Editors' note: Allan Sekula’s This Ain’t China (1974) was a photo-conceptual artwork that fused what would later be called social-practice art with a narrative aesthetic. Sekula seemed to echo the surrealism of Jean Luc Godard’s late 1960s political films (such as Weekend and La chinoise). Maoist China, a rallying point for the attenuated New Left, stands in as the bogeyman of American cultural and economic life. What is remarkable is that Sekula’s This Ain’t China avoids both the paternalism and faux neutrality of much latter social practice art. Instead of avoiding “metanarratives” Sekula creates one by staging photographs combined with text. He tells the semi-fictional story of a group of San Diego restaurant workers (including himself). They discuss their working conditions, organize a union and pose with weapons. In This Ain’t China Maoism exists as a touchstone for protagonists and antagonists alike. “China” exists as a pun; the plates in the diner where Sekula works are anything but “fine china.” For more on Allan Sekula’s This Ain’t China, read Monika Szewczyk’s “Negation Notes” on e-flux.
The quoted text and images below are from Sekula's photo-novel. Click on thumbnails for enlarged images.
the cook liked to believe that his story pivoted on a parable about the relative merits of fact and fiction in everyday class struggle.
everyone was satisfied that the first photograph constituted the truth and that the second was a clever piece of propaganda. and from that point on all the photos had a staged look. not because of a moral or aesthetic commitment to fiction but because it was no longer possible to photograph inside the boss’s kitchen nor was it possible to work there.
Allan Sekula (1951-2013) was an artist, photographer and filmmaker.