Allan Sekula: Polonia and Other Fables
The American art critic Harold Rosenberg—yes, he of Action Painting—is far more interesting in his obscure failures than in what became his popular successes. Here is an example: in 1941, working for the federal Work Projects Administration, Rosenberg served as editor of Men at Work: Stories of People at Their Jobs in America. His intention for this volume was to represent different types of labor by coupling a photographer from the Federal Art Project with a writer from the Federal Writers’ Project, and through this two-pronged approach to portray authentically in word and image “men at work.” In his preface, he made clear the types of labor representation he did not want: neither the rationalizing “statistical tables” and “vocational surveys” of the Dictionary of Occupational Titles published by the United States Department of Labor, nor the “superficial” realism of the creative class. Rosenberg complained that even Émile Zola, the nineteenth-century realist writer so acclaimed for his descriptions of modern labor, only “paid flying visits to the scene [of labor] for the purpose of gathering material, but did not stay long enough to learn labor from the inside.” One can only piece together clues as to the representation Rosenberg did want, for the volume itself was never published, and he ended his preface by calling the project results a “negative judgment on labor” (which may account for its non-publication). He focused on a particular failing: “In the pictures of large industrial plants there were rarely to be seen any men working, and when human figures did appear, they were too small to be reproduced.” What he wanted, as I see it, was to represent labor, not as an inventory of separate parts—worker-subject, factory-site, process-activity, product-object—but as relation, dialectically. How does one avoid both zooming in to the worker-portrait and zooming out to the factory-landscape, and instead establish the right focal distance (both literally and metaphorically) that makes visible the relational entity worker-factory?
This was a signal failure for Rosenberg, and I would argue that this remained the picture he most wanted—and sought even through his Action Painting days. For this elusive image of work and identity as a set of interwoven relations was key to his (diminishing) hopes for radical political consciousness. As initially unexpected as it might seem, this representational problematic links Rosenberg to Allan Sekula. The difference is that Rosenberg walked away empty-handed, where Sekula has kept adamantly at it, as his most recent work, Polonia and Other Fables (2009), attests.
That Sekula has sustained his efforts is all the more remarkable given that this is the first decade of the twenty-first century. Is not the meaning of postmodern globalization, that the very task of representing labor is bizarrely anachronistic, like txting in Middle English? Consider that Rosenberg’s attempt and failure to picture labor were of a comparatively simpler moment of industrial capitalism. Sekula has to contend with the network society and experience economy, data and capital flows, dematerialization, informatization. However, the reason for not giving up hope is this: Rosenberg’s efforts were framed by Modernist pictorial discourse. Sekula, however, is not constrained to achieving his picture in one shot. His representational problems are not articulated so heavily in terms of figure/ground; he is not burdened by the requirement of unitariness. What Sekula has is the advantage of a Postmodern, exploded conceptualization of representation: fragments, facets, dislocations, juxtapositions, multiple depths of focus and points of view—in other words, good tools for dialectics.
But these dialectical maneuvers in representation—changes in level of abstraction, viewpoint, focus, field, etc.—are dizzying. Like with Op Art we know the experience will be taxing, maybe nauseating. Unlike Op Art, the possibilities for vertigo include both the perceptual and conceptual.
Sekula introduces Polonia and Other Fables with a single, life-sized, color photograph of a lone figure in a deserted stock exchange pit (Art student working on commodity futures exchange, Mercantile Exchange, Chicago, August 2007). As with other transitions to realms of potential discomfort, here a guide has been provided to us to calm our instinctual wariness. But the unpleasantness of our journey is also foreshadowed in this scene; the descriptive term I cannot get beyond is “laid waste.” This out-of-focus field littered with yellow tickets and speckled with the orange pointillism of LED screens is the vasto/vastare of a Latin primer, of endless conjugations of Roman legions laying waste to terra. The young woman standing before us could too easily be mistaken for an old man. She is wearing a blue blazer uniform, one that signals neither authority nor substance, but rather a sad servility; it’s an unconvincing cover for a body underneath that should not be there, too fragile, too young, too old. But our greeter could not be any more appropriate. Half living, half dead— an art student who works the stock market floor—she is our Charon.
