Art Against the Grain of “Collective Sisyphus”: The Case of Allan Sekula’s Ship of Fools / The Dockers’ Museum (2010-2013)
Jointly developed by KU Leuven’s Lieven Gevaert Centre and by M HKA, this long-term, interdisciplinary research project focuses on a specific, yet complex body of work; the multifaceted and variably installable, unfinished and open-ended Ship of Fools / The Dockers’ Museum (2010-2013) by artist and theorist Allan Sekula (1951-2013). One of the project’s key concerns, according to the project’s promotor prof. dr. Hilde Van Gelder, is to investigate “how Sekula’s last work may contribute to imagining possible forms of human solidarity in a globalized economy confronted to an ever-more critical extent with its own limitations.“
Ship of Fools consists of a corpus of sequential images, thirty-three framed photographs and two slide projections. Exploring the lives and labor conditions of seafarers and dock workers, the work takes as its starting point the artist’s examination of the Global Mariner’s voyage and exhibition tour (1998-2000). Sponsored by the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), the exhibition sought to raise awareness against exploitative labor conditions and minimal regulation, spurred by a system of shipping under ‘flags of convenience’, thus exposing the very effects of globalization.
In the spring of 2010, selected items from The Dockers’ Museum surfaced for the first time in the exhibition setting for Allan Sekula’s Ship of Fools, held at M HKA. Conceived as an ‘anti-museum’ and ‘anti-archive’ within the contemporary art institution, The Dockers’ Museum holds a collection of ca. 1250 artifacts, metonymically related to the world of seafarers and dock workers – past and present.1 These ‘objects of interest’, primarily purchased by the artist through eBay, are not to be understood as works of art. Rather, when grouped together, they “enhance a potential of meaning”, as M HKA’s director Bart De Baere has put it, in the exhibition’s rhizomatic display.
Two PhD trajectories, a first one in art historical and a second, parallel one in curatorial research, are currently being carried out by Jeroen Verbeeck and Anja Isabel Schneider respectively. Both trajectories are supervised by prof. dr. Hilde Van Gelder together with dr. Mieke Bleyen (KU Leuven). For the trajectory in curatorial research, dr. Edwin Carels (M HKA) is a co-supervisor. A pioneering pilot project, it integrates the newly developing academic field of research-based curatorship at KU Leuven. Jeroen Verbeeck ‘s research will provide a profound art historical and theoretical interpretation of Ship of Fools / The Dockers’ Museum as an art work in its own right.
Informed by the research of the team members, the project continues to evolve in a succession of research outputs. In 2016, these included the publication of Allan Sekula: Mining Section (Bureau des mines). Collaborative Notes edited by Nicola Setari and Hilde Van Gelder. This publication accompanied a research presentation of selected items from The Dockers’ Museum, held at the Anatomical Theater in Leuven (Constantin Meunier’s former studio), curated by Anja Isabel Schneider. The two-day conference, “Disassembled Images”: Contemporary Art after Allan Sekula, scheduled for March 2017 opens up to other artistic practices and wider theoretical questions. In Fall 2018, Jeroen Verbeeck will complete his PhD-research. The exhibition Allan Sekula. Collective Sisyphus, co-curated by Carles Guerra, Anja Isabel Schneider and Hilde Van Gelder at Fundació Antoni Tàpies builds up towards Anja Isabel Schneider’s final PhD results, including a major exhibition of Ship of Fools / The Dockers’ Museum, to be inaugurated at M HKA in Fall 2019. Within the project’s timeline, further publication outputs of the research members will follow.
1 Cf. H. Van Gelder (ed.), Allan Sekula. Ship of Fools / The Dockers’ Museum (Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2015, p. 19).
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