In 1909, Paweł Sekula sailed third class to New York aboard the Kronprinzessin Cecilie, built by Poles at the shipyards in Szczecin. His ‘fully assimilated grandson’ Allan Sekula is based in Los Angeles with a professorship at CalArts. Perhaps this detail of the Sekula clan’s migration forms the basis for the artist’s well known book Fish Story, 2003, in which the artist portrays prosperity and poverty in major port cities, and the subsequent video work ‘The Lottery of the Sea’, 2006, included at the rear end of his exhibition parcour in Zacheta.
Upon entering, the viewer encounters the artist’s most recent photographic commission, which investigates Polish–American relationships on a macro (military and economic) and micro (private) level. The exhibition takes its title from Sekula’s series ‘Polonia and Other Fables’, 2007–2009, a work which consists of 10 archival inkjet prints and 30 chromogenic prints, a text booklet and wall-mounted quotations. The installation adds another chapter to Sekula’s distinct process of combining narrative (text and/or voice) and image.
Next to a photograph of a CIA black site in Poland, where prisoners from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were illegally transferred to states outside U.S. jurisdiction, Sekula has mounted the quote ‘Poland is the 51st state… Americans have no idea’. This remark is attributed to an unidentified CIA agent in communication with the former director of a CIA clandestine service, and has been taken by Sekula from an article in the New York Times. The ensemble of photograph and text is displayed next to an image of a mother and child waving American and Polish flags at the ‘Taste of Polonia’ festival in Chicago, and an aerial view of a pig farm owned by the American multinational Smithfield Foods—located on site of a former collective farm in Wieckowice, Poland. Smithfields, whose operations in Mexico have been linked to the outbreak of swine flu, is also being blamed for environmental poisoning in Poland.
Adopting codes of realist documentary, Sekula has developed a powerful language that articulates geopolitical concerns and combines them with an acute sensibility of the world’s power structures. In parallel to his photographic essays he has made frequent use of slide projections. ‘Walking on Water’ (1990–1995), exhibited here, confronts the viewer with imagery ranging from the PEWEX hard currency shop in Warsaw, a female worker sorting rags for painting crews in a Gdansk shipyard during the rise of Solidarity, to a young man displaying cola bottles while glancing at a bra seller’s stall. It is the affinity between Poles and the American lifestyle that Sekula indicates, attempting to find visual proofs that, as the artist states in a prologue to the work, Poles ‘love the United States with more avidity and awe than many Americans’.
Hal Foster critically pointed out in his essay ‘The Artist as Ethnographer’ (in The Return of the Real, 1996) ‘Sekula is as reflexive as any new anthropologist about the hubris of this ethnographic project’. And certainly in contrast to filmmakers like Harun Farocki or Peter Nestler, Sekula uses a particular methodology to form commentary on his visual essays. We always hear him talking and quoting, rarely his subjects speak to the viewer directly.
In the adjacent gallery space the curators display ‘Untitled Slide Sequence, 17 February 1972’, a series of black and white slides depicting the end of the day shift at General Dynamics Convair Division aerospace factory in San Diego.
At centre stage of the exhibition is Sekula’s installation ‘Aerospace Folktales’, 1973, which features potted palms, red director’s chairs, CD recordings and black and white photographs. Here the artist continues to document blue-collar workers through the story of his father who also served in the military and aeronautical industry. In these pieces, like in his later critical examination of the politics of education in ‘School Is a Factory’, 1978-1980, Sekula tells the ‘fables’ of proletarian realism. Alexander Kluge once used this term in a reader that accompanied the filmmaker’s 1988 New York retrospective, saying that ‘documentation provides a unique opportunity to concoct fables’ and that ‘in and of itself, the documentary is no more realistic than the feature film’. Being aware of the limitations the genre conducts, the frequent employment of autobiographic details serves to Sekula’s credit. One may question whether we make more convincing descriptions of the world when we expose our privacy, rather then removing it from the work. Sekula positions himself between the suspiciously straightforward photographic image and the evocative space opened by his narrative.
Tobi Maier is a curator and critic based in New York