THREE MODES OF ABSTRACTION
This first abstraction or pathway through this show is perhaps the hardest on the eyes, and it seems to take advantage of photography’s horrific capacity for senselessness rendered through concrete specificity. Not only should I acknowledge but also honor those lived specificities presented—the aged Polish metalhead, sinewy and looming like a bird of prey, appreciating his heritage at Chicago’s “Taste of Polonia” Festival (Polish metalhead. “Taste of Polonia” Festival, Chicago, September 2007). I should feel humility (perhaps a surge of old left pride) in front of the black-and- white photograph of the mother, with fist raised, marching hand-in-hand with her young son in a May Day parade (Mother and son, May Day parade, Chicago, 2009). Or, I might take it easy with the less emotionally fraught Chamber of Commerce hominess of an avuncular accordionist, probably someone’s retired grandfather, happy to be showcasing skills that have nothing to do with his former day job (Accordionist, Chicago, September 2007).
Yet, I cannot celebrate any of this. For I cannot empathize on the intimate level of locale and its details, I would need to stop cynically reading details as signifiers in a world of Barthesian myth. Neither can I totalize by navigating the geo-political-cultural relationship between the F-16s at a Polish Air Force base, the matrons of the Ladies Auxiliary Polish Army Veterans of World War II, and Ornette Coleman on sax in a Chicago jazz club. I cannot participate, or I feel revulsion at my always already participation. For I have no consumer desire to guide me: these are subjects I do not wish to be, places I do not care to find myself, objects for which I do not yearn, technologies that I do not seek to understand, histories I do not want to hear, and relations I would rather not map.
My discomfort and apathy come to an intensified head in Walking on Water (1990-1995), chapter 9 of Sekula’s extensive series Fish Story (1988-1995), which features seventy-eight slides taken in Warsaw and Gdansk that continuously cycle on a carousel- style slide projector in a fully darkened room. The refrain, as I take it, is that of the traveler’s slide show, with the inevitability that the host gets stuck on details—details that will always lack enough meaning for you, in which each and every slide will stay up several painful beats too long, during which your only immediate desire is for the relief implied in the projector’s mechanical click and whir, but only to repeat the round of wanting and waiting to move on to the next slide, please.
So one wonders, is it then for viewers like me, those incapacitated by the teeming bits of thisness and thatness, that Sekula provides another type of vastus? In contrast to all the too visible details—the event-filled frame, the gross swathes of local color seeking affect—Sekula offers photographs of “empty” fields and “black sites,” areas precisely not about seeing, but on the order of imposed blankness, like a Warholian counter position of intensive image to monochromatic blank. Here, the classic agricultural field of the Smithfield industrial farm in Weickowice, Poland, both marks off what can and cannot be seen and presents its farming activities as innocuous, natural, placid (Rye field with Smithfield pig farm in background, Weickowice, Poland, July 2009). Photographs of CIA “black sites” in Poland also index what cannot be seen, cannot be acknowledged (CIA black site seen from the bushes, Kiejkuty, Poland, July 2009, and CIA black site seen from across the lake just before the wrong film was confiscated, Kiejkuty, Poland, July 2009). These, presumably, are the spaces of extraordinary rendition, specifically determined outsides to the United States government’s constituting Logos, for doing things forbidden. Like a Modernist monochrome, the signs “Keep Out No Entry” tell us this is not the place for a penetrating gaze, for piecing together a narrative through the details. This is an incidentless surface, where by definition nothing ever happens.
Symbols are so much easier to handle. After the horror vacui of site and the abnegation of non-site, with the accompanying cycles of refusal and guilt, the legibility of the hammer- and-sickle is a welcome relief. Here–at the level of the symbol—generality and particularity, and form and content, are mixed in palatable ratios.
