Allan Sekula

New York

Eyes Closed Assembly Line (2010): Allan Sekula: Eyes Closed  Assembly Line, 2010. Transparency in lightbox, 1000 x 1500 x 254 mm.  Both images courtesy the artist and Christopher Grimes Gallery, Santa  Monica. Photos: Mila ZachariasAllan Sekula: Eyes Closed Assembly Line, 2010. Transparency in lightbox, 1000 x 1500 x 254 mm. Both images courtesy the artist and Christopher Grimes Gallery, Santa Monica. Photos: Mila Zacharias

By Charlene K. Lau

Allan Sekula
e-flux
February 20 - April 3, 2010

Fittingly placed in e-flux’s Chinatown space, Allan Sekula’s most recent exhibition pairs his 1974 photo-text work, This Ain’t China: A Photonovel, with the new light box, Eyes Closed Assembly Line (2010). I already contemplate these two Chinas without delving into the artwork: the Cultural Revolution and the manufacturing powerhouse. The distance between these Chinas is inhabited by Sekula’s career and an ongoing interest in work as art, and late capitalism.

In a time when much of contemporary art is humdrum and made by the overeducated middle-class, Sekula remains poignant with This Ain’t China: A Photonovel. Drawn to labour activism and working-class struggles, he worked in a generic fast food restaurant, documenting exploitation and discontent. Text, and a diagram of customer satisfaction and labour division, share the space with photographs taken in four styles. Glossy and plastic-y colour shots of delicious-but-sickly crinkle fries, pizza, salads and desserts have become antiquated, retro-looking to our 21st Century gaze. These products are accompanied by black and white images of their production: graceful, cinéma vérité candids of the workers at task. In other photographs, the same workers — a waitress, the cook and Sekula — assume revolutionary poses, signaling change and revolt, and contrasting the back-lit, crime-inducing and seedy suburban shots of the restaurant boss’s office and home. Are the workers going to strike? They reasonably could because, after all, it ain’t China.

This Ain’t China: A Photonovel (1974): Allan Sekula: This Ain’t China: A Photonovel, 1974. 29 black & white photographs, 9 color photographs, text in 5 booklets, 5 chairs. Overall dimensions variable.Allan Sekula: This Ain’t China: A Photonovel, 1974. 29 black & white photographs, 9 color photographs, text in 5 booklets, 5 chairs. Overall dimensions variable.Through five chapters, the accompanying text reads as what curator Monika Szewczyk calls a “Brechtian enterprise”: a theatre stage for making strange. The employees of the restaurant play characters, each of whom become confused ideologically. To compound the confusion, the text is written in all lower case. The uncapitalized “china” becomes ambiguous in its usage: is Sekula purposefully confounding the porcelain and the country? One's meaning concerning the capitalist impulses of the newly wedded bourgeois and the other an intensely doctrinal country whose anthem was at the time “March of the Volunteers.” The two C/chinas could not be more disparate, and the possible contrasts in the work are largely left unresolved. What is this China?

The new China is reflected in the work Eyes Closed Assembly Line displayed in the window. An assembly line worker looks to be caught in a reverie while in the daily grind of her monotonous task. It is so monotonous, she can do it with eyes closed. While the light box glows effervescently in the evening sky of New York, the worker looks world weary, and with little interest in what lies ahead for the new China. Perhaps it’s because she doesn’t really have a choice, and even the brightest of lights cannot keep her awake in anticipation of change.

Sekula’s last line in his photonovel reads: “beware: a worker’s defeat has been converted into an artwork.” In a rare case in our contemporary circumstances, this art is indeed authentic protest. Aware of its own guile, Sekula’s protest is for the ongoing legitimacy of the worker’s plight.

Charlene K. LauCharlene K. Lau is a Toronto-based art writer whose reviews have been published in Canadian Art, C Magazine, Akimblog and *Border Crossings (forthcoming). She is a curatorial assistant at the Textile Museum of Canada, and a Ph.D. candidate in Art History and Visual Culture at York University