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Ben Lerner on Allan Sekula’s ‘Fish Story’

‘Sekula’s sentences have their own nautical rhythm that brings incommensurate scales of experience into sudden relation’

Allan Sekula, Dockers unloading shipload of frozen fish from Argentina, from the chapter ‘Message in a Bottle’, 1992, in Fish Story, 2018. Courtesy: Mack, London

Allan Sekula, Dockers unloading shipload of frozen fish from Argentina, from the chapter ‘Message in a Bottle’, 1992, in Fish Story, 2018. Courtesy: Mack, London

I want to pay tribute to Allan Sekula’s Fish Story (1995), just re-issued by Mack; a book – which was first a series of exhibitions – about ‘the forgetting of the sea’, the erasure of maritime labour from the realms of representation and imagination. During the 1990s, while most people were (as so many still are) giddily talking about dematerialization, the advent of the information age, cyberspace and so on, Sekula was documenting – and documenting changes in – maritime labour and organization: the very heavy cargo moving across the (rising) seas. In his readings of works ranging from 17th-century Dutch paintings to Popeye, Sekula proves himself to be a dazzling interpreter of the semiotics of the sea, but this isn’t belletristic play; everything contributes to Sekula’s trenchant political critique of how capital makes labour disappear, a deadly sleight of hand he counters by attending closely to the ports through which global goods flow or – in strike conditions, say – falter, float, rot. The tone of his beautiful writing is hard to describe. Patient, sometimes to the point of flatness, Sekula’s sentences have their own nautical rhythm, little dialectics that manage, often with unexpected pathos, to bring incommensurate scales of experience into sudden relation: ‘And thus the general spirit of the ship was one of mournful and weary anticipation of unemployment, heightened by a pervasive insomnia caused by the vibration of the low-speed Hyundai-Sulzer diesel running at 100 RPM, the speed of an amphetamine-driven heart.’ These texts are in ongoing conversation with remarkable images that are at once matter-of-fact and mysterious: Sekula often shows a body at rest, then at work, as when a man drills core samples from the coral walls of a fortress in San Juan de Ulúa, Mexico, his eyes shut on the verso and open on the recto, where he has sprung into action to guide the drill, the diptych somehow making acutely felt the dangerous dance of human capital. Or I’m struck by how a man on the docks of Vigo, unloading a shipment of frozen fish from Argentina, resembles a conductor (are his eyes also closed?), wand in air (I think it’s a roll of cardboard in his hand) – which raises the question of what forces are conducting this conductor in the bizarre fantasia of global shipping. Interpreting the photographs can feel wrong – I should look at what the particular image depicts, not abstract it into a network of signs – but Sekula is particularly good at making us feel that any image is only legible within a network, that the networks are already there if we learn how to look. Sekula’s book requires us to participate self-consciously in the construction of knowledge without lapsing into postmodern clichés about the inaccessibility of the real. And these days, even for the most privileged among us – even for those of us accustomed to ‘one-click shopping’ and ‘free shipping’ – things are getting real. 

Ben Lerner is a poet, critic and author of the novels Leaving the Atocha Station (2011) and 10:04 (2014). In 2018, he published two artist collaborations, The Polish Rider (with Anna Ostoya, Mack) and The Snows of Venice (with Alexander Kluge, Spector).

Issue 200

First published in Issue 200

January - February 2019
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