March 30 – Southern California Video: Allan Sekula

Sunday March 30, 2008, 7:00 pm

At the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood

Los Angeles Filmforum presents
Southern California Video: Allan Sekula

Filmforum highlights the work of four artists whose work cries out for more exhibition – significant pieces by fine artists of their media.

We start with Allan Sekula in person presenting three video pieces, two recent, one much older, allowing us to see how his work has developed over the years.

Since the early 1970s, Allan Sekula’s works with photographic sequences, written texts, slide shows and sound recordings have traveled a path close to cinema, sometimes referring to specific films, sometimes, as he then described his 1973 work “Aerospace Folktales,” operating like a “disassembled movie” while resisting the “dictatorship of the projector.” However, with the exception of a few video works from the early 70s and early 80s, he has stayed away from the moving image. This changed in 2001, with the first work the Sekula was willing to call a film, Tsukiji, filmed in the Tokyo fish market of that name.

Tsukiji (2001, 43 mins, digital video, color, sound)  Tsukiji is a “city symphony” film of sorts, dedicated to the largest fish-market in the world, and one of the last surviving proletarian spaces in Tokyo. A film about cutting in a double sense, it harkens back to a moment of intersection of modernism and social realism, evoking the ghost of the left-wing Japanese novelist of the 1920s and 30s, Takiji Kobayashi, author of Kani kosen (The Factory Ship) and an early victim of Japanese fascism. — Allan Sekula

“Tsukiji, thus, was a risk for the established artist, who chose to depart from photography for the distant shores of video, a challenge that he rose to magnificently. The pacing of the video is spellbinding, with a masterful interplay between composed establishing shots and painfully intimate close-ups of fish gasping in their dying moments (some of them already without their bodies, whisked away by the swift knives of the fileters), or the lonely and vacant faces of the workers making their rounds. Sekula has a spectacular eye for visual detail, and there are many arresting moments here — from the band-saw dissection of enormous frozen tuna carcasses like chunks of birch wood, their heads stacked like cordwood in bins, or the filleting of live eels by chatting workers, or the horrific descaling of a living fish, its still-gasping mouth smeared with blood. Sekula has spoken of his work in relation to the traditions of still-life painting, and you can see why. These images — wet, sloppy with blood, scales and slime — are outrageously sensual, seducing us even as they elicit repulsion.” — Sarah Milroy, Globe and Mail (Toronto) 3 December 2004

“A masterpiece…” — James Benning, 2001.

Japanese, English

Direction/camera: Allan Sekula

Editing: Michael Jarmon

A Short Film for Laos (2006-2007, 45 mins, digital video, color, sound)  You start somewhere, and you end up somewhere else. You start with something, and you end up with something else.

I imagined I would start with the Mekong. Laos is a landlocked country threaded through by a great river. The boats are like needles in the muddy currents. But no justice can be done to the river in the dry season. Only the monsoon could complete the story. Maybe later: a longer film.

During the war, some thirty years ago, I read Fred Branfman’s book Voices From the Plain of Jars. No one was as relentless as he in exposing the secret American campaign that made Laos the “most bombed country on earth,” and thus a laboratory for imperial strategies that are both criminal and ineffective. As an American, I felt an obligation to visit the Plain of Jars, to see what we had done there.

In the retelling, the story of the war and the “mystery of the jars” begin to intertwine. An ancient civilization forged an electrical connection to the sky and a secret magnetism brought American bombers to earth, where they were refashioned into spoons.

The ancient Greeks tell us that the god of the forge chased the young goddess of war. In Laos, the guiding spirit of the forge is a scavenger, picking up after the demons of war.

Following now the story of metal rather than the story of water, I visit the blacksmiths of Ban Had Hien. The metal now comes from old truck springs. The competition from Chinese factory-made tools is tougher by the day. How long can this village economy sustain itself?

My grandfather was a blacksmith, and I still remember after fifty years the syncopated rhythm of the hammer and the glowing prize in the grip of the tongs. That was my first exposure to artifice in the old-fashioned sense, and thus to what art is all about.

In Laos, the rhythm of the forge is also the rhythm of the hearth, not so far from cooking over a wood fire. But there are other rhythms as well: the relentless industrial output of the brickmaking machine, the shoveling of gravel, the counting of money by young girls learning the lessons of the market, the quiet flux of voices at the river’s edge as the fireboats float away on the dark river.
— Allan Sekula

“Call it an essay on what the world’s made of, i.e. water and fire and iron and earth. Wryly ironic, compassionate, and unprepossessingly simple.” — Olaf Möller, Film Comment, January 2008.

Allan Sekula (direction, writing, camera, sound)

Elizabeth Hesik (editing)

English, French, Lao. (Lao subtitled version)

Performance under Working Conditions (1973, 20 mins, black and white, video)  Originally produced as a companion piece to a photo novel about working in a pizza restaurant, this early video performance is rarely shown, even though its title was lifted for a 2003 retrospective of Sekula’s work at the Generali Foundation in Vienna.

The structure is that of live television, an empty studio with two cameras and a switcher, no editing after the fact. Two cooks try to reproduce the gestures and banter of their work minus the ingredients and utensils of the kitchen. This is labor performed as madcap talky pantomine, without capital. There’s a line here that goes back to the anarcho-syndicalism of Laurel and Hardy.

Direction: Allan Sekula

Performance: Gregg Arreguin, Allan Sekula, David Scholar

Camera: Lennart Bourin

More on Allan Sekula, click on “Keep Reading” below.


Sekula’s books include Photography against the Grain (1984), Fish Story (1995) Geography Lesson: Canadian Notes (1996), Dismal Science (1999), Performance under Working Conditions (2003) and TITANIC’s wake (2003). These works range from the theory and history of photography to family life in the grip of military industrial complex to explorations of the world maritime economy.

His work was included in Documenta 11 (2002) and Documenta 12 (2007) in Kassel, Germany. He exhibits frequently outside the United States. Among other places, he has taught in the Cinema Studies Program at New York University, in the now-defunct Department of Photography and Cinema at the Ohio State University, and since 1985, in the Program in Photography and Media at the California Institute of the Arts.

Filmography:
Performance under Working Conditions (1973)

Talk Given by Mr. Fred Lux at the Lux Clock Company Manufacturing Plant in Lebanon, Tennessee, on Wednesday, September 15, 1954 (1974)

Reagan Tape (1984) Co-directed with Nöel Burch.

Tsukiji (2001)

Gala (2005)

The Lottery of the Sea (2006)

Short Film for Laos (2006)

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