Preface to Allan Sekula: Mining Section (Bureau des Mines)
In 2007, the earliest conversations with Sekula about a potential project for Antwerp were initiated by Grant Watson, then curator at M HKA, during a visit to Kassel, Germany, where Sekula presented his Shipwreck and Workers (2005-2007) at Documenta 12. However, it was only in the Fall of 2009 that the project took further shape, leading up to the first instalment of Ship of Fools in Antwerp, curated by Watson. The fact that M HKA produced this first instalment of Ship of Fools / The Dockers’ Museum made it an obvious partner in its further development. Fortunately, the institution and the artist managed to find each other in a joint commitment.
Sekula developed a great interest in Antwerp, as in other port cities such as Barcelona and Los Angeles. He was concerned about the fate of the nearby polder village of Doel, fighting for its survival against port expansion, and he engaged with the activism aimed at saving the modernist building and the continued operation of the International House for Seamen, as well as with the environmental issues associated with the nuclear power plants on the banks of the Scheldt River close to the city. His frame of reference was social but also artistic, being well aware of the specific international relevance of the Belgian art scene. Where else, indeed, should an artist actively join the tradition of artist’s museums than in the country of the “Musée des Aigles,” the ultimate “museum” created by Marcel Broodthaers? Sekula had long reflected on the possibilities of the museum format as an artistic device. His own take on it was clear: it should be a radical anti-museum and anti-archive grounded in the notion of “object of interest” and propelled by both an incredible focus on specifics and a holistic vision — one in which the figure of the docker embodied a pivotal position, serving as a link between land and sea, as well as an intermediary between miners and sailors and all other kinds of workers, then and now, here and there. Both planes of reference — the museum as a sustainable service provider for the artistic project of Ship of Fools and urgent reflections on an anti- museum and an anti-archive — met in the shared aspiration of Sekula as artist and M HKA as institution, and as such The Dockers’ Museum became Sekula’s main artistic focus during his last years. The dialog led to an agreement that was sound yet impossible to translate into a coherent legal contract. Sekula and M HKA opted for an irresolvable co-ownership that seemed to offer an alternative possibility of publicness, neatly outside of the commodity system. If the institution was to own the objects, the artist was to own the museum. In other words, the artist would decide on the work’s content and the items to be part of it, the institution would merely serve as the home base for the work’s objects, and the documentation center would capture and subsequently represent each and every new move in the project’s unfolding. The different sections, modes of display, and challenges involved in The Dockers’ Museum were to be developed over the years, always based on objects first bought by the institution on behalf of the artist or by the artist on behalf of the institution. This process called for constant interactions between artist and museum, the latter thereby serving as a kind of logistical center (shipping objects back and forth), a documentation center, as well as an archive. In due course, the ongoing dialog, which initially was one between Sekula and M HKA director Bart De Baere, widened, involving the whole institution in this unlikely project of a museum owning objects of a museum owned by an artist.
This very dynamic allowed Sekula to concentrate on the project’s long-imagined potential, which he did over the next years, obsessively, while at the same time, alas, his health condition continued to deteriorate. At the moment of his untimely death, he left behind a grand yet unfinished project, and there seemed to be a genuine risk that its countless building blocks would end up as irresolvable clutter in the museum’s storage and soon be forgotten altogether. However, reassured by a solid framework that was in the process of being set up by KU Leuven and M HKA, Sally Stein, with the assistance of Christopher Grimes Gallery in Santa Monica and Galerie Michel Rein in Brussels and Paris, generously worked to create the conditions enabling the present research project. First, the entire set of Ship of Fools that was hosted at M HKA could be acquired by a special Flemish government fund for key works, creating a basic setting. Next, M HKA acquired The Dockers’ Museum as a work of art, which was counter to the initial intent, but the best that could be done under the circumstances. These interventions, though important, were merely the conditions, not the solution to the real challenge posed: how to turn this unfinished undertaking into a lasting, tangible, publicly embedded work? How to translate Ship of Fools / The Dockers’ Museum — which came into being as an experience — into a future project, loyal to the ethos of Allan Sekula as an artist, and therefore “opened up” rather than forever “fixed” or “consolidated”? The current presentation of objects, accompanied by this booklet, is meant to be a first step in this process.
Excerpt from Bart De Baere, Mieke Bleyen, Edwin Carels, and Hilde Van Gelder, “Preface,” in Nicola Setari and Hilde Van Gelder (eds), Allan Sekula Mining Section (Bureau des Mines). Collaborative Notes (Ghent: AraMER, 2016): pp. 8-11.