‘Photography, A Wonderfully Inadequate Medium’ presents an extensive exhibition by the late American artist and writer Allan Sekula (1951-2013). While the title aims to highlight the medium’s aporias, the show extends across photography, performance, text, and video, contrasting photography’s material mediations with its claim to realism.
To the left of the entrance, a monitor screens ‘Talk Given By Fred Lux’ (1972). Here, Sekula dons a plastic mask to reenact a speech by the manager of the Lux Clock Company, demanding employees reject unionisation. Footage is interrupted by images of factory workers clocking off, and quotations of Marx and Debord. Another video, ‘Reagan Tape’ (1981), echoes this agitative quality, montaging footage of Reagan’s inauguration with excerpts from the president’s past Hollywood career.
Five framed works collectively titled ‘California Stories’ hang nearby. In each, a sequence of photographs unevenly punctuates broad white mounts, like film stills strewn across storyboards. Described by Sekula as ‘dissembled movies’, these photo-essays stand in explicit opposition to the conventions of Hollywood cinema. One work, ‘Vietnamese Village’ (1975/2011), travels to a dusty roadside location used for US military exercises; images of this site return in ‘Cliffhanger’ (1975), this time alongside an alternative constellation of images and a short typed screenplay that details a fictional confrontation between Sekula, Martha Rosler and the police.
The inclusion of these, and other early works, provides a necessary corrective to the casual classification of Sekula’s corpus as straightforward ‘documentary practice’. The exhibition booklet further disrupts such characterisation. Sekula’s project is framed as one that not only avoids crude naturalistic claims for the objectivity of the documentary image, but one that also seeks to resist the overblown reduction of images to ‘simulacra’, shorn of any indexical quality.
Instead, Sekula’s work reveals the inherently social quality of the documentary image, as that which is not objective, but nonetheless critically realistic. This is most directly articulated in ‘Fish Story’, Sekula’s best-known project. Between 1989-95, Sekula travelled the ‘forgotten space’ of oceanic trade, documenting commodity distribution across container ports: labour at a post-Soviet moment when some proclaimed the advent of a ‘weightless world.’
While such themes are revisited in Sekula’s meandering three-hour film essay ‘The Lottery of the Sea’ (2006), ‘Fish Story’ is exemplary in that it follows no singular classificatory mode; instead, the itinerant subject matter is embodied by the work’s distribution across multiple documentary forms: as a book, photo-essays, and slideshows.
Versions of three chapters are exhibited here. Upstairs in ‘Dismal Science’ (1989/92), an automated slide carousel metes out images of British industrial ports, shipping-container-by-shipping-container. Downstairs, the photographic series ‘Loaves and Fishes’ (1993) is scattered across the wall: a man welds in Potsdam; a Baltic factory lies derelict. As the effects of global trade are exposed on a local or bodily scale, some scenes feel intimate, contemplative; others feel colder, more distant. While each discrete image encapsulates a microcosm of global capitalistic relations, the work resists reduction to an exercise in cognitive mapping. Instead, the images’ disjuncture highlights their partiality, their ostensible disconnection projecting the further unseen reach of global supply chains.
Curator Marie Muracciole’s astute decision to avoid framing the exhibition within the language of the ‘retrospective’ circumnavigates totalising or exhaustive claims. As ‘Fish Story’ only describes part of the global shipping industry, so these three chapters only represent part of the whole. While these depictions are inevitably partial and inadequate, they not only chart the contours of global capital, but together outline a critical practice of comprehending and resisting this violence.