A cross between documentary photography and storytelling, Allan Sekula's sprawling exhibition "Fish Story" at Walker Art Center takes a look at the global shipping industry, from the San Pedro Bay Port Complex in his hometown of Los Angeles to Ulsan, South Korea, where Hyundai looms so large that it feels like something out of a dystopian novel, and many other ports in between.
Shot between 1988 and 1995, "Fish Story" is an exhibition and a photo book, unfolding over nine chapters. Curator William Hernández Luege scattered copies of the photo book throughout the exhibition, too. Wandering through the show, some of the photos may catch your eye — like a firefighter dressed in reflective yellow gear putting out a fire in L.A.'s Koreatown while a billboard of a woman in red looms in the background, against a cloudy sky. Or rows of men huddled on benches and lined against walls in an unemployment office in Gdańsk, Poland. Despite the focus on broader industry, it's the people who power this massive machine that feel most visible in the exhibition.
We caught up with Luege, former curatorial assistant at the Walker, who recently became curatorial associate at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What drew you to Sekula's project?
Something that drove me was the actual book, "Fish Story," which was made in the '90s as part of the exhibition. He saw both the exhibition of his story and the book as equally the work and equally the project.
It was when reading his writings I realized, "Oh, you're thinking in a very sort of philosophical, heady, sort of classic leftist way about all these goods and services and the material conditions and that kind of stuff," but at the heart of it, he keeps always introducing anecdotes of people, and you see it on the wall text, as well … turning it into a series of individual encounters or moments out of people's lives and those moments give [the viewer] a way in.
It could have just been a sort of documentary-style story, no? I keep thinking about that photo of the couple in L.A. who live sometimes in shipping containers.
You could follow a single individual for, you know, weeks on end and that is its own other kind of documentary photography. What's cooler, what he was trying to do, was sort of bridge these two — this sort of very material-oriented flows of goods and services on the one side, but reminding you that the other side of that coin are people.
What's the best way to experience this show?
To me, there are two primary ways you could go into it. The first way is the exhibition way, starting at the beginning and just kind of methodically making your way through to the end. I highly commend anyone who does that — that is a feat, a really noble pursuit.
I realized when I picked up the book, I did not read it in order. When you're flipping through a photography book, you do that — you flip through it. And so that was something I wanted to re-create in terms of inviting people to bounce around the show.
What's built into the project even since the '90s is this idea that you can follow what interests you. This is what I would recommend for people from the get-go. Find an image that speaks to you for whatever reason, spend some time with that image, and then find the text nearby in that chapter. And it's not going to explain the image — the text and the images don't necessarily have that relationship. They provide context for each other.
There is a way to sort of ping-pong through the exhibition and I think that's not only acceptable, but that's fully built into how the book is structured, as well. And so that was something I also tried to do — put as many copies of the book into spaces. Hopefully people will be willing to have that relationship, of flipping through the book, and feeling like "I can flip through this exhibition in the same way."
'Allan Sekula: Fish Story'
When: Ends Jan. 21, 2024.
Where: Walker Art Center, 725 Vineland Place, Mpls.
Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Wed., Fri.-Sun.; 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Thu.
Cost: $2-$18, free for members and ages 18 and under.
Info: walkerart.org or 612-375-7600.