In the exhibition, the hammer-and-sickle is thematized through two distinct groupings. One is a set of four black-and-white images related to a blacksmith in Ochojno, Poland. Moving from left to right, and almost with the tone of a heuristics, there is a close-up of the forging of a sickle with hammer and anvil (Blacksmith [hammering sickle], Ochojno, Poland, July 2009); then the blacksmith’s workshop door (in fact, a replica), where organized on the vertical of wooden planks are the engraved outlines of the traditional tools of the trade (Replica of door to blacksmith shed, in situ [original in collection of Warsaw Ethnographic Museum], Ochojno, Poland, July 2009). Next, now on the horizontal register of shelves, is a photograph of the blacksmith’s products, including the tools not just for agricultural labor (the sickle), but those necessary for blacksmithing itself. The fourth is a group portrait of the blacksmith’s daughter and granddaughters (Daughter and granddaughters of blacksmith, Ochojno, Poland, July 2009). The second hammer-and-sickle grouping—again, a series of four photographs, but this time in color and arranged in processional, frieze-like manner—is of observers come to see the shadow cast by Virginio Ferrari’s sculpture Dialogo (1971) in front of Pick Hall at the University of Chicago. At twelve noon on May Day the shadow is said by many to take the form of a hammer-and-sickle. Sekula’s lens is focused neither on Ferrari’s sculpture nor its shadow but on the assortment of viewers who have come to witness this event (Spectators observing shadow of hammer and sickle cast at high noon on May 1 by Virginio Ferrari’s sculpture Dialogo . University of Chicago, 1 May 2008).
But it is as if Sekula has granted us this moment of legibility only so that we could discover all of the symbol’s vexations, all the ways in which our hold on it is slippery and improper. For, to have this symbol of socialism and revolutionary class unity played out through these subjects—the blacksmith and the intelligentsia—is to stage its visibility precisely with its most historically and theoretically imperfect figures.
Certainly one may challenge: how could the blacksmith be a problem? Wasn’t the blacksmith largely adopted as the heroic figure of the worker’s revolution—and for the consummate striking-ness of his labor, where human agency works nature’s elements into new possibilities, transforms matter into human-oriented objects, and even further participates in a kind of meta-labor as the blacksmith forges tools, the very tools of production. The glitch comes with recognizing that the blacksmith is closer to the category of skilled craftsperson, more akin to the petty bourgeois, and not the industrial proletariat, nor the agricultural peasant. His is an individualized craft-based labor that is precisely not representative of the work-acts in modern industrial production, indeed his is a type of labor to be effaced in the new order. That the photograph of the blacksmith’s door marked with the identifying tools of the trade is of a replica, whose original is in the collection of the Warsaw Ethnographic Museum, already says something about its anachronistic status.
Neither can the assortment of viewers on the university campus—whether taken as belonging to the petty bourgeoisie or the professional-managerial class—be unproblematically aligned with the hammer-and-sickle. Though it could be and has been argued that the left intelligentsia’s labor is analogous to that of the blacksmith’s— both are forgers, making the tools for the revolution, these being the theoretical tools of true against false consciousness, for work in the fields of ideology and representation—the role of an intellectual vanguard to revolutionary mass agency has been fraught. From the Leninist privileging of a party elite as the locus of correct revolutionary consciousness to the charges of the left intellectual’s retreat to the academy and to the perversity of “purely theoretical” armchair discussions of Marxism, the very persistence of the category “brain-worker” indexes the continued alienation of theory and practice.
Once again, the easy recognition of the symbol becomes the platform for a painful object lesson in contradiction: it is sad and degraded. The blacksmith is not the powerful Vulcan hero of liberating, self-manifesting action; rather his appropriated image serves as the branding icon for a historically immense campaign in the false advertisement of labor. But if the drama of smiting with hammer on anvil in the forge can only be simulacral, where or what is the blacksmith’s real production? Moving from left to right in the black-and-white suite is to go from production to representation to product to family photo: his labors are reproductive and repetitive. In the composition, the blacksmith’s daughter (a grown woman) stands upright, centered and flanked on each side by one of her daughters. The oddity of the group portrait is that the daughter/mother’s head is cropped off. The missing head of the mother is not very promisingly compensated for by the visages of her two daughters, slight, tow-headed girls, with indistinct, as if underproduced features, already with the look of the blandly unfortunate and unspecifically lacking. There is an orthodox feminist reading that seems fairly unavoidable here. The beheaded daughter/mother perfectly suits woman as unsovereign, doomed half-subject, with the prescribed destiny of marriage and motherhood, whose being will be used up in reproductive labor, maintenance work, service functions. And although totally lacking in imagination and creativity, she’s easy prey for fantasy, superstition, tradition. But the true horror of this image comes with the smaller girl who holds a doll, still with its product packaging, in her hands, in a presentational gesture not unlike her mother’s. Here one realizes that what one is looking at is an infinite regress, an endless production cycle—the mother was once the blacksmith’s daughter who carried dolls, the blacksmith’s granddaughters will turn their dolls into babies and become mothers, and more babies, and more dolls. All of them will lose their heads. The Marxist twist on this is simple: this is the reproductive logic of all exploited classes.
