Zineb Sedira: Dreams Have No Titles | Whitechapel Gallery

Zineb Sedira loves going to the cinema, and watching films has been important to her throughout her life. Not exactly a jawdropping premise for a large monograph exhibition in a public gallery. But it’s been gorgeously and thought-provokingly staged all the same - at Whitechapel this spring, after making a splash at the Venice Biennale in 2022.

The show is based around film sets: full-size recreations, surrounded by klieg lights, boxes of set dressing, and, on the periphery, wooden tip-up cinema seats. The best one greets us as we enter the exhibition: a bar set, featuring a include a live tango performance - a re-enactment of a scene from Ettore Scala’s 1983 drama Le Bal.

Zineb Sedira ‘Dreams Have No Titles’ (installation view)

All of the sets - with one exception - are reproductions of those from films made in the 60s, 70s and 80s. They’re mainly co-productions between Algeria, France and Italy. A telling choice, considering it was Algerian independence in 1962 that set in chain the series of events which led Sedira - Paris-born, of Algerian descent - to live in Brixton and make art. Her comfy, kitschy living room is the last set of the show, suggesting that true liberation begins at home, and comes from within.

If she’d left it at the film sets, I’d have left the show buzzing from the experience. Instead, with her living room, Sedira tips from showing into telling. On the TV in the corner of the living room, visitors are encouraged to listen in on a boring, rambling conversation between the artist Sonia Boyce and someone from the gallery, talking about squatting in London in the 80s. We’re a long way from that elegant tango, or the mortuary scene (from 1967’s The Stranger) or the wall of rolls of film (from 1973’s F for Fake) in the previous rooms.

After the living room, we’re taken into a cinema space, where we watch a longer film, which lends the show its name, in which Sedira makes quite clear that these films form the story of her life. That she is a cinephile. That the movies the sets are from made an impact on her. That she enjoys hanging out at home with friends in the living room we have just seen. And, finally, that she loves to dance. And?

The lack of show notes beyond bare descriptions of which film each set is from, which I’d previously seen as tantalising and daring, now seemed like a miss. We are meant to watch Sedira’s movie, comfortably seated in our tip-up seats, and be told the meaning of what we’ve seen in the rooms we’ve just visited.

I appreciate the craft of the immersive sets, based on international co-productions, touching on radical politics - all that connection across people, places and things. I also think that this late focusing of the show around the artist’s own experience seems kind of like a power grab. Our liberty of interpretation is compromised. We watch Sedira dance as the credits roll, held still in our seats.

Zineb Sedira: Dreams Have No Titles is at Whitechapel Gallery (London). 15 February - 12 May 2024