Allan Sekula: OKEANOS is a monographic exhibition exploring the legacy of Allan Sekula (United States, 1951–2013). Drawing from the TBA21 collection, the exhibition is charting the artist’s research into the world’s largest and in-creasingly fragile hydrosphere: our oceans. The title itself is a reference to the figure of Okeanos—the son of Gaia, the mythical goddess of the earth—who ruled over the oceans and water. His aquatic perspective—from and of the oceans—represents a shift of focus that counters the terrestrial ecologies of most contemporary discourses on the environment.
Sekula, who grew up in the port town of San Pedro, California, has critically investigated since the 1970s the spatial and economic transformations and exploitative geopolitical configurations active on our seas and in the containerized 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 industrial revolution, today moves more than 80 percent of the world’s commodities and is thus not only a paradigmatic but also a severely underregulated and disregarded site of globalization. Sekula’s indefatigable research into the modern maritime space articulates the oceans’ pivotal function in the world’s industrial systems but also voices the vulnerability of its eco-systems and the social and personal precariousness of the actors engaged in sea-based industries.
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, 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.”1 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, 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 cultural history 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, where three out of nine chapters are presented. This extensive work made up primarily of photographs and text panels, tells the story of and asks questions about the transformation of the maritime space, following the cargo handling, the building of ships, and the catching and selling of fish in multiple port cities around the world. “Fish Storyfollows two interwoven strands,” writes Sekula in 1997, “both of which turn around questions of liminality and flux. First, it is a “documentary” reading of contemporary maritime space. As both sea and land are progressively “rationalized” by increasingly sophisticated industrial methods, does the “classic” relation between terrestrial space and maritime space undergo a reversal? Does the sea become fixed and the land fluid? Secondly, Fish Storyis an “art historical” allegory of the sea as an object of representation. How does the sea “disappear” from the cognitive and imaginative horizon of late modernity? Are there broader lessons to be drawn from this disappearance?”2
Also on view are 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 contemporary condition of seafaring. The work critiques 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).
Allan Sekula: OKEANOS inaugurates TBA21’s year-long series of events, exhibits, talks and performances dedicated to the oceans, their human and non-human inhabitants, and their cultural history through the arts. The 2017 Year of the Oceans aims to expand public understanding of our oceans, seas and coastal areas, which together form an essential component of the global life-support system. The exhibition is linked to the research and practice of the TBA21–Academy, which focuses on the oceanic space and the ecological destabilization of the world’s oceans. Developed as a floating institutional, the TBA21–Academy brings together thinkers and practitioners from a variety of backgrounds to collaboratively examine the most pressing environmental, social, and economic issues of today, and to develop dynamic solutions to address climate change. Sekula’s legacy, his pointed exploration of the sometimes grim reality of the maritime world serves as an urgent case study for understanding the inter-connectedness of the environmental, political, and social struggles that play out across our oceans.