According to certain strains of Marxism, here is where the revolutionary intellectual could step in. With its radical theory and critical consciousness, the left intelligentsia will provide the missing head, it will help grow a new workers’s consciousness that will at last break the victim’s machinic reproduction, making possible a new dimension, the future. But any rallying is distinctly tamped down by recalling the May Day gathering at the University of Chicago campus. What does it mean to have the hammer-and-sickle appear in this fashion in the academy? Are communism and socialism so close to extinction, to being a species totally of the past, that their rare remains or slightest indications make for the exotic attractions of left tourism? Have they become mere superstition, under the purview of soothsayers who gather at the spot, when the forces are in alignment, and await the sign? Maybe it is a mixture of the two: the Marxist Groundhog Day.
But there is another path here, and that is the autobiographical one of an artist countenancing his lineage. (It is not surprising to find out that Sekula’s grandfather was an illiterate blacksmith who emigrated from Poland to the United States.) Interspersed in the show are several private, intimate shots of the artist’s family, such as the informal color photograph of three generations of Sekula males, gathered it seems to open presents (My father, brother and nephew, Sacramento, December 1998). Or the more formal, black-and-white portrait from a decade later of the Catholic priest who gave Sekula’s father his last rites (Father Andrej, who gave last rites to my father, Sacramento, December 2008). This could easily be the path of least resistance, contradiction, or upset. For who could be alarmed at the notion of the artist exploring his cultural heritage, searching for his roots, using his art as a means of piecing together a sense of self? Aren’t some of the worries, disappointments, disjunctions, and unpleasantnesses of the rest of the exhibition smoothed and eased by the autobiographical consideration?
But it is with relief that this does not happen. For me at least, there is something remarkable in how the family photos stay flat, unpoetic, disparate, and unmoving. As with the rest of the show, there are the excessive details that are meaningless, the indications that what you see is not nearly enough, and people living and operating large symbols, which can seem both profound and cheap.
As unflattering as that might sound, I want to frame this as an achievement in the show, especially in relationship to that fabled being of left imaginaries, the identical subject- object of history. This is an intense theoretical beast. The Hungarian Marxist György Lukács spent most of the pages of his magnum opus History and Class Consciousness (1923) struggling with it. So, it seems enough here simply to offer it as a kind of representational problem, an issue with looking, with perspective, or to go back to Rosenberg’s problem, with finding the right focal length to capture “men working” in the dialectic of agent and structure. One of the challenges of the identical subject-object was that it required a mode of inglorious self-recognition: neither could one indulge in the abdicatory pathos of self annihilation in the face of “the machine” or other daunting abstractions and nor could one be fulfilled and sustained by one’s own precious horde of personal, private details. The nasty issue has always been: who could bear to look at themselves this way? But Sekula’s autobiographical moments in this show, borne as they are through these other difficult trajectories, feel like that kind of looking. And though Sekula is dealing with a common topos of contemporary art production—the positioning of self and the enactment of identity in the network society of multinational capitalism, with all of its lures of the local and Postmodern nomadisms, its multiple, disembedded selves—his identity work stands in high contrast to those tendencies that aestheticize, redeem, or grow cultural interestedness in quaint interstices. It leaves me wondering if Sekula’s pointedness might be summed up like this: globalization may be his subject, but is his object still totality?
Annika Marie is Assistant Professor of Art History and Visual Culture in the Art + Design Department at Columbia College Chicago. With Michelle Grabner she recently co-curated Picturing the Studio at the Sullivan Galleries of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Her essay “Action Painting Fourfold: Harold Rosenberg and an Arena in Which to Act” is forthcoming in the volume The Studio Reader (University of Chicago Press). In addition, she is the archivist and historian for The Poor Farm, an alternative artist space and creative residency located in Manawa, Wisconsin.