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Challenging and revelatory | Allan Sekula in Beirut

Photography at work is arranged chronologically, but visitors to the Allan Sekula retrospective at the Beirut Art Center (BAC) may find that the most engaging portion of the show is its culmination. Born in 1951, Sekula was an American photographer, writer, filmmaker, theorist and critic. He passed away in 2013. Marie Muracciole, the BAC’s director and curator of the exhibition, knew the artist personally and has previously written on and curated his work. It has taken her three years to successfully bring his photographs to Beirut, and the pieces she was able to acquire result in a powerful but dense show that requires some unpicking.

Understated but deeply engaged with social and politic issues, initially in the United States and later on a global scale, Sekula’s work benefits from context. The BAC is holding regular tours, which held to elucidate and underline the power and importance of the photographs on show and why his older work was so ground-breaking.

The earliest works on show include a rare book featuring photographs of the artist’s family, candid black-and-white shots taken in the family home while Sekula was still a student. These set the scene for his later work, which remained unstudied, almost documentary in its aesthetic, concerned with everyday people living their everyday lives, particularly with the working and middle classes and the gulfs that divide them from the wealthy.

The series Untitled Slide Sequence – End of day shift, shot in San Diego in February 1972, captures workers leaving a factory where weapons were being manufactured for the Vietnam War. Tired and sullen, some obviously uncomfortable at being photographed, these workers trudge up the stairs as though aware that their way of life is almost obsolete, the war is nearing its end and America’s manufacturing jobs will soon be lost overseas.

Other black-and-white series on show include School is a Factory and California Stories, both connected with suburban America. It is the works in the final large gallery space, however, which are the most accessible and striking for local audiences. Muracciole has selected large, colour photographs from Sekula’s 1998-2000 series Titan’s Wake, shot in diverse locations around the world and – like much of the artist’s work – focused on the sea and those whose livelihoods depend on it. A diptych captures the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao from the suburbs, demonstrating the way in which the glistening, wave-like sculpture sits amid a modern industrial city, an unlikely golden egg that saved a floundering metropolis.

Muracciole was unable to bring everything she wished to due to concerns about humidity, so several series are displayed through slide shows, rather than original photographs. Fish Story pairs nicely with Titan’s Wake, capturing ship-building centres in the UK and Poland and their slow decline. Waiting for Tear Gas features haunting photos shot at protests in Seattle in 1999 and 2000, eschewing grand drama and violence for quiet moments of bravery and humanity.

It is these last few series that connect most powerfully with contemporary Beirut, with its recent protests that turned violent, its shuttered off port and its struggling economy. Sekula’s work is not easy, but it is rewarding. This retrospective is a timely and welcome addition to Beirut’s summer art season.

Allan Sekula – Photography at Work continues at the Beirut Art Center until September 29

By Irene McConnell.

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