With the recent surge of Occupy protests and their outcry against neoliberal capitalism, Oceans and Campfires: Allan Sekula and Bruno Serralongue feels presently and entirely relevant. As prominent figures in the field of contemporary documentary photography and video, Sekula and Serralongue present works based on their travels around the world exploring regions undergoing political, economic, and social transformations. Both photographers employ contemporary art as a source of resistance to hierarchical powers.
I have always been drawn to the shows at the San Francisco Art Institute’s Walter and McBean Galleries, as I consider Hou Hanru’s curatorial vision to be engaging, relevant, and beautiful. While this show certainly possesses those qualities, I was struck by the ironic tone of the galleries: bright and vibrant yellow walls are offset by photographs embedded with powerful subject matter, while miniature objects in glass cases, and video footage from global regions, break up the monotony of each exhibition space.
Sekula and Serralongue touch on topics often ignored by mainstream media, and images that document that transformation of Kosovo, South Sudan, and the ocean stand out as the most poignant pieces in the exhibition. Not only do their photographs shed insight to a world that is unknown to most of us, but they question the role of photography as an aesthetic genre when it captures social upheaval—can photojournalism exist as art, even if it aims to maintain a neutral position, while challenging political boundaries?
Bruno Serrolongue, Kosovo (ensemble 3), 2010, 2009, 14 ilfochrome photographs, 21 x 16.5 inches, Courtesy of the artist, Air de Paris, Paris, and Gallery Baronian-Francey, Brussels.
While contemplating this question, it’s evident that the photographs of Sekula and Serralongue attempt to give contemporary documentarians a new responsibility. They suggest that a rapid globalization is taking place in the world around us, and artists in this genre have an obligation to connect images of this process to ordinary people. But should contemporary artists be expected to produce works on the basis of critical engagement and the betterment of humanity? What happened to the notion of “art for art’s sake"?
In the works of Serralongue’s Kosovo (ensemble 3), 2010, and Sekula’s Ship of Fools, 1999-2010, we see each artist striving to capture the process of globalization frame-by-frame, and to position photojournalism as an artistic and historically documentative genre. It is curious to see how variations in scale and dimension affected my engagement with the photographs—the over life-sized pieces of Ship of Fools gave an experience comparable to flipping through the pages of National Geographic, as the 21” x 16” images of Kosovo (ensemble 3) felt like a quick browse through my camera from a recent trip in Southeastern Europe. There is a sense of realness and familiarity for viewers of this exhibit, two qualities that differ from the often experimental and abstract themes that take place within the exhibition spaces of SFAI.
Top Image: Allan Sekula, from Ship of Fools, 1999-2010, courtesy Christopher Grimes Gallery, Santa Monica en Galerie Michel Rein, Paris.