Art Out: Allan Sekula's Labor's Persistence
Republican boat ride, San Diego from "Dead Letter Office"; "Free speech area" outside the Republican convention, San Diego from "Dead Letter Office", 1996- 1997 [Recorrido en barco de republicanos, San Diego; “Zona de la Libertad de Palabra” frente a la convención repulicana, San Diego.] Diptych; cibachrome prints Frame: 27 1/2 x 38 1/4 x 2 1/2 in. (69.8 x 97.2 x 6.3 cm) (each) (22689)
By Kala Herh
It has been said that photographs are worth a thousand words. This ability to convey a feeling, perspective, or narrative with visuals cues are foregrounded in every exhibition. Allan Sekula is challenging this notion. Rather, he pushes for the alternative where “photography is worth a thousand questions.” Through the intricate merger between images and text, he fosters a dialectical experience that encourages viewers to question their preconceived ideas about art, about seas, and most of all, about labor.
Marian Goodman Gallery, following their debut London exhibition, presents Labor’s Persistence that showcases the most extensive collection of Allan Sekula’s photographs on the East Coast. From his works from Untitled Slide Sequence (1972) to Europa (2011): this exhibition surveys Sekula’s exploration in the often-overlooked work and commerce fields. Best known for his works examining the macrocosm that is the high seas, the brunt of the artist’s compelling, salient images address the debilitating workforce.
Grounded in theories of marxism, Labor’s Persistence encapsulates Sekula’s disavowal of our commodity-oriented culture. His images capture the rarely stable, rarely sound lives of laborers and an overwhelming sense of hegemonic disregard for blue-collar agencies. With the maritime world undergoing a series of rapid changes with the introduction of modern technologies — everything from increasing the assembly line times in half to mounting cranes on ships— Sekula’s images illustrate this destructive metamorphosis. Tuna cannery depicting battered laborers in particular feel like a pointed commentary on the increasing global trade and the respective outsourcing of jobs that is the by-product. Here, the images of fatigued workers transgress the landscapes they endure. The testament of Sekula’s artistry lies in the unwavering candor that he exudes.
Sekula builds upon this new way of seeing our environment — extending it beyond the single frame and into multiple images. In a three-photo foldout, Dear Bill Gates (1999), Sekula debuts possibly the most iconic selfie of the time (mind you this was a different age, a pre-Kylie Jenner era) outside Gates’s Seattle home. Treading the cold waters in front of the Microsoft founder’s lakeside mansion, his work oozes a hesitancy, one rooted in resistance. Resistance to new paradigms that threaten to overthrow what used to be traditional face-to-face communication.
And in a final, characteristic touch, Sekula welds the image to a letter to the cyber giant. The conscious marriage of images to words transcends the page and intensifies his narrative; the text teaches us how to interpret the image while the image instructs us how to read the text. The process raises questions about how we read, how we see, and specifically the role of photographers in this process.
Sekula’s images, the likes of Dear Bill Gates, underscore the medium’s distinctive feature for the artist: their limitations. Sekula argues against its pretenses to be definite, documentary truth and revels the medium’s contextual, dialogic character: “Documentary photography has amassed mountains of evidence. But, the genre has simultaneously contributed much to spectacle, […] and only a little to the critical understanding of the social world.”
Sekula utilized art as a social and literary practice, one that was answerable to the world and its problems. The exhibition reflects this sentiment as it is poignant, emotive, yet effuses an innate sense of humanism. So the question that remains is, how can emerging artists contribute to the resining social order in the face of turmoil? Perhaps, it is to reside in the uncomfortable and think a little more sekularly.
Labor’s Persistence is on display at the Marian Goodman Gallery until August 23.
Lobbyist’s son at the Republican convention, San Diego; Scavenger at work during the Republican convention, San Diego from “Dead Letter Office”, 1996-1997 [ Hijo de un defensor republicano durante la convención, San Diego; Basurero durante la convención republicana.] Diptych; cibachrome prints Frame: 27 1/2 x 38 1/4 x 2 in. (69.8 x 97.2 x 5.1 cm) (each) (22688)