Allan Sekula at M HKA in Antwerp

'Mermaid Honeymoon', the Allan Sekula show currently on at the M HKA, Antwerp’s contemporary art museum, will be of interest to anybody fascinated by the sea and art and especially the combination of both! Against the backdrop of the sea and shipping the American artist, photographer, filmmaker and activist explores a theme like working conditions and combines it with a fierce criticism of practices like the use of flags of convenience. But the artist's goal is wider. His message is one of hope: he believes a new way of living together is possible, both for the individual and society as a whole.

'Mermaid Honeymoon, subtitled 'A curatorial reflection on Allan Sekula's Ship of Fools/ The Dockers' Museum' shows a selection of works from Sekula's Ship of Fools/ The Dockers' Museum, a project on which he worked from 2010 until his death in 2013. The work is unfinished and consists of two parts.

Ship of Fools is a collection of photos taken by Sekula. Most of the photographs were made during his travels on the Global Mariner, a vessel that campaigned against exploitative abuse in the world of shipping. The Global Mariner was the brainchild of a group of British and German activists that sailed the high seas towards the end of the last century. Most of the activists were disaffected Greenpeace veterans, who were interested in the problems linked to shipping, labour and environmental struggle. They campaigned against flags of convenience, a device thought up by US lawyers in the Forties that allows wealthy ship owners to register their vessel in poor countries. The flags of convenience shield exploitation: labour conditions are poorer and vessels don't have to meet such high standards. The system allows ship owners to hide their abuse behind a legal maze. The Global Mariner was a vessel without cargo. It only carried ballast and a message: it demanded social justice at sea and functioned as an exemplary ship that stood as an example for all vessels.

The second part of the show consists of objects from Sekula's Dockers' Museum collection. There is the dried fish that is responsible for the fishy smell as you enter the room. There are postcards of dockers and a statuette of an Antwerp dockhand. Fascinating is a sheet from the 1874 Illustrated London News. It shows the German painter Albrecht Dürer sketching the panorama of Antwerp in 1520. Other artefacts from the museum include a knitted toy representing a mermaid as well as the skeleton of a sea mammal. In all the collection includes 1,250 artefacts, many of which Sekula bought online.

The Dockers' Museum forms part of a tradition of artists' museums. The central focus is on collecting, but, says exhibition curator Anja Isabel Schneider, the Dockers' Museum also questions the current day practice of collecting and archiving. In this way it can be seen as an anti-museum. Sekula wanted the objects in his museum to form a reminder of the social struggle in and around the docks. They illustrate the artist's appreciation of the dockworker, an intermediary figure between land and sea, who for Sekula became the architype of all the workers of the world.

The Mermaid in the title of the exhibition mirrors the role played by the dock worker. She too acts as a connective link between land and sea. Both figures represent hope and an opportunity for change. The hope is for a greater symbiosis and a change of direction, both for the individual and society as a whole.

'Mermaid Honeymoon, a curatorial reflection on Allan Sekula's Ship of Fools/ The Dockers' Museum' runs at M HKA in Antwerp until 26 April.

Top stories