On the crisp morning of Sunday, September 2, I climbed a steep hill in central Germany. It was more than a kilometer's walk in a wooded park, up winding paths that led past ornamental bridges and waterfalls. At the bottom of the hill was an 18th-century palace; at the top was a Hercules statue so high up that it overlooks the entire city of Kassel. Also at the top of the hill was a billboard-size photograph of the room where the security guards sit at the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle.
Kassel was bombed heavily in World War II. Vowing to reconnect German life with progressive art after Hitler's raids on "degenerate" modernism, the city became home to Documenta, the prototype of cutting-edge international contemporary art shows.
It wasn't easy getting up that hill. The labor was an intended part of L.A. artist Allan Sekula's Shipwreck and Workers at Documenta, which closed September 23. Dozens of us huffed and puffed our way up the stairs flanking a baroque system of cascading water that leads down from Hercules. A row of large photographic panels referencing the 12 labors of Hercules was installed on the grass along the stairs.
The Henry photo, past the halfway point, was a surprise and a comic reprieve from the other photographs of grave diggers, midwives, farmers, and fishermen. It depicts a sparkling place, where Christmas lights and origami spirals hang from the ceiling and artwork crowds the walls—and it gave me a second wind. At the top, my lungs were burning, but I was still smiling privately as an organ grinder started up a priceless version of "Let It Be."
"It's the spirit of Seattle," Sekula said in a phone interview from Germany this week. "Like, why did the WTO make a mistake when they decided to hold their meeting in that city? They didn't think too hard about the rebelliousness of the place."
More specifically, the photograph represents the daily workplace of Henry security guards Bob Rini, cartoonist and illustrator, and Harold Churchill, poet, both of whom have worked there for at least a decade. In 1999, when Sekula's show Fish Story was at the Henry, he befriended Rini and Churchill and photographed them. Sekula asked for a copy of one of Rini's cartoons, depicting an episode in which the guard booth is mistaken for an art installation, but Rini never sent it.
Meanwhile, the photograph stayed in storage until now, and Rini and Churchill didn't know it was showing until I asked them about it. "Oh, no way!" Rini said when he saw the picture online. This time, he's sending Sekula the cartoon.