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Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Art Thu Dec 03 2009

Exploring Poland in Chicago: Allan Sekula at The Renaissance Society

Picture 1.pngAllan Sekula's current solo show at the Renaissance Society, titled Polonia and Other Fables, was executed over a three-year period and is comprised of 40 photographs and related text. Also on display in the gallery is an older piece of his, an installation of a slideshow, titled "Walking on Water."

Motifs such as the hammer and sickle, May Day parades, black sites, music, and the artist's family are repeated throughout the exhibition. We can tell that Sekula is definitely trying to say something about geopolitics, and perhaps something about heritage and assimilation, but it's difficult to figure out exactly what without extensive research. The subtly snarky title of the show, Polonia and Other Fables, is the clearest indicator. For interested viewers who want to try to piece together the puzzle, Sekula, who is an accomplished writer in addition to a photographer, has provided extensive texts both on the walls and in laminated folders on tables within the exhibition. The writing in the folders reads like spontaneous memoirs. Quotes spur rants and elicit memories, which are often vague and poetic. In this sense, the writing mimics the photographs, but I'm not sure how much it adds to the photographs. It almost seems like the photographs should be supplementing the text, instead of vice-versa.

Writing about Sekula's work both by him and others suggests an interest in the pitfalls documentary photography, but this critique is not necessarily clear in Polonia and Other Fables, except perhaps in a single photograph- Ladies Auxiliary Polish Army Veterans of World War II. Polish Constitution Day parade, 3 May 2008. It is a dynamic scene, reminiscent of a David painting, with a caped man entering the frame from the left and engaging with the audience by pointing straight into the camera, his mouth gaping. A caped woman on the right holds out her hands, with her palms down, in what appears to be a calming gesture. This photograph suggests a critique of documentary photography because it brings up the problem of subject self-awareness. We can no longer assume authenticity in photography. This is an issue that has become ever more relevant in today's world of Photoshop and reality television.

There are some charmingly site-specific touches in the exhibition, like a series of photographs documenting people on the University of Chicago's campus, only feet from the gallery, waiting for the legendary May Day noontime shadow of hammer and sickle to appear on the sidewalk, cast by Virginio Ferrari's sculpture. Sekula, being a liberal man of Polish decent, presumably has an interest in Chicago because of its Polish connections, as well as its rich history of labor union organization. The exhibition also displays a reoccurring interest in public cultural displays--from the May Day march downtown to the Taste of Polonia festival in Jefferson Park.

There is no question that the show is thoughtful and generous. The audience, though, in return, must be generous with their time. A fair and insightful viewing of Polonia and Other Fables requires patience, so do not try to rush through this show or you will likely walk out with nothing.

Polonia and Other Fables will be up until December 13 at The Renaissance Society (5811 S. Ellis) on the University of Chicago campus.

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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