Saturday, January 7, 2012

Allan Sekula, Polonia and Other Fables, Galerie Michel Rein

Allan Sekula, Farmer threshing grass at abandoned airport used by
the CIA for transport of clandestine "high value" terrorism suspects.
Szymany, Poland, July 2009
My first impression when I stepped inside the intimate space of the Galerie Michel Rein was the sheer beauty of Allan Sekula’s photographs from the series Polonia and Other Fables. And perhaps the most beautiful of the very slickly produced images are those in which the subject matter is at its most disturbing: a farmer working at a CIA site, a sign aggressively placed in water indicating a military testing site in Kiejkuty, Poland, and preparation of an F-16 pilot at an Air Force base. Often the only indication that all is not right is the skewing of the image. Otherwise, I could look at these photographs all day: the deep rich colors, the peace that surrounds the moment of violence, the shallow focus closeups, and the finesse of the image itself, make them so inviting. Sekula’s photographs are often referred to as challenging the boundary between documentary and fiction, but the high quality aesthetic produced by inkjet prints on Dibbon, in turn placed behind glass, are more interesting for the stories they tell than for whether or not they are fact or fiction.

Allan Sekula, CIA Black Site seen from the bushes,
Klejkuty, Poland,
July 2009

Included here are some touching photographs of Sekula’s parents and others of blacksmith tools in motion, all in black and white. These images see the introduction of Sekula’s personal history into the series with his parents from Poland, and the references to his blacksmith grandfather. Thus the personal and the political are merged on the gallery walls if not within each image. In addition, and perhaps most curious of all, are two photographs taken in Chicago, one of a woman at the commodity futures exchange, the other of Ornette Colemen. Sekula has used garish colors in the process of printing through inkjets, and the result is images that might have been taken in 1980s Poland, a time when life behind the iron curtain wanted to imitate the West, and garish colors were a way of symbolizing glitz and glamour.
Allan Sekula, My Father with his List, Sacramento, December 1979
Perhaps the most touching image is that of Sekula’s father, My father with his List, Sacramento 1979. Of course, we know all about the relationship between Jewish-Polish emigrants and lists. And here, all of those historical resonances are held in the elder Sekula’s hand as he holds the list of four family names for the camera. Two of the names have “Rabbi” inscribed next to them, making the names even more profound for a post-World War II viewer.
Allan Sekula, Art student working on commodity futures exchange
Mercantile Exchange
, Chicago, August 2007.
If I had one disappointment about the exhibition it was its size. Obviously, the small space of the Michel Rein gallery does not make it possible to have a larger selection of the Polonia series photographs. But the fact that there are so few, makes the show as it is exhibited here, seem fragmented and incoherent. I was not able to make the connections between the images without the explanations of the man in the gallery. Otherwise the relevance of images, such as, for example, Europa 2011 in which a homeless man lies on what appears to be a radiator, in what looks to be an airport somewhere in Europe, was lost on me. I just didn’t see the connection between the homeless of today, the military exploitation of Poland and Sekula’s immigrant family. In its entirety, I like to think that these connections are more salient.

All Images Copyright Allan Sekula

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