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Contemporary Spaces - getting the balance right (Allan Sekula's Fish Story, To Be Continued)
at 10:50am on 23rd September 2015

1. A black and white documentary photograph taken in Hong Kong circa 1961 by Dutch photographer Ed van der Elsken is used as a still in The Forgotten Space by Allan Sekula

2. Graffiti is generally frowned upon in Singapore, but is found in the backstreets of Little India

3. Resource table inside NTU Centre for Contemporary Art’s exhibition Fish Story, To Be Continued - an exhibition by influential American photographer, filmmaker, writer and theorist Allan Sekula.  

4. A large container ship seen as a continuing motif in Allan Sekula's Lottery of the Sea  

5. A family enjoying the interactive displays at a cartoon exhibition at Gallery Petronas, Kuala Lumpur

(原文以英文發表,評論新加坡「Allan Sekula: Fish Story to be continued」展。)

For those in it, the art world can be unrelenting; all objects, every visual observation, even a quiet walk can be an art encounter. Holidays and a day 'off' in a museum inevitably become work or a professional moment. And, of course, at any time I can be asked about good galleries, good artists and my particular bête noire, framing shops.

I was recently in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore to visit (non-art) friends and it was an excellent opportunity to have some time-out from art. In Kuala Lumpur, I did some writing, walked, ate excellent food, visited bookshops and found myself engrossed by the news of a scandal involving the suspected transfer of funds to the Malaysian Prime Minister from a government investment fund.

The only exhibition I saw, and I really only stumbled on it rather than sought it out, was an overview history of Malaysian cartoons at the Petronas Gallery. It was an excellent exhibition that had the right combination of enquiry and explanation but still catered to fun, frivolity and things to do for children that you would expect of a cartoon exhibition.

The days in Kuala Lumpur had refreshed me and the quiet overland trip to Singapore was relaxing. I always stay in Singapore’s Little India, it is real and familiar and the 24-hour Mustafa Department Store has everything you want, even if you need a shaving brush, which I did. I am surprised that Little India has not gentrified with its central location and intact shop-houses, but there must be a local Singaporean urban planner with a grittier heart than those that plan the environs of Orchard Road. Likewise, there must be a liberal ‘social’ planner that allows free rein within the surprisingly nefarious Geylang. Sometimes, Singapore surprises! 

I had planned to only visit the art-hub Gilman Barracks to see the NTU Centre for Contemporary Art’s exhibition Fish Story, To Be Continued by influential American photographer, filmmaker, writer and theorist Allan Sekula. Over the years, Sekula (1951-2013) increasingly worked on research-based projects that involved fieldwork, including interviewing and making films, and library research to present a multi-disciplinary art approach in an exhibition. It is an approach that can increasingly be seen around the world, often in academic-aligned art spaces. In Hong Kong, Para Site has adopted such research-based methods for their recent exhibitions, including this year’s A Hundred Years of Shame. Research-based exhibitions feature historic records and photographs, songs, movies, documentary films, contemporary art, installation and performance. This holistic approach to presenting art ideas is similar to other disciplines that require a wider understanding of people, families and societies, as seen in contemporary social work, economics and history.

What can be fascinating using this approach, can also be tedious in an art exhibition – long videos and complex documentation requires viewers to devote great amounts of time to view an entire exhibition. Sekula’s Singapore presentation is in three parts (termed ‘chapters’ as the original exhibition was entirely printed in an accompanying book) of the original nine-chapter Fish Story exhibition shown in Amsterdam in 1995.

Sekula believed that the sea is an integral and overlooked topic and pivotal in world trade. This five-year project sees Sekula boarding ocean liners and huge container ships as a passenger and he visits, camera in hand, the harbour cities and ports of many cities, including Barcelona, Antwerp, Rotterdam, New York and Hong Kong interviewing a range of people: shipping executives, wharf workers, delivery truck-drivers and seaman.

The artistic outcome is the 3-hour film Lottery of the Sea using as a starting point economist Adam Smith’s observation that the shipping industry was the ultimate gamble, as ships, cargoes and lives were easily lost. Sekula explains this fickle, but highly organised business is highly exploitative of its blue-collar and predominantly Third World workforce.

Also showing was the slightly shorter duration The Forgotten Space by Sekula and fellow filmmaker Noël Burch, which outlines Sekula’s thesis that global trade allows the market to employ sea industry workers at the lowest possible wages due to great competition by workers from poor countries around the world, desperate for work. Sekura would subscribe to the comment that John Maynard Keynes is said to express that “capitalism is the astonishing belief that the nastiest motives of the nastiest men somehow or other work for the best results in the best of all possible worlds.”

Alongside these films, Sekula also exhibits photographs: a rambling slideshow in a street-photography style of gritty streets, bars, churches and shops of the world’s seaports that gives a social context for the shipping industry. A separate set of documentary photographs shows the on-board daily routines, boredom and dangers of a seafarer’s life.

This is a well-rounded exhibition, but its density can also be wearying for the unsuspecting. My break away from Hong Kong again emphasized the challenge for any contemporary art venue and for curators that mount art exhibitions: getting the right balance of intellectual engagement and popular appeal.

Link for further information:
Allan Sekula: Fish Story to be continued Exhibition @ NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore

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