For his show at the Renaissance Society, Allan Sekula placed little 8 1/2” x 11” printed paper texts around the exterior walls. These texts and his manuscript “Polonia and Other Fables” show Mr. Sekula’s attachment to the written word, which forms a context for his photography. The show, also titled “Polonia and other Fables,” reflects Sekula’s interest in capitalist economic systems and the structuring of societies that emerge from those systems.
There are endearing portraits here, like the old man holding an accordion, or a shop selling “kiss me I’m Polish” T-shirts. One especially nice portrait pictures an older rock and roll enthusiast in a sleeveless black top straining forward to the beat of a band. Titled Polish metalhead, Taste of Polonia Festival, Chicago, September 2007, this piece shows Sekula’s soft spot for his subjects. But there are also commercial freight sailors and lots of them. They are not the glamorous kind either, they are the sailors that toil in the rusty bowels of a tanker, or fall overboard and nobody looks twice. The sea and commercial shipping have special significance for Sekula because they symbolize the uprooted-ness of Polish culture. He writes in his manuscript that “Polonia is the imaginary Poland that exists wherever there is a Pole. Rousseau imagined this as a collective internal remedy for Polish subservience to powerful neighbors.” Humor is also an aspect of the construction of an identity that Sekula examines. One Polish joke that Sekula lists combines his interest in the sea and identity: “Did you hear the one about the Polish Admiral that wanted to be buried at sea when he died? Five sailors died trying to dig his grave.”
In Sekula’s exhibition those powerful neighbors are the history of communism, America and to a lesser extent the Polish Catholic Church. America in particular is the subject of many of his photographs. One such image is an aerial view of a large scale, multi-national corporate hog-farm. America also uses its good relations with Poland to do unpleasant things that are outside of U.S. law, as can be found in a blurry picture of a CIA black ops camp, taken from across a lake.
Allan Sekula is attempting to get at something that isn’t in any one of the photographs; rather, the photographs are props that sit on the framework of the historical and sociological narrative that Sekula weaves. Without them, and when considered individually, few of the actual photographs are of much interest, but cumulatively Sekula’s exhibition is a robust presentation of the impinging forces of global capitalism upon a culture and a people.
(Image courtesy of the artist)