Photographer, writer, theoretical thinker, and historian, Sekula was a polymath whose work came to define an era within itself. In a solo show displayed at the Beirut Art Center (BAC), his work is given its due consideration.
The BAC has reorganized its gallery space to accommodate one of the largest collection of Sekula’s work to ever appear in the region, and for good reason.
Sekula had numerous ties to Beirut, and a close relationship with the exhibition’s curator, Marie Muracciole. The show puts some of his most foundational projects on display, while simultaneously paying respect to his memory.
The exhibition leads visitors, both literally and metaphorically, through a maze of Sekula’s most influential works. It begins with “Untitled Slide Sequence” which is displayed according to his preference: with a slide projector. Sekula’s work takes on a new character when seen in this format.
The rhythm of the slides as they move from one image to the next, is a vital part of viewing the images. They form what Sekula referred to as a “dissembled film”. The industrial “clunk” of each slide is a perfect soundtrack to the images of this particular work, which document aerospace factory workers in America, exiting after a day’s work.
The images identify important notions of “class” and “hierarchy” through the harsh split between the managerial and the working class in postwar America.
In the next gallery space, the prints are displayed individually. The photographs are silent now – with no accompanying noises or movement – but they maintain their sequential narrative if viewed in order.
Over at the far end of the gallery, Sekula’s “School as a Factory” is on display in a similar fashion. This project is more text-heavy, and includes Sekula’s own diagrams on capitalist hierarchy. The diagrams tackle the capitalist processes of general hierarchical power structures, specifically in education, which restrict growth to horizontal trajectories; Essentially, where one begins, and one ends, despite illusions or promises of vertical, upward mobility through classes.
This critique of dominant power structures, and more broadly, capitalism, is ingrained in all of Sekula’s work at the BAC. Perhaps, the most emotionally charged project is the last in the show.
“Waiting for Tear Gas” is not a typical interaction between subject and photographer. In fact, that traditional boundary is all but erased. Here Sekula is examining the undisclosed global forces of power and the fear of being controlled by them in the 1999 rebellions against the meeting of the World Trade Organization in Seattle, Washington.
To capture the images, Sekula decided to adopt a set of criteria: no zoom lens, no complex exposure settings, no flash, and no overt attempts to document. Rather, he wanted to participate in the rebellions while recording the events as they happened.
The large gallery space features motionless prints and various publications from Sekula that are available to be read by visitors. However, it is worth it to spend more time in the three adjacent rooms, each featuring one of Sekula’s signature slide projections.
The intimacy and emotional power of the images is worth watching, each one, from start to finish. In many ways, it mimics the very condition of seeing, when our eyes capture singular moments in the midst of chaos.
Sekula’s work has been a foundational starting point for discussions about the political role of photography for the past forty years. His work was motivated by anti-capitalist, and anti-corporate gestures.
Formally, he was committed to returning to the “documentary” practices of photography, as opposed to post-minimalist and conceptual movements, which privilege concept over the subject of photographs. He was concerned with capturing social processes and micro-networks, in order to reveal the very fabric upon which macroeconomic and political processes rely, and ultimately, dominate.
Sekula was extremely productive throughout his life, dedicating himself entirely to documenting the specific economic, political, and social conditions of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. He was motivated to portray life and the human condition, yet acknowledged that this could only be done under the realization that life does not exist independently of discursive processes, more specifically, the capitalistic reality of “globalization”.