Jointly developed by M HKA and the KU Leuven, this long-term, interdisciplinary research project focuses on a specific, yet complex body of work; multifaceted and variably installable, unfinished and open-ended: Ship of Fools / The Dockers' Museum (2010-2013) by artist and theorist Allan Sekula (1951-2013). Informed by the research of the team members, the project continues to evolve in a succession of research outputs, such as this digital platform.


(c)videostill: M HKA
"Allan Sekula interviewed by Bart De Baere," 15 November 2011, 16 April 2012

“Allan Sekula [AS] interviewed by Bart de Baere [BDB]” on The Dockers’ Museum, Paris, 15 November 2011:9

AS In a sense, the dock workers stand in for the whole world of the working class, people involved in these technical operation of functions in society.

BDB  Now for the Bureau of Mines

AS  I’ve been collecting these anthracite carvings and they are usually figures of miners. There is an Appalachian version which you can get from Kentucky, Virginia, West-Virginia, which are usually rather comic, a little grotesque; the British ones, which are rather sentimental and a little more heroic; the German ones have a kind of social democratic ardor and a  feeling of militancy. So there are three different styles. I have only one of the German ones, which was given to me as a present by a German friend in Bielefeld, Essen. In the Ruhrgebiet you have this imagery. I looked for them on German eBay […] I couldn’t find many of them, but they are around in brocante sales, antiquarian-shops, different sort of shops. […] Of course, the link is the coal coming from the mines and then being transported. The figure of the docker carrying coal will be the intermediary between the mine and the ship. The lifting of these weights; the sheer toil of work in its physical definition, of lifting a mass or moving a mass over a distance, […] becomes very emblematically present in both the figure of the miner [and the docker]. […] There is a much richer iconography of mining than there is of dock labor, maybe because mining was so embedded in community, locality, the mines were a kind of trap for people, that they could not escape from in a way and that generated a sort of imaginary and also pride, a sort of dignity, an assertion of dignity. With those objects I’m thinking about, I don’t feel that I need every example, but enough examples of the kinds of caricature that emerged in these representations. […]

BDB So there’s the coal. There’s the miner which …

AS  I’m thinking about some other objects. There’s all this iconography of the film Coal Miners’ Daughter with Sissy Spacek; there is Loretta Lynn; there is a Japanese coal miner song, a record that I was thinking of trying to get if I could. The problem is: in some ways it would be very easy to do a “Miners’ Museum” but that is not what we are doing, so I am limiting that, but I want this linked to the underground extraction and the point of import-export of coal, the movement of it. One of the things that I am thinking of doing for Hou Hanru’s exhibition, the two-person exhibition I’m having with Bruno Serralongue at the San Francisco Art Institute, is that I will have a vitrine with a Plexiglas cover. […] In this I will have a model of a bulk ship about 2 feet long, a kind of ship that would carry coal and then I have these little figurines, that are kind of Dickensian, from one of these companies now that produce Christmas ornaments. And you can produce, almost on the scheme of a model train set, but more with Christmas snow, you can make a kind of Dickensian village. Of course, these things are made in China out of resin in some horrific factory and they come to Europe or to America and they are deployed in this sentimental way around the Christmas tree. So one of them is a little docker figure, carrying a bag of coal, which is an iconography that I’ve also found very present in 19th century engravings, the coal porter […]. These docker figures could be deployed, I have enough of them to make them seem sort of ant-like and they could go up to the ship. There will be a scale difference and there is a pile of coal. Actually, I have a number of things that represent raw materials, like little bars of copper, bars of aluminum and zinc that to me relate […] well, I’m remembering in the early ’90s I was photographing in Rotterdam at the time that the Russian oligarchs were selling a lot of aluminum on the world market. You saw these huge stacks of ingots; you probably saw them in Antwerp as well going out from Russian metal/resource extraction. So little miniature versions of these bulk materialities. […] I began to feel that there is something almost atavistic in the impulse for these items, these little effigies of labor. […] But I guess what I’m asking is: what does it mean when we suspend things in a state for which […] their aesthetic properties are not simply guaranteed but held in question. How are we referring to the lives of people whose everyday experience is caught up in this kind of materiality? One way is to think about the fact that all those little figurines that come out of a kind of eviscerated, Dickensian fantasy of nineteenth century life worlds. A huge act of disrespect to Dickens, who was radical in many ways about his narratives.

“Allan Sekula interviewed by Bart De Baere and Christine Lambrechts,” 16 April 2012:10

[T]here’s a famous quote from that Cuban filmmaker Santiago Alvarez [Romàn] where he says: ‘Give me two photographs and I give you a movie.’ And I’ve so internalized that, that before even making films based on serious editing, I suppose I think I always had that dynamic of montage in mind. And so it allowed me to accept images that maybe didn’t stand on their own. […]

And even though the pose might resemble the pose of leisure and respite from work that you find in Meunier. In Meunier, what’s very significant is the pause, the interruption of work. What musical theater does, is aestheticize the movements of work, the productive movements. And what’s present in this, let’s say pre-mass ornament social realism of Meunier, is something of a claiming of the potential freedom of the body in the respite from work, you know the pause. And I think that’s very significant.

Excerpt from Jeroen Verbeeck, “Allan Sekula’s ‘Bureau of Mines:’ A Possible Reader”, in Nicola Setari and Hilde Van Gelder (eds), Allan Sekula Mining Section (Bureau des Mines). Collaborative Notes (Ghent: AraMER, 2016): 50-58.