Los Angeles

Allan Sekula, Sugar Gang 1–6, 2010, six C-prints, each 31 1/2 × 31 1/2".

Allan Sekula, Sugar Gang 1–6, 2010, six C-prints, each 31 1/2 × 31 1/2".

Allan Sekula

Christopher Grimes Gallery

Allan Sekula, Sugar Gang 1–6, 2010, six C-prints, each 31 1/2 × 31 1/2".

Measured in anxious days and weeks, the slow pace of shipping once served as a reminder that commodities, although seemingly self-generated, are nevertheless the products of labor, including that of transportation. However, with the advent of containerization, dockside automation, and networked logistics, the figure of the transportation worker is increasingly supplanted by an algorithm—or worse, by a drone. While these innovations have driven down the cost of shipping, they have also made supply chains more vulnerable to interruption: It was no fluke, for example, that Occupy Oakland demonstrators, when evicted from their encampment by riot police, retaliated by blockading the Port of Oakland beside rank-and-file dockworkers, proclaiming the action the equivalent of a general strike.

This intersection of anticapitalist tactics and thalassic profiteering was prefigured by artist Allan Sekula, who saw the heavy traffic of the sea, conveniently overlooked by paladins of the “New Economy” of the 1990s, underlying the visible, digital superstructure of e-commerce. Although Sekula passed away in 2013, his final traveling project, Ship of Fools, 1999–2010, continues to circle the globe. This body of work dates to the year when the artist first encountered the Global Mariner, a onetime cargo ship that had been repurposed by the International Transport Workers’ Federation (an umbrella organization of maritime labor unions) as a floating exhibition platform dedicated to the history of modern shipping—and, in particular, to the industry’s exploitative labor conditions. Traveling with the Mariner during several legs of its two-year circumnavigation, Sekula trained his camera on the web of relationships (social, economic, personal, geographic) set in motion by the vessel, beginning with the crew—a team of antiglobalization activists and maritime unionists—and expanding outward into the docklands of Cyprus, South Africa, California, and beyond.

The iteration of Ship of Fools shown at Christopher Grimes Gallery centered on Sekula’s portraits of maritime labor, which continue his longstanding interrogation of the conventions of photographic realism. In the six-photograph sequence Sugar Gang 1–6, 2010, the artist tracked a crew of dockworkers as they hoist a heavy sack of sugar; these photographs portray a workflow governed not by computer (the port has not yet been automated), but by a system of hand signals, shouts, and facial expressions. The gaps in the sequence, as well as the copious spilled sugar, suggest other kinds of relays (of information, affection, attention, etc.) extraneous to the circulation of capital. Sekula might have taken his cue from Gustave Courbet, whose paintings of workers—especially his Stone Breakers, 1849–50—violated the genre’s indexical code, figuring the laborer without figuring the labor. Likewise for Sekula: Although the title of Crew, pilot, and Russian girlfriend (Novorossisk) 1–10, 1999–2010, implies a taxonomic ordering of the ship’s staff, each of these portraits is resolutely singular. Three women seafarers embrace; an elderly worker stands patiently, his hands slack at his sides. What emerges from these photographs is less an image of labor than a portrait of people who, for reasons unknown, have contracted to perform “under working conditions” (a phrase that recurs in Sekula’s oeuvre, from his 1973 video Performance Under Working Conditions to his retrospective of the same title at the Generali Foundation in Vienna in 2003).

For Sekula, who grew up within hailing distance of the Port of Los Angeles and Long Beach, the sea was a source of interruption and disappearance; its vectorial openness—to commodity flows, but also to human cargo—is the unacknowledged subject of his magisterial essay video The Lottery of the Sea, 2006, an excerpt of which was screened as part of this exhibition. In one segment of the film, a Galician transport worker, reflecting on the Spanish government’s mismanagement of an oil spill, admits that seafarers always have an exit route: “A sailor always survives. It’s unusual to see a sailor starve. Because if they don’t get paid here, they pick up their things and go to South Africa, or another sea.” This lesson cuts deep: To forget the sea is to ignore capitalism’s brightest lure, its promise of flight and fortune-seeking. There would be no commodity fetish without the secrets of circumnavigation; the shoreline is simultaneously the origin and the destination of cargo cults. Likewise, to resist under these conditions requires a sailor’s aptitude for solidarity: Better a ship of fools than no ship at all.

Daniel Marcus