Stan Douglas: Ruptures in Time
For more than three decades, Stan Douglas has used his art to reconstruct and reimagine what he calls “ruptures.” Through works of film, photography, theatre and various other media, he studies pivotal moments in history – times brimming with social, cultural and political possibility – whose effects still reverberate today.
His multimedia noir stage production Helen Lawrence (2014), for example, is set in Vancouver in the late 1940s, before wartime black markets gave way to 1950s “hyper-normalization.” His Abbott & Cordova, 7 August 1971 (2008), the monumental double-sided photomural that hangs in the atrium of the Woodward’s Building in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, shows a re-enactment of the Gastown Riots, when police forcibly broke up a “smoke-in” protest. “By looking at those transitional moments,” Douglas says, “we can imagine a different outcome.”
The Vancouver artist will soon bring his illustrious practice to the Venice Giardini when he represents his country at the 59th Venice Biennale in 2021. "It is a great opportunity to make some new work for a very large audience,” he says. “I am going to be doing some fairly ambitious projects, which I’ve had on the back burner for some time.” Kitty Scott, recently appointed deputy director and chief curator of the National Gallery of Canada, who sat on the national Biennale selection committee, says she is curious to see what the artist will do in the Canada Pavilion. “Douglas’s films marry Hollywood production values and avant-garde experiment to tell stories that would otherwise remain invisible,” Scott says. “He is one of the most exciting, most intelligent and most ambitious artists out there.”
Douglas’s work is well represented in the Gallery’s collection, with 3 video installations and 3 photographic series of over 80 works in its holdings. These include the photo projects Nootka Sound Series (1996), picturing landscapes on the west coast of Vancouver Island that may at first look natural but bear traces of human presence, industry and waves of colonization, as well as Cuba Photographs (2001–05), which shows buildings that have been dramatically repurposed during that country’s post-revolutionary period.
His most recent projects include the two-channel video installation Doppelgänger (2019) and a series of photographs called Blackout (2017). The former takes place in an alternate present, in which humans have developed “quantum teleportation,” by which large bodies, i.e. people, can be transported through space. "When humans spotted an Earth-like planet," the artist explains, "we sent our spaceship on the 40-year journey, teleporting an astronaut across the distance to mitigate the rigours of space flight. The only problem is that when we sent an astronaut to that planet, they sent one to ours. So there is confusion.” A passphrase is misunderstood, and, subsequently, one astronaut is treated like a returning citizen, while the other is handled like "a potentially dangerous alien, quarantined and interrogated." The narrative, split between the two screens, appears initially mirrored, but diverges as the astronauts’ stories do, devising a dramatic means for comparison. The story pictures another rupture point, this one speculative rather than historical, with very real implications about the position of the Other and how difference is often regarded.
The Blackout photo series, on the other hand, imagines a blackout in New York City in the near future. The scenes, he says, recall the conditions of other such blackouts, like the one in 1977, when there was widespread rioting, looting and social upheaval, as well as the 2003 Northeast blackout, shortly after 9/11, in which “people were more helpful toward each other”. Douglas calls these “states of exception,” when “all normalcy is turned upside down.”
For Venice 2021, the artist understandably won’t offer many details at this stage – the work is still materializing. He did however share a bit about where his imagination is headed: “Next year will be the 10th anniversary of 2011, in which there were worldwide events taking place. Arab Spring was ongoing, there was Occupy Wall Street, there were the U.K. riots and even hockey riots in Vancouver. These, in my mind, are our version of 1848, when there were spontaneous revolutions throughout Europe. This just happened on a larger scale, with people feeling they weren’t being represented properly by their governments and wanting to make some protest against that.”
Once again he has plucked a transitional moment to be magnified and inspected. Another rupture whose ripples we are still riding today.
Stan Douglas's work will be on view in the Canada Pavilion at the 59th Biennale di Venezia from May to November 2021. Exhibitions in the Canada Pavilion are commissioned by the National Gallery of Canada and produced in partnership with the Canada Council for the Arts. The Canadian representation in 2021 is made possible through the generous financial support of the presenting sponsor Royal Bank of Canada (RBC), and through the National Gallery of Canada Foundation. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.