute, a home that is both physical and spiritual, the edenic unity of time and space before entry into history. The nostalgic is looking for a spiritual address. . . . It would, however, be dangerous to fall into the nostalgic idealisation of pre-modern conceptions of space. . . . What is crucial is that nostalgia was not merely an expression of local longing, but a result of a new understanding of time and space that made the division into ‘local’ and ‘universal’ possible.”15


Appropriation as preservation and creation

As Zineb Sedira explains, the appropriation of places and objects that appear in her videos is for her an artistic adventure:


I am looking for alternatives way of working with the archive than the usual studies in museums and libraries of a researcher/academic. I use two-dimensional documents, oral histories, landscape imageries, and I alter them into three-dimensional visual narratives. They become installations that are displayed in a contemporary art context. The archives, the seascapes, the landscapes are therefore displaced. They become accessible in private or state funded contemporary art venues.

Apart from moving images records, the archives we mostly have access to are often written or photographic documents. Although they are two-dimensional media, they are not fixed entities. In that sense it is important to transcend them and challenge the “fetishisation” often placed on them. I do that by creating new objects or by creating three-dimensional archives (or moving images). These documents are there to be examined, displaced, re-appropriated and rewritten in any way the artist who works with them finds appropriate. I would like to think that in some years, when scholars or artists will research the 1969 Pan-African Festival of Algiers, they will come across my work (of 2019) and consult it alongside the original documents (from 1969) available in libraries or other venues. However, I am hoping the new work that I realised will be an innovative creative archive with a strong emphasis on personal and political aspects. Personalising or using autobiographical strategies reinforces the personal voice versus the ‘official’ state archive.

Hopefully my work will be relevant to the study of the Pan-African Festival of Algiers by offering an alternative source.


* * *


While joining Zineb Sedira on her long travels, a sort of infinite time of the still and moving image unfolds. It enables the viewer to free himself from immediate images, to resist given images. We could say it is the time of cinema, the time of history with its plural narratives, but most of all it is the time of an emancipatory slow thinking, which has the power of returning to the inner self.

1 G. Nagy, “Hour 9. The Return of Odysseus in the Homeric Odyssey: The meaning of nostos”, in ibid., [].

2 See here After the Car (Cambridge, Polity Press, 2009) by Kingsley Dennis and John Urry dealing with technology, movement and economics in the global world in a future perspective.

3 Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia, New York, Basic Books, 2002, p. 346.

4 John Urry, Sociology Beyond Societies: Mobilities for the Twenty-First Century, London, Routledge, 2000, p. 115.

5 Ibid.

6 John Urry, “How Societies Remember the Past”, Sociological Review, vol. 43, no. S1, May 1995, p. 61.

7 Laurajane Smith, Uses of Heritage, London, Routledge, 2006, p. 11.

8 Ibid., p. 48.

9 Ibid., p. 54.

10 Salvadore Settis in dialogue with Antonio Guerreiro, “The Besieged City”, Electra Magazin, no. 2, June 2018, p. 146.

11 Ibid., p. 151.

12 M. Mike Nawas and Jerome J. Platt, “A Future-Oriented Theory of Nostalgia”, Journal of Individual Psychology, vol. 21, no. 1, 1965, p. 51–57 [online under: https://pdfs.semanticscho].

13 Ibid., p. 55.

14 S. Boym, op. cit., p. XV.

15 S. Boym, op. cit., p. 11.