Allen Sekula: Aerospace Folktales and Other Stories

Columbus Museum of Art presents Allan Sekula: Aerospace Folktales and Other Stories, an exhibition that explores the work of the American artist Allan Sekula. A pivotal figure in contemporary art from the early 1970s until his untimely death in 2013, Sekula continuously questioned the function of the documentary genre and the consequences of global capitalism through his critical writings, photographic installations, videos, and films. At the core of the exhibition is the artist’s first major work, Aerospace Folktales (1973), an installation that was acquired by the Museum in 2015. This first finished exhibition version, which has not been shown since the 1970s, comprises 142 photographs, a written “commentary,” and four audio interviews that investigate the artist’s own class and family circumstances— his father, an aerospace engineer, had recently been laid off from Lockheed, then the single largest defense contractor in the United States.

“Sekula taught at Ohio State University in the early 1980s, where he not only produced key works, like Reagan Tape, but also published his influential book Photography Against the Grain in 1984. So, it’s particularly special to be able to bring his work back to Columbus,” said Drew Sawyer, the curator of the exhibition and William J. and Sarah Ross Soter Associate Curator of Photography. “Works like Aerospace Folktales altered the way in which documentary photography was conceptualized and used in contemporary art, and the work continues to be an urgent model for representing the political and social realities of our world.”

Alongside Aerospace Folktales, the exhibition features a selection of significant works from Sekula’s multi-faceted practice between 1972 and 2012. The earliest work in the exhibition, Untitled Slide Sequence from 1972, is a 35mm slideshow that presents twenty-five still images of aerospace factory workers as they leave their shifts at a General Dynamics Convair Division factory in San Diego, where several of them likely helped produce the F-111 military planes that flew in Vietnam. The single-channel video Reagan Tape, made with Noël Burch in Columbus, Ohio in 1981, intercuts news clips of Reagan’s first speech after his inauguration with clips from his Hollywood films. Waiting for Tear Gas (1999-2000) consists of images taken in Seattle during protests against the World Trade Organization in the autumn of 1999. Sekula records “the lulls, the waiting, and the margins of the events.” Other works in the exhibition, such as the slide show Dismal Science, Chapter 8 of the larger project Fish Story (1989–92), or the film The Forgotten Space (2010), look closely at the maritime economy and its impact on globalization. One of Sekula’s last works, Art Isn’t Fair (2012), humorously investigates the recent rise of global contemporary art fairs.

Allan Sekula (1951-2013) was a photographer, theorist, historian, and educator who lived and worked in Los Angeles, California. He studied with artists John Baldessari and David Antin, filmmaker Manny Farber, and philosopher Herbert Marcuse at the University of California San Diego in the early 1970s, where he and fellow classmates Fred Lonidier and Martha Rosler synthesized Conceptual art, film, and Marxist philosophy into a critical documentary practice. For forty years, Sekula produced deeply personal documents about labor, landscape, and the history and uses of photography under global capitalism. Sekula participated in the 29th Biennial de São Paulo, documenta 11 and 12, and the 1993 and 2014 Whitney Biennial in addition to numerous museum solo and group shows. Today, Sekula’s work is included in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; Tate Modern, London; Centre Pompidou, Paris; Museum Folkwang, Essen, Germany, among others.

Image: Allan Sekula, Aeorspace Folktales, 1973, Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio. Museum Purchase, Howald and Derby Funds, with additional funds provided by Syvlia L. Goldberg; and J. Ronald and Louisa Bertch Green.

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