US artist's fish-eye view of the world

A scene from Allan Sekula's video diary, Lottery Of The Sea (2006).
A scene from Allan Sekula's video diary, Lottery Of The Sea (2006).PHOTO: ALLAN SEKULA

You experience a strange kind of intimacy when you step into the gallery presenting a seminal exhibition of works by the late American artist, photographer and critic Allan Sekula.

Part of the reason for this is the way the works are presented - some below eye level, some above eye level - inviting closer examination of each image.

Fish Story, To Be Continued, NTU Centre for Contemporary Art's new exhibition, brings together, for the first time in South-east Asia, an important body of the artist's work created over a five-year period of research. This included travel to main industrial ports all over the world, including port cities such as New York, Rotterdam, Los Angeles, Hong Kong and Seoul.

The show, which runs till Sept 27, juxtaposes three chapters from his ambitious project, Fish Story (1988 - 1993), alongside the 2006 video diary Lottery Of The Sea and his last film, The Forgotten Space (2010).

Sekula's extensively researched works on the maritime world remind people that the sea is often the "forgotten space" in the contemporary world. He was among the earliest artists and photographers to examine how globalism as well as human and trade connections in the maritime industry were changing the world.

Professor Ute Meta Bauer, NTU CCA's founding director and cocurator of the exhibition, shares several rare insights into the artist's practice. For instance, one of the lesser-known facts is that Sekula, who died two years ago after a long struggle with cancer, visited Singapore in 2006 and arrived here on a cargo ship.


    Where: NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore, Gillman Barracks, Block 43 Malan Road

    When: Till Sept 27, noon - 7pm (Tuesday to Thursday and weekend), noon - 9pm (Friday), closed on Monday

    Admission: Free

    Info: Call 6339-6503 or go to

Prof Bauer tells Life: "It is not that he could not afford the airfare - it shows that as an artist, his approach was different. He wanted to fully understand the world he was documenting."

Indeed, that detailed documentation is one of the revelations of the exhibition.

Visitors get to see a fantastic play of light and shadow in frames that covers anything from cargo containers and shipyard workers to evocative panoramic views of the sea and details of nautical devices.

In documenting a lot of what is unseen, he captures deftly the many layers of global trade and exchange.

With its mix of film, photographs and words, the highly layered and complex exhibition invites a revisit, if only for an uninterrupted viewing of the three-hour-long film, Lottery Of The Sea, voiced by the artist himself.

In his photographs as in his film, Sekula's art critically analyses the many economic, political, social and cultural changes brought on by globalisation.

Some of the works, including some rarely seen books, are from the artist's estate and there are also works on loan from the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Ms Anca Rujoiu, co-curator of the exhibition, calls Sekula "a very important figure in contemporary art who shaped entire generations of artists through his work which took on many current issues and was research-driven".

His research-based artistic practice is also what makes this show a perfect fit for NTU CCA, given the centre's research focus.

Born in Pennsylvania in 1951, he taught at California Institute of the Arts. His works have been featured extensively, including in Documenta (11) and (12) at Kassel, Germany, Centre Pompidou, Sao Paulo Biennial and the Whitney Museum.

A recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Getty Research Institute and many other prestigious institutions, he employed unconventional methods of travelling around the world, documenting, among other things, the connection between the Atlantic and Pacific maritime space, in which millions of people from Africa were shipped as part of the Atlantic slave trade from the 16th to 19th centuries.

Prof Bauer hopes the presentation of this exhibition in Singapore will continue the dialogue, conversations and examination of maritime histories of the world.

She says: "We open the exhibition as Singapore marks its 50th year as a nation. Given the maritime references and how port activities contributed to economic growth here, Sekula's art offers a fitting reflection."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 07, 2015, with the headline 'US artist's fish-eye view of the world'. Print Edition | Subscribe