Allan Sekula

Since the early 1970s, Allan Sekula has used photography to document social relations within an ascendant global economy. While much of his early work centered on the postindustrial landscape of Southern California, over the years the artist has undertaken projects that aim at a more expansive analysis of what he calls “the imaginary and material geographies of the advanced capitalist world.”

Sekula’s current exhibition at the Renaissance Society, “Polonia and Other Fables,” consists of forty photographs taken by the artist between 2007 and 2009 in locations throughout Poland and in Chicago, one of the country’s major diasporic magnets. The term Polonia refers to people of Polish descent residing outside Poland, indicating that Sekula’s interest here lies not only in a concrete examination of Polish national identity both within and beyond the nation-state, but also in a mythical conception of Polishness, one expressed through a collection of anecdotes, jokes, and proclamations arranged on wall texts throughout the exhibition. The photographs range from intimate portraits of three generations of the Sekula family (who claim Polish heritage) to more impersonal studies of people captured in public settings: veterans at a Polish Constitution Day parade; a mother and child at a Polish food festival; and former boatbuilders at the famous Gdańsk shipyards, birthplace of Solidarity. Sekula has long critiqued photographic truth by moving across formal conventions and technical procedures, calling into question the presumably self-evident meaning of both. This inclination is apparent at the Renaissance Society, but rather than undermining conventional readings, color and framing here tend more often to bring out the underlying resonances among physiognomies, gestures, spaces, and objects.

Sekula’s photographs centering on human subjects and communal-commerical rituals are here put in dialogue with images of a quite different physical and discursive terrain: a shot of a farmer threshing grass at an abandoned airport in Szymany, Poland, currently used by the CIA for transport of clandestine “high value” terrorism suspects; a photo of an art student working on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange; and an aerial view of a pig farm in Wie˛ckowice, Poland, once owned by a local collective but since bought out by an American multinational company known for its deplorable rearing practices and environmental record. If the first group of photographs seems to linger on an idealized version of Polish identity and community, evoking a Poland that no longer exists or perhaps never existed, the second presents a decidedly more disturbing collage of the present-day realpolitik of post-Communist US-Poland relations. Indeed, the acute discrepancy between these different orders of representation leads us to ask: Exactly what kind of rhizomatic narrative is the viewer being asked to construct across these photographs? What kind of links are we to make between, say, the inhumane methods of industrial hog raising and the kielbasa consumed at the Taste of Polonia festival in Chicago?

Even within the same set of images the task of making connections based on the available visual evidence is rendered problematic in light of the fact that some of the places and processes that Sekula has sought to document are not amenable to visual scrutiny. As with the inadmissible CIA black site that Sekula photographed from behind a thick curtain of bushes and the pig farm to which he was also denied access but nonetheless documented from the air, the image of the lone trader on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange reveals very little about the transactions of capital. The aphoristic quotations that the artist uses to accompany his photographs provide no easy or immediate answers to the questions raised. Yet as with Sekula’s previous interrogations of labor history, trading networks, and geopolitics, “Polonia and Other Fables” insists on the necessity—or at least the possibility—of representing a social reality in photography, however contingent and incomplete, even as it points to the limits of contemporary documentary practice.

Chad Elias