Allan Sekula: Labor’s Persistence
New York CityMarian Goodman Gallery
June 27, 2019 – August 23, 2019
Inside Allan Sekula’s exhibition, Labor’s Persistence at Marian Goodman Gallery, the five major works were unified by the artist’s exploration of working-class labor and ideology through descriptive photographic and textual accounts intended to open political dialogue. The exhibition, Sekula’s largest on the East Coast to date, highlighted the artist’s practice of “critical realism” to document how advanced capitalism reshapes working conditions and renders human labor forgotten.
The exhibition opened in the North Gallery with This Ain't China: A Photonovel (1974), a detailed account of an attempt to unionize a pizza restaurant near San Diego. In the first image, a management diagram outlines the hierarchy of jobs in a restaurant. Two snapshots capture workers goofing off and gathering outside. The photographs and text contrast the working-class struggle of the cooks, including the artist, toiling behind the scenes against the performative nature of the restaurant, a reference to Bertolt Brecht’s critique of “culinary theatre,” which encourages the audience to feel, not think. The title and referents in the work extend the dialogue into the political and economic transformations of the 1970s, as Western interest in China’s economic transformation grew. The text ends with, “beware: a workers’ defeat has been converted into an artwork,” referencing how Sekula’s political and economic accounts originate from real situations, including his own labor and practice of resistance.
Dear Bill Gates (1999), on the next wall, includes a typewritten letter and triptych of Sekula treading water outside Gates’s lakefront mansion. In the open letter sent anonymously to Gates, the principle founder of Microsoft, Sekula references Gates’s $30 million acquisition of Winslow Homer’s Lost on the Grand Banks (1885), a painting of two lost dory fishermen. The work juxtaposes the idea of the sea as a space of drudgery and danger for fishermen, against a space of freedom and adventure. This clash of interests raises questions about what Gates’s own interest in Homer’s painting might be, especially as someone who helped standardize the personal computer for the masses. The poetic construction and appropriateness of Sekula’s gestures, from using a typewriter to sending the letter anonymously, opens readings of resistance.
Across the next wall are 25 black and white photographs of aerospace workers leaving their shift from General Dynamics Convair Division in San Diego. The linear sequence, made in 2011 from Sekula’s Untitled Slide Sequence (1972), reads as everyday snapshots. Sekula was thrown out of the site, while taking the photographs, for trespassing. The work is situated amongst color photographs from Fish Story (1989–1995), Freeway to China (1998–1999), TITANIC’s wake (1998-2000), and Europa (2011).
In the next room, Waiting for Tear Gas [white globe to black] (1999–2000) is a sequential slide projection of 81 photographs shown at 10-second intervals. Sekula shot the sequence during the 1999 anti-World Trade Organization protests in Seattle. He referred to the work as “anti-journalistic,” avoiding the perfect shot in favor of moving freely throughout the crowd to capture random snapshots. Reflecting on this position, as both artist and participant, an excerpt on the wall outside the projection room read: “the human body asserts itself in the city streets, against the abstraction of global capital.”
Dead Letter Office (1996–1997) concluded the exhibition in the South Gallery and explores the asymmetries of power as well as the living and working conditions between San Diego and Tijuana. In one work, photographs of a container factory in Tijuana are framed near photographs of the Twentieth Century Fox set for the film Titanic. This series was commissioned for inSite 1997, a unique biennial exhibited in various locations along the Tijuana-San Diego corridor. Sekula’s construct of regional inequalities questions the power dynamics across the two sites. In the context of the biennial, the work also asks who benefits from art events, where social need can be given artistic language and transformed into cultural capital.
Sekula’s social practice of photography and text demands our attention, not with illusion or false transcendence, but with its critical eye toward the transformation of labor under advanced capitalism and thoughtful juxtapositions of class struggle. The work investigates relationships within itself and the world it accounts for: the relationship between waged workers to global capitalism; the interplay of text and image to offer multiple readings; the shift between narrative and chance; the relationship of Sekula as writer, photographer, and social participant, to the wage labor he documents; our relationship, as viewers, to the works and political dialogue presented to us. Throughout his practice of resistance, Sekula’s essays, films and photographs have always inspired me to ask how does art function to renew or resist the dominant ideology.