Allan Sekula: Okeanos at TBA21–Augarten is a monographic exhibition exploring the legacy of Allan Sekula (United States, 1951–2013). Drawing from the Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary (TBA21) collection, the exhibition is charting the artist’s research into and investigation of the oceans, which make up most of our increasingly fragile hydrosphere. Okeanos is developed in collaboration with Fundació Antoni Tàpies in Barcelona, Spain.
Allan Sekula grew up in the port town of San Pedro, California and since the 1970 his artistic and theoretical work critically and passionately investigated the exploitative geopolitical configurations and labor relations active on our seas and in the super ports that almost invisibly manage the shipment and distribution of goods throughout a highly interconnected world. The shipping industry, seemingly a relic of the first industrial revolution, today moves more than 80 percent of the world’s commodities and is thus not only a central but also a severely underregulated and disregarded site of globalization. Sekula’s indefatigable research into sea trade and the maritime space articulates the oceans’s pivotal function in the world’s industrial systems but also voices the vulnerability of its ecosystems and the social and personal precariousness of the actors engaged in sea-based industries.
Most sea stories are allegories of authority. In this sense alone politics is never far away
Allan Sekula: Okeanos brings together a selection of seminal works by the artist. The exhibition title is a nod to recent critical thinking about our planet converging around the figure of Gaia, the goddess of the earth, born at the dawn of creation. According to the myth, her son Okeanos ruled over the oceans and waters and thus counters the terrestrial focus of even the most advanced discourses on the environment.
For TBA21 this exhibition marks a merging of themes from the past and future of its various programmatic components. The previous two exhibitions at TBA21–Augarten have both in different ways addressed current patterns of migration, in which the oceans and, in particular, the Mediterranean Sea have become sites of relentless political turmoil and human catastrophe. In addition, TBA21’s ongoing project The Current focuses on the oceans and the environmental degradation of the world’s waters. The research and discoveries that have grown out of The Current’s recent expeditions and other activities will culminate in the exhibition Tidalectics at TBA21–Augarten immediately following Okeanos. Sekula’s legacy, his pointed exploration of the sometimes grim reality of global ocean-bound trade, serves as an urgent case study for understanding the interconnectedness of the environmental, political, and social struggles that play out across our oceans.
Before his death in 2013 Sekula pioneered an expanded critical photographic practice, alongside his engagements as a theorist, photographic historian, filmmaker, and educator. His work in all these fields was prolific and deeply political, embodying a profoundly thoughtful reflection on the nature of the image and its implications for the systems and institutions of archives. Reflecting his profound awareness of the shortfalls of documentary photography, his medium of choice, Sekula’s oeuvre reminds us that “the genre has contributed much to spectacle, to retinal excitation, to voyeurism, to terror, envy and nostalgia, and only a little to the critical understanding of the social world.” A photograph, for Sekula, is always “an ‘incomplete’ utterance,” threatened by the loss of specificity and dependent on the matrix of conditions in which it is embedded or from which it derives. His critical reading of the photographic practice and his attention to the contextual nature of the image are particularly evident in his large-scale, multipart works, at times divided into chapters, whose making spanned years of research and reflection and which were often combined with texts and publications. These larger investigative projects make Sekula’s oeuvre a deep study and comprehensive archive of the seas, charting complex networks of economics, politics, social conditions, and ecology and reshaping the system of knowledge itself.
Fish Story (1988–95), Sekula’s magnum opus, occupies a central position in the exhibition. Originally conceived as both an exhibition and a publication, this extensive work which is broken into nine chapters and is made up primarily of photographs and text panels, tells the story of the distribution of maritime power, following an ever-expanding constellation of ports, ships, factories, containers, and so on.
Also on view will be two films: Tsukiji (2001) and Lottery of the Sea (2006). The former describes a single day at a big fish market in Tokyo and traces the different stages through which the fish travel, from freezing to cutting and eventually to market, and the latter pulls together a variety of narrative threads, from sources as diverse as Greek mythology and American cinema, to explore the history and representation of life at sea and the (at the time) contemporary condition of seafaring. The work critiques (and takes its title from) Adam Smith’s concept of the “lottery of the sea,” which compares seafaring life to gambling, and equates property (ships, goods, etc.) and human life (the people working to facilitate the trade itself).
Also on display will be two photographic works from Sekula’s series Black Tide / Marea negra (2002–03). Here the artist documented the aftermath of the Prestige oil spill in 2002, a disaster resulting from the sinking of an oil tanker, which released 81,000 tons of oil into the ocean off the coast of Galicia, Spain, causing severe environmental damage to coastal regions in France, Spain, and Portugal. Large and small disasters (Islas Cíes and Bueu, 12-20-02) (2002–3) consists of three images showing the oil on various surfaces, and Self-portrait (Lendo, 12-22-02) (2002–03) shows Sekula at a disposal pit in Lendo.