“Message in a Bottle”, chapter 5, from Fish Story, 1992/1994

Installation view: Allan Sekula – OKEANOS, Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary, Vienna, 2017. Photo: Jens Ziehe | TBA21

Seven cibachrome prints, two text panels
Overall dimensions variable

Message in a Bottle is the fifth chapters of Fish and consists of seven photographs accompanied by two text panels. This chapter looks at the changes in and the demise of the Spanish fishing industry—or rather its strategic displacement from one region (Vigo, Galicia) to another—and to the resulting, crumbling social conditions. Bill Roberts has described the dynamic at work as a “relationship between northern industrial decline and southern industrial development,” and this is a running theme in much of the series. (1) The photographs depict a definite version of barrenness, the conditions of a now partially derelict Spanish fishing industry: an occupied storefront of a fashion store, a worker unloading frozen fish imported from Argentina, the aftermath of a demonstration against the government’s recent cuts to unemployment benefits, a fisherman pulling up an empty net cast in an unsuccessful attempt to catch sardines. The photographs and accompanying text conjure Spain’s grand colonial history, in contrast to the contemporary condition of the fishing industry, in which the workers, here the fishermen and fisherwomen, are taking the burden of globalization.

This collection of photographs is presented alongside—and framed through—a short text, which critiques the political position of Captain Nemo, the protagonist of Jules Verne’s book Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea. Sekula describes with great ambivalence the figure of Nemo, who on the one hand is a genius and idealistic engineer and on the other presumably plunders an invisible, sunken Spanish treasure at the bottom of Vigo Bay. Thereby he calls into question the way in which the story disregards the complexity and inherent violence lodged in colonial exploitation and the process of what Karl Marx described as “primitive accumulation.” Sekula states, “Nemo’s wealth, despite his patronage of revolutionary movements, remains liable to the charge of barrenness.”
Allan Sekula (January 15, 1951 – August 10, 2013) was an American photographer, writer, filmmaker, theorist and critic. From 1985 until his death in 2013, he taught at California Institute of the Arts.[1] His work frequently focused on large economic systems, or "the imaginary and material geographies of the advanced capitalist world."[2]
He received fellowships and grants from the Guggenheim FoundationNational Endowment for the ArtsGetty Research InstituteDeutsche Akademischer Austauschdienst (DAAD), Atelier Calder[3] and was named a 2007 USA Broad Fellow.

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