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.


Notes on Display

[…] Le Grisou [The Firedamp]

Le grisou est un gaz incolore et inodore. Il est principalement composé de méthane, mais aussi d’autres gaz en petites quantités: l’éthane, le dihydrogène, le diazote et le gaz carbonique. Le grisou, en soi, n’est pas toxique. Il a pourtant tué des milliers de mineurs par explosions accidentelles — presque toujours nommées des catastrophes — dues à son extrême inflammabilité [emphasis in original]. — Didi-Huberman, 2014,15

When, in writing these notes, I (re)turn to Georges Didi-Huberman’s Sentir Le Grisou (2014) centered on Pier Paolo Pasolini’s poetic, cinematic essay La Rabbia [The Rage] (1963), it is by way of a slight detour that I approach Allan Sekula’s notion of display here. En route to the artist’s former studio in Los Angeles — departing from a ghostly Brussels airport, shaken by the recent terror attacks — Sentir Le Grisou seems to reverberate throughout this research journey. Why speak of Pasolini in relation to Sekula? (Dis)assembled in its entirety from archival images, newsreel footage, selected for the most part from Mondo libero, an Italian ciné-journal, La Rabbia unfolds along a double register to reflect on the current state of the world: “un montage poético-documentaire sur l’état … du monde contemporain.” (Didi-Huberman, 2014, 34) It is nevertheless audible in distinct voices — its sound montage superimposed onto a sequence of black and white images through which the poet-filmmaker interrogates the image and, by extension, language.14

Images, certainly, constitute the main body of Sekula’s The Dockers’ Museum. Not coincidentally, there are connections, analogies to La Rabbia. Take, for instance, the persistent reference to (mine) disaster, which could perchance be read sequentially, not unlike Pasolini’s disquieting sequence of miners’ bodies retrieved from the Morgnano mine.15 Yet, these are mere speculations on my part. While La Rabbia unfolds over time in filmic, interdiscursive sequences, replete with sound and spoken commentary, Sekula’s intertextual approach — as subtle as it is pervasive — seems to foreground the very act of reading. Not mere poetry, but a “poetics of prose,” part (visual) essay, part fable (fabula), Sekula’s (counter-)argument is laid out spatially. As such, it stresses a body of work “made to be re-configured in different ports, with images [and objects] added or subtracted as appropriate.” (Sekula in Van Gelder, 2015, 110-111)

What is more, in its consideration of the anti-archive, The Dockers’ Museum allows Sekula to actively question “both the mediatic and blind accumulation of archival data.” (Sekula in Van Gelder, 2015, 112) At first, cursory glance, it might seem ironic then, that the bulk of images that the artist collects is largely extracted from news archives.

“At the time of La Rabbia, Pasolini was asking himself questions which he would address later in his semiotic writings, such as: Are not images used to document historical and factual truth because they speak a language? What is the part played by the image and what by the commentary? And how can a viewer inured to the “atrocious banality” of pre-digested images be jolted from his/her acquiescence?” (Viano, 1993, 115)

Connectedly, Sekula’s artist museum seeks to go against the “atrocities committed in the names of collectors,” proposing a ‘sub-sub-underground-anti-connoisseurship’ instead.” (Sekula in Van Gelder, 2015, 91)

In a succession of seven instalments (2010-2013), Sekula comes to mount specific, carefully selected objects on a flotilla of white plinths that occupy or punctuate the exhibition space like upturned vessels or floating buoys, to be navigated by its beholder. A tactical move, its dispositif unmistakably museological, these objects — to this date — have only been shown in dialog with Sekula’s own photographs Ship of Fools. Those, in turn, are accompanied by wall texts, for the most part composed of fragments from the artist’s writing. Sekula reedits the exhibition’s content, according to each discrete venue and context, following a relay principle, with M HKA being the work’s storehouse and hub. Yet, what does it mean, disregarding the obvious tactics, to hold (objects, images and reflections) literally in reserve? And, what constitutes Sekula’s unfinished work, its components, sequences and discrete sections?

That said, it is precisely the display of ‘archival’ material, of images and graphics placed within but also outside of (interpretive) reach, which is of interest to me here. By this I mean those very ‘objects’ literally held at bay yet to be exhibited. From the very first instalments of Ship of Fools in Antwerp and São Paulo — a move, arguably still tentative in articulation — to the “monochrome room” of The Dockers’ Museum in Rennes.16 Or, more concretely, the images and prints brought together sequentially, albeit anachronistically on tilted display boards, extending from the walls to inter-relate old and new ports (Santos-Antwerp) within a mise-en-abyme of spaces.

– Anja Isabel Schneider

14. Pasolini’s commentary, combining poetry and prose, is read by novelist Giorgio Bassani and painter Renato Guttoso respectively in voice-over. Cf. M. Viano, A Certain Realism, Making Use of Pasolini’s Film Theory and Practice (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1993): 111-118.

15. Cf. M. Garcés, “Honesty with the Real,” Journal of Aesthetics and Culture, 4 (2012),, last accessed on 1 September 2016.

16. Allan Sekula’s 2012 exhibition at La Criée in Rennes, curated by Jürgen Bock, has been considered a turning point in that The Dockers’ Museum “took over.” Cf. H. Van Gelder (ed.), Allan Sekula. Ship of Fools / The Dockers’ Museum (Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2015): 75.

Excerpt from Anja Isabel Schneider, “Notes on Display,” in Nicola Setari and Hilde Van Gelder (eds), Allan Sekula Mining Section (Bureau des Mines). Collaborative Notes (Ghent: AraMER, 2016): 29-41.