Allan Fled Away…with the Sun

Bérénice Reynaud

Allan Sekula, 1951–2013

In the bowels of the old Eagle Rock Plaza on Colorado Boulevard is a Filipino fish market with an abundance of alluring fresh catch—an array of shapes, smells, textures and colors, from white and pale pink to grey and brown, a feast of culinary possibilities. Allan, of course, was fascinated by a tucked away Filipino fish market in L.A. For me, who had grown up in the port town of Marseille with a father working in the Merchant Marine, such a market echoed treasured childhood memories of the time you would amble from fish seller to fish seller, smelling and looking, picking up the best. I had invited Allan to join me in my routine “yoga for cancer survivors” sessions in a Wellness Center adjacent to the Plaza. I had gone there for a couple of years, but was unaware of the fish market until Allan showed it to me after his first yoga class—again opening up, recontextualizing, and reformulating the conventional representation of Los Angeles that he had aptly described in an interview with Ed Dimendberg as its “nonidentity as a maritime city, a city that acknowledges its beaches but denies its port.”1 It was also an acknowledgement of the often hidden social and economic importance of the Filipino population in the Eagle Rock/Highland Park area, and, beyond it, of the socio-cultural forces at work in the “making of” Los Angeles. This simple gesture of taking me to the market, which has stayed with me, is an acute example of Allan’s artistic and theoretical process. Start with the texture and smell of the fish and end up with the complex texture of a maritime/immigrant city; start with the physical characteristics of an architectural design (talking, in the same interview, of Frank Gehry’s building in which this memorial is taking place, Allan mentioned being “struck by how frequently [it] has been described as a ship, heading inland to the center of the city, as if returning from a world voyage”) and end up with an insightful critique of cultural policies and real estate strategies; start with the shape, size, and color of the cargo container, and end up with a geo-political reflection on maritime economy in late capitalism. And then, in an elegant dialectical switch that has been analyzed as a “resistance against abstraction,”2 go back to the flesh of the fish, the design of the buildings, the containers lying on the deck, surrounded by the deep blue sea…

Allan Sekula, from "Dear Bill Gates", 1999.

Allan Sekula, from Dear Bill Gates, 1999. Courtesy of the Estate of Allan Sekula.

Allan was a dedicated yoga student. One day he called me to apologize for not being able to attend the class; his beloved dog had run away and was hiding under somebody else’s house and he had to get him out of there somehow. He was good at yoga, while at the same time his health was getting better. We all had hopes. Being Allan, as soon as he felt his body was in working order, he resumed lecturing and showing his work around the world. He took part in the panel organized around the screening of The Forgotten Space at the Tate Modern on April 24, 2012.3 Translated as L’Océan de l’Oubli, the film was also shown a few weeks later in June at Palais de Tokyo in Paris.4 During the panel discussion that followed, Jacques Rancière stated that what he called “immaterial capitalism” will never “make us forget the materiality of bodies. Post-industrial society, based on cybernetic systems and a service economy, is a mythical construction, designed to marginalize the ‘old economy’ that proceeds from heavy, material industry. And the latter, being not really dead, becomes, via this mythology, a vast reserve of sentiments.”5

It is, I believe, to better articulate this to-and-fro movement between abstraction and materiality, as it unfolds in time between the “irresistible” progress of globalization and these pockets of resistance—be they physical (the bodies), social (protests, demonstrations), or imbued with nostalgia (our attachment to archaic forms of production)—that Allan turned to cinema: Tsukiji (2001), The Lottery of the Sea (2001–4), Gala (2005), A Short Film for Laos (2006–7), The Forgotten Space (2010). In what he described as his “long apprenticeship” of cinema, Allan had the intuition of the role played by obsessiveness in filmmaking. What makes an auteur is the choice of an object that defines its own space and time. As art critic Elisabeth Lebovici aptly notes, the sea was “the matrix” for Allan’s work, “as a drift of post-revolutionary romanticism toward the liquid modernity of financialization, rationalization, automation…”6 What is crucial now is to decipher how his approach worked. Again I am thinking of an often described shot of brightly colored containers on the deck of a cargo ship. What do they contain? We don’t know. What a contrast it was with what was happening in every port town in the ’60s, when Allan (who grew up in San Pedro) could see hundreds of longshoremen milling on the wharves, unloading goods from the world over. In Marseille, at the same time, it was spectacular: huge mahogany trunks or bananas still hanging from the top of a tree were being perilously balanced and brought down on cables from the ship, with men screaming orders and instructions. Now the magic, the materiality, is gone; these containers mean money, no longer the savor and texture of faraway lands.

Yet, 90% of all global trade is still done by sea. And the sea, while being crossed over by the vessels of globalized capitalism, still remains. What is special and moving and important, in Allan’s cinema, is that it accounts for and subsumes the spatial and temporal characteristics of the sea. A forgotten space in theoretical discourse, yes, because it is an unaccountable space. Representing the sea is an interesting cinematic issue: cinema depends on the frame and the off-screen, yet the image of the sea cannot be contained in a frame: forever receding, the horizon does not define the “off-screen,” but rather, as Rimbaud wrote, suggests eternity (“the sea fled away with the sun”)7—an eternity lost and regained, an eternity in process, (re)created by a plurality of contradictory, fractured human gazes, an eternity somewhat dependent on the frailty of the human bodies that sail it. Cinema is a succession of moving images, but the sea invalidates linear temporality. We are polluting the oceans but they will be there long after humanity is gone. The sea is always the same and always changing with the movement of waves, tides, and surging floods. Beyond his geopolitical analysis, Allan allowed his films to be open to the inassimilable materiality and mystique of the sea—without falling into sentimentalism or reactionary nostalgia. The grain of reality, in this case, is liquidity. How do you theorize liquidity? You don’t. You theorize around it. Allan’s films will remain because they allowed us to have an intelligent understanding of globalized capitalism while acknowledging the sensorial and emotional vertigo one feels watching the waves of the ocean break against the bow of a cargo ship. The sea’s dialectical eternity was in Allan’s eyes, in Allan’s gaze. We have lost his body, we will never lose his gaze.

Bérénice Reynaud is a film critic, historian, and theoretician as well as a film and video curator. She lives and works in Los Angeles.

The preceding was one of the presentations at a memorial for Allan Sekula at the Roy and Edna Disney CalArts Theater on October 5, 2013.



  1. Edward Dimendberg, “Allan Sekula,” Bomb 92 (Summer 2005), http://bombsite.com/issues/92/articles/2754 (accessed October 4, 2013).
  2. See Elisabeth Lebovici, “The Forgotten Space,” http://le-beau-vice.blogspot.com/2012/06/les-corps-matieres-du-cinema-no-gravity.html (accessed October 4, 2013).
  3. See http://www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/video/allan-sekula-and-noel-burch-forgot-ten-space-panel-discussion (accessed October 4, 2013).
  4. See http://www.palaisdetokyo.com/en/projection/projections-la-triennale/for-gotten-space-locean-de-loubli (accessed October 4, 2013)
  5. Comme le signalait Jacques Rancière lors de la discussion du film au Palais de Tokyo, le capitalisme ‘immaterial’ ne fera jamais oublier la matérialité des corps: le projet même de Sekula et Burch montre à quel point la notion de société post-industrielle, ‘fondée sur les systèmes cybernétiques et une économie de service’ est une construction mythique, destinée à marginaliser la ‘vieille économie’ qui produit et procède d’une industrie matérielle lourde, laquelle, n’étant pas vraiment morte, devient via cette mythologie une vaste réserve sentimentale” (Lebovici).
  6. La mer est la matrice de Sekula, comme une déviation du Romantisme post-révolutionnaire vers la modernité liquide de la financialisation, la rationalisation, l’automatisation…” (ibid.).
  7. 7. “Elle est retrouvée. Quoi ? – L’Eternité. C’est la mer allée Avec le soleil.” Arthur Rimbaud, “L’Eternité” (May 1872), Oeuvres Poétiques (Paris: Garnier-Flammation, 1964), 102.
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