Stan Douglas at the Venice Biennale: 2011 ≠ 1848
In his fifth appearance at the Venice Biennale and his first in the Canada Pavilion, Stan Douglas presents 2011 ≠ 1848, a two-part exhibition of photographs and film work offering a poignant exploration of intersections between moments of social and political unrest. In one of his most ambitious efforts to date, Douglas has brought to Venice more than thirty years of experience in exploring technologies of image-making, while skilfully blurring the line between fiction and reality.
The presentation, curated by Reid Shier, occupies two venues: the Canada Pavilion in the Giardini and the Magazzini del Sale no. 5 in the city’s Dorsoduro neighbourhood. For the pavilion, Douglas chose 2011 ≠ 1848, comprising four large-scale photographs that reimagine pivotal moments of protest and riot in New York, London, Vancouver and Tunis.
Reflecting momentous widespread upheavals in 2011, these events have been positioned in comparison to bourgeois revolutions of 1848, which saw multiple uprisings against European monarchies. Conceived within the context of the ten-year anniversary of 2011 (the Biennale was originally scheduled for 2021), Douglas’ compelling works call upon the parallels and divergences of these two explosive periods of revolutionary fervour.
The revolutions of 1848, also known as the Springtime of Nations, were fuelled by advancements in print technologies, just as the uprisings of 2011 were aided by digital communication and social media. Both resulted in varying degrees of change – whether heightened awareness of mounting dissatisfactions and deprivations, or the overthrow of monarchical and autocratic ruling systems in favour of a more democratic governing body. Perhaps most relevant to Douglas’ approach to 1848 ≠ 2011 is the impermanence of their outcomes. Despite being overturned or stifled, systems of control and oppression often repeat themselves as cycles in history. It is precisely this repetition and optimism for the possibility of a different outcome, that Douglas brings to the fore in his examination of local manifestations of a global condition.
Endowed with ample natural light, the Canada Pavilion is actually relatively small, and Douglas’ panoramic suite of photographs fills the entire space. One three-metre-wide photograph hangs on each of the four sections, built specifically for this exhibition to overcome the trademark curve of the pavilion’s principal wall. Douglas accounts for site-specificity in preparing for exhibitions and tends to fully inhabit the space afforded him. In Venice, the works permeate the space without overwhelming it. Viewers are invited to come in close, nearly nose-to-glass, to absorb each particular detail.
The four photographs are installed chronologically, functioning as an ostensibly dissonant timeline of resistance. A twilit image of the Arab Spring protests in Tunis on 23 January 2011 focuses on a group of young people defying curfew by gathering on Avenue Habib Bourguiba to protest a corrupt regime. The Vancouver-set scene is a chaotic – if not euphorically destructive – reimagining of the Stanley Cup riots, which erupted on 15 June after the Canucks lost the final game to the Boston Bruins. The image of the riots in London, England, on 9 August captures clashes between youth and police, sparked by the killing of Mark Duggan. The New York moment depicts non-violent Occupy Wall Street protestors – bearing signs emblazoned with “time for socialism” and “Chomsky for President” – being arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge in October. Hanging within the intimate space of the pavilion, these photographs have created an immersive environment, encouraging close scrutiny of the artist's monumental undertaking of recreation and re-enactment.
In Douglas’ work, what at first appears to be a photojournalistic endeavour is, in fact, what the artist calls a “hybrid-documentary” approach. As in his 