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Issue 78 October 2003 RSS

Allan Sekula

Generali Foundation, Vienna, Austria

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As an art student around 1970 Allan Sekula realized that numerous American photographers of the early 20th century had escaped his notice. In the postwar period the socio-critical work of Lewis Hine or Dorothea Lange, some of which was state-commissioned during the New Deal, was sidelined with lasting effect as part of an equally state-sponsored campaign of anti-communism. Sekula identified a process of canonization that gave preference to, for example, Paul Strand’s images of the Modernist sublime from the same period. This process seemed guided not by criteria of quality but by the dictates of cultural policy, and, according to Sekula, the Museum of Modern Art played no small part in it.

For Sekula this and similar insights were a revelation, causing him to abandon his previous artistic approaches in favour of photography. The quasi-retrospective at the Generali Foundation tracks this development. In Gallery Voice Montage (1970) Sekula was still playing on painting issues such as monochromism and seriality: the two white canvases hung side by side turn out to conceal a pair of loudspeakers over which secretly recorded comments by visitors to the gallery are played back. Soon after this, Sekula made his pictures speak in other ways. He began by documenting actions of his own: stealing steaks and throwing them on to the motorway as a pun on consumerism in Meat Mass (1972). A job at a restaurant lead to his critique of exploitation in This Ain’t China: A Photonovel (1974), while his work as an art lecturer spawned School is a Factory (1978-80), where education is exposed as a joyless holding facility, its social promises mere camouflage. When advances in productivity are planned, the losers are always already part of the equation.

To avoid the pictorialism of early documentary photography Sekula explores various sequencing techniques. In Untitled Slide Sequence (1972) workers leaving their workplace are shown as a succession of movie frames, while Portraits of Salespeople (1973) is an experiment with the ‘sociological’ frontality of August Sander. Since Aerospace Folktales (1973) Sekula has made increasing use of text. This story was supplied by his own family: his father had lost his job in the arms industry due to post-Vietnam redundancies. Until this point his social ambitions had been more or less fulfilled, but even during his unemployment he clung unwaveringly to his neo-liberal ideas and petty bourgeois sense of guilt. It becomes apparent that for Sekula political radicalization and the creation of a multi-faceted narrative are not mutually exclusive, but interdependent.

This piece saw Sekula revealing his own biography to an unusual degree. His sympathies, however, lay less with those who revelled in feelings of individual guilt than with those who had at least the remnants of a pronounced political will. Freeway to China (1998-9) documents the upheavals in ports following the introduction of containers and factory ships. Sticking to the theme of the transportation industry, the high seas have almost become a leitmotif in Sekula’s work since the 1980s: globalization not only affects the flow of capital, but also potentially facilitates solidarity between workers in the ports of Liverpool, Los Angeles and Sydney.

Such descriptions may suggest that Sekula’s work primarily involves well-meaning documentation of injustice. One way to appreciate the fact that a more complex story is being told is to sit down and read the information material provided, a pleasure that is only slightly dampened by the clumsily themed seating arrangements, like the camp bed in front of War Without Bodies (1991-6). In this series Sekula refers to the ideology of a supposedly ‘clean’, remote-control, disembodied warfare launched during the first Gulf War of 1991. The photographs present a contrasting picture: visitors at a military show stick their fingers down the muzzle of a multi-barrel artillery gun with almost erotic delight. One of the accompanying texts tells the story of the USS Iowa, whose gun turret exploded in 1989. Although it was caused by ageing equipment, the public was sold a story of homosexual vengeance - which was about as accurate as describing the film Battleship Potemkin (1925) as a piece of homophobic pulp fiction.

Manfred Hermes

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First published in
Issue 78, October 2003

by Manfred Hermes

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