Blog 3 // Exhibition: ALLAN SEKULA. Mermaid Honeymoon. A Curatorial Reflection on Allan Sekula’s “Ship of Fools / The Dockers’ Museum” (2010–2013)

The research exhibition Mermaid Honeymoon. A Curatorial Reflection on Allan Sekula’s Ship of Fools / The Dockers’ Museum (2010–2013) curated by Anja Isabel Schneider, shows a selection of objects and photographs from Ship of Fools / The Dockers’ Museum (2010–2013), the unfinished last project of American artist, activist, photographer, and writer Allan Sekula. It forms one of the concluding outcomes of a PhD in Curatorial Research, as part of the research project Art Against the Grain of “Collective Sisyphus”: The Case of Allan Sekula’s Ship of Fools / The Dockers’ Museum (2010–2013), jointly developed by M HKA and the Lieven Gevaert Centre at KU Leuven and UCLouvain, with professor Hilde Van Gelder as promotor. 

In her exhibition, which goes accompanied by a written dissertation, Schneider brings to the surface the underlying subtext of Ship of Fools / The Dockers’ Museum through a speculative reading of the mermaid/siren theme within the project as linked to one of Sekula’s other great sources of inspiration: the dockworker. The title Mermaid Honeymoon not only refers to a dominant graphic included in the exhibition; it also references a theory by the Hungarian psychoanalyst Sándor Ferenczi, which is based on ‘uterine and thalassal regression’. Ferenczi used the attraction of the sea as a metaphor for the human wish of procreative renewal, which for Sekula stands for the relationship between the mermaid and the seaman.  

Installation view of the research exhibition Mermaid Honeymoon – A Curatorial Reflection on Allan Sekula’s Ship of Fools / The Dockers’ Museum (2010–2013), M HKA, Antwerp, 2020, curated by Anja Isabel Schneider. Collection M HKA, Antwerp / Collection Flemish Community. © Photo: M HKA, Christine Clinckx.

Ship of Fools forms a series of slides and photographs mostly taken by the artist during his travels aboard the activist ship the Global Mariner (1998–2000), a cargo vessel with an exhibition in its hold, campaigning against the exploitation of seafaring workers’ rights, and demanding social justice at sea. In doing so, the Global Mariner functioned as a ‘good ship’ -as Sekula would say – that could form an example for all vessels. The Dockers’ Museum, on the other hand, is a collection of 1,245 artefacts or “objects of interest” as the artist called them, mostly purchased on eBay by Sekula himself. First of all, these objects serve as emblematic reminders of social struggles in and around the docks and, secondly, they illuminate the artist’s recognition of the dockworker as the archetype of all workers around the world, due to his intermediary existence between land and sea. While The Dockers’ Museum can be inscribed in the tradition of artists’ museums with a focus on collecting, it also calls our modern-day ‘archive fever’ into question, thus leaving room to be interpreted as an anti-museum and even anti-archive. 

Installation view of the research exhibition Mermaid Honeymoon – A Curatorial Reflection on Allan Sekula’s Ship of Fools / The Dockers’ Museum (2010–2013), M HKA, Antwerp, 2020, curated by Anja Isabel Schneider. Collection M HKA, Antwerp / Collection Flemish Community. © Photo: M HKA, Christine Clinckx.

Upon entry to the exhibition, one is immediately greeted by the striking juxtaposition of the double nature of Ship of Fools / The Dockers’ Museum through the confrontation between Sekula’s photographic image of a ship’s wake titled Churn, hung next to the cartoon Mermaid Honeymoon (The Frenzy of Ferenczi), one of Sekula’s “objects of interest” that formed the departure point for Schneider’s curatorial research. Churn forms quite an accessible venture point for the exhibition through its visual language of almost kitschy Hollywood-likeness, which can only be understood as highly layered in relation to the rest of the exhibited photographs and objects, among which we find postcards, vintage photographs, and even a dried fish spreading a pungent sea-like smell. 

Sekula’s photographs not only depict his interest in the human figure of the dockworker, as is made clear by Schneider through the addition of the triptych on the ‘Engine Room Eyes’. Three pictures of boat engines, each framed precisely to make the meter resemble a Cyclops’s eye, are positioned on the opposite wall of the dockers’ portraits. The Cyclops may not be precisely the reference Sekula was aiming at while taking the pictures, his interest for myths and animals or objects with humane characteristics is crucial throughout his oeuvre. The ship holds thus more of an enigmatic function than that of a  a mere rational machine.  

Installation view of the research exhibition Mermaid Honeymoon – A Curatorial Reflection on Allan Sekula’s Ship of Fools / The Dockers’ Museum (2010–2013), M HKA, Antwerp, 2020, curated by Anja Isabel Schneider. Collection M HKA, Antwerp / Collection Flemish Community. © Photo: M HKA, Christine Clinckx.

Remarkable as well is the wave-like rhythm that Schneider manages to create in the exhibition space, while simultaneously keeping a balance between the selection of photographic images and objects that make up the two parts of Ship of Fools / The Dockers’ Museum. This tension throughout the space is especially visible when one searches for the motif of the mermaid. In a speculative reading, one could start on the left side of the room with the siren-like quality of the displayed nautical foghorn, then moving – with some imagination – towards a skeletal interpretation of a mermaid’s upper body in the form of a chiropractor’s life size model of a human vertebrae, through to her tail (or two tails) displayed as an Ebi shrimp plastic sushi model, to be finally confronted on the right side of the space with a knitted toy representing a full-bodied mermaid. Just like the dockworker, the mermaid serves as a connective link between land and sea. By suggesting a greater symbiosis and opportunity for change, both figures represent hope and force towards the creation of solidarity, both for the individual and for society as a whole. 

The exhibition asks for an engaged and intuitive reading by its viewers, but for those willing to dive deeper than the surface, a vast and intricate cluster of meaning and layers comes within view, waiting to be discovered and reimagined. 

Installation view of the research exhibition Mermaid Honeymoon – A Curatorial Reflection on Allan Sekula’s Ship of Fools / The Dockers’ Museum (2010–2013), M HKA, Antwerp, 2020, curated by Anja Isabel Schneider. Collection M HKA, Antwerp / Collection Flemish Community. © Photo: M HKA, Christine Clinckx.

Anja Isabel Schneider’s dissertation is titled (Psychic) Subtext(s): A Curatorial Research Project on Allan Sekula’s Ship of Fools / The Dockers’ Museum (2010–2013).  Her defense will be on the 4th of September at KU Leuven.

The exhibition will be open until the 6th of September in M HKA (Leuvenstraat 32, 2000 Antwerpen). We hope to see you there!

Authors: Maria Victoria Bas en Clara Wouters

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