Zineb Sedira and Latifa Echakhch Edit Memories for a Joint Exhibition in Basel

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The half-life of a memory is frustrating. Precious details—the smell of a lover, the sound of a laugh—degrade. You can embrace its impermanence or chase its ghost. But memory is an unreliable assemblage, and there is no omniscient authority to seal the cracks. Now raise the stakes: tell the story of a country, when its details are pockmarked by time and vulnerable to perspective. Is it an impossible exercise? It’s where the art of Zineb Sedira and Latifa Echakhch begins.

In “For a Brief Moment […] Several Times,” a collaborative exhibition on view at the Kunsthaus Baselland, the two artists play cartographer, charting their respective paths through personal and collective dramas. It’s a tactile experience for the viewer: A plush wool carpet is spread on the gallery floor. A spatial installation in the form of a living room invites the viewer to take a seat.

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It’s easier that way to dwell on the ephemera tacked to the walls. There are vinyl records, postcards, empty cigarette packets, concert tickets—innocuous objects charged with significance by the presence of two wine glasses. Echakhch, a Moroccan-born installation artist, said they’re remnants of a love story ended.  Zineb, an artist of Algerian descent raised in France, created the 16 mm film projected on the far wall. It plays a short, stuttered sequence of images drawn from the Algeria independence movement.

It’s the first collaboration between the longtime friends and colleagues, who are both featured in this year’s Venice Biennale—Sedira is representing France, and Echakhch is representing Switzerland. It’s tempting to frame “For a Brief Moment […] Several Times” as a coda to the national presentations, but as its curator, Ines Goldbach points out, it’s just a continuation of career-long inquires.

Zineb, who became the first artist of Algerian descent to represent France in Venice, was born in 1963, one year after Algeria ended more than a century of French occupation. Her films and photography blend documentary, fantasy, and autobiography to capture the complexity of postcolonial identities. In Venice she presented “Dreams Have No Titles,” a 25-minute film of clips produced in Algeria’s postwar era mixed, in a meta move, with documentation of her artistic process. She often makes cinematic spatial installations to accompany her films, and the French Pavilion includes a recreation of the Cinéma Jean Vigo, her regular haunt as a teenager in the Paris suburb of Gennevilliers.

Echakhch, an installation artist, approached her pavilion like an aspiring musician: she took singing and piano lessons, and immersed herself in sound theory. Percussionist and composer Alexandre Babel and curator Francesco Stocch, an authority in experimental music (and one-time DJ of dubstep), were brought on as collaborators. The result was a red dream: visitors wander in a labyrinth of humanoid sculptures. The Swiss Pavilion is dim and cast in a fiery palette of orange, black, and amber, reminiscent of ancient rituals honoring the cycle of life. The musical score plunges and spikes before settling for several heartbeats.

To learn more about the show, ARTnews spoke with Ines Goldbach, the exhibition’s curator, over email.

ARTnews: What was the process like curating a collaborative exhibition?

Ines Goldbach: It was very appealing to me to think about a project with the artists, who both have a multicultural background, and each represent a national pavilion in Venice. Instead of thinking about what separates them, thinking of what might be common, knowing full well that both artists have known and appreciated each other and their respective work for a long time. The development of a unifying artistic language within the framework of an exhibition has been a great gift.

And of course, it was also a challenge for the artists, only a short time after Venice, to create a collaborative work in the large annex of Kunsthaus Baselland—over 40 meters [130 feet] long—that gives both the space they need and also shows what unites them.

How, if at all, is this exhibition in dialogue with the artists’ respective presentations in Venice?

The connecting moment, in my eyes, is the form of memory and memory work. While Latifa’s very intimate work recalls a particular month in her life—a month of falling in love, in which fragments emerge, others fade, in which memories are reassembled, edited, and remixed—in Zineb Sedira’s work it is a look back at a time in Algeria, the country of her parents, in the 1960s. A time in which the country stood for a high degree of creativity, awakening, energy, and cosmopolitanism, and in 1962 had won its independence. The personal connects with the collective, the present with that which can only be experienced from archives; but what remains is the fragmentary nature of a memory, a reckoning, a narration. Archives, too, only reproduce what is present and not what is absent.

How do Sedira’s and Echakhch’s practices complement and contrast one another?

Film and music are two central moments in the work of Zineb and Latifa—forms that can bring us emotionally into a certain state. When I think of Latifa’s contribution in Venice, it’s this question of the reverberation, the lingering of an experience, a music, a concert, a feeling. What remains in me when the experience is over? It’s similar with movies—we can’t remember everything, we can only remember question segments, but we can also remember feelings that a movie has triggered, for example.

Our memory plays tricks on us—it is not a CD that we can simply recall, but we have to try again and again to reconstruct the fragments into a whole. This is also the theme of both artists: Memories, personal and collective, are incomplete; Zineb found much of her narration of a country not in archives, but also at flea markets. What is missing from archives, what has been cut out of films in order to achieve a different narration? And with Latifa: what in a memory comes into the light, what remains in the dark? One experiences this very impressively in both works.

Can you expand on the importance of the tactile elements of the exhibition?

The carpet by Latifa is first of all a measure that corresponds to her own body measure. It also immediately conveys the association, the warm, warming invitation; together with what was said before and looking at the objects—LPs, running shoes taken off, glasses, concert ribbons etc. The association of sitting together on a carpet, talking, listening to music, spending time, comes over you very quickly. A visual invitation to share the memory and at the same time awaken your own.

In Zineb’s case, the tea carpet is part of her living room, which she has moved to the exhibition—also a gesture of invitation, of settling down, browsing, and reading books, and thus acquiring and sharing knowledge. Here, too, I see an important connection in the artistic attitude of both artists: to extend an invitation to the other, to become a participant in a situation and thus a part of it.

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