Floating Coffins is a video and audio installation incorporating fourteen screens of different sizes. These are scattered along three walls in a darkened space, with a grid of four central screens that form a single image in the centre of the end wall. Speakers are suspended at differing heights throughout the gallery, with all the cabling left visible and with extra cables added for visual effect. The film shows different images of ships left to rot along the cost of Mauritania in North West Africa. Close ups and panoramic views of these damaged and abandoned ships flit across the screens producing a collage-like effect. The film extends Sedira’s collaboration with the Greek-born and London-based sound artist Mikhail Karikis (born 1975), whose sound piece is introduced as the four central screens collectively show the vast underbelly of one of the ships corroded with rust.
Floating Coffins is the last work in a trilogy which also includes Saphir 2006 and MiddleSea 2008 (both Kamel Mennour, Paris). It was commissioned by The New Art Exchange, Nottingham in 2009 and it was exhibited in Zineb Sedira: Current of Time at Iniva, London in 2009. The work was recorded on the coast of Mauritania, and specifically in the harbour of the city of Nouadhibou, a place that has recently become known as the point of exit for migrants hoping to reach the Canary Islands and, with this, a better life in Europe. This metropolis is also Mauritania’s economic capital and home to the world’s largest ship graveyard, with more than two hundred ships of various origins, sunken or still afloat. The number of ships has built up over time, as corrupt officials accept bribes from boat owners to allow them to abandon their vessels in the area. The ecological impact of this practice on the economy of a country which relies heavily on fishing and which is already threatened by over-exploitation is potentially catastrophic, as emphasised by the work’s title. Sedira has commented:
This unique phenomenon on the Saharan shores represents both a hazard to shipping and an ecological threat. Also, the sea becomes a space of decline and an inactive wasteland where lifeless ships and human bodies can be found when rejected by the sea. Like a fish net, the sand catches discarded goods displaced from their original home. Noxious waters and dying boats are vomiting intoxicated fishes and shattered objects. In this landscape, we can understand the scale of the ecological catastrophe in West Africa.
(Quoted in ‘Zineb Sedira: Floating Coffins, Saphir and MiddleSea’, http://www.thenewartexchange.org.uk/exhibitions/ExhibZinebSadera.php, accessed 1 October 2010.)
The bleak content of the work contrasts with the poetic cadence that the artist has imparted to the images and the hypnotic rhythm of the soundtrack, with its sound of water slowly corroding the decaying ships.
The other two films in the trilogy also emphasise the poetic dimension of the medium. In Saphir, the first work in the trilogy, Sedira depicts the city of Algiers, mapping the continuous migration from Algeria to France through a series of views of the art deco Hotel Es Safir and the Tariq Ibn Ziyad ferry, which travels between Algiers and Marseille. The camera draws attention to the particularities of the city, its colours, its textures, and the different rhythms generated by its inhabitants. In Middle Sea, the focus shifts to the sea, in this instance, the Mediterranean Sea. Through a series of slow motion shots, close ups and panoramic views, Sedira draws a compelling portrait of the Mediterranean as a historical and contemporary site for trade, migration and cultural exchange, but also as the divider between the South and the North.
Prior to 2003 Sedira’s work was largely concerned with themes of migration and identity, as in Mother Tongue 2002 (Tate T12315). Characterised by self-representation and autobiography, her practice was focused on her family’s experience of migrating from Algeria to France, her upbringing in Paris and her move to England in 1986. In 2003, Sedira returned to Algeria and this trip resulted in a series of video works that engage with the Algerian landscape. These works, and her later production, depart from the experimental and personal documentary approach of her earlier work by focusing more on composition and visual aesthetic, with an emphasis on soundtrack over dialogue.
Larne Abse Gogarty, ‘Zineb Sedira: Current of Time’, Art Monthly, no.328, July–August 2009, p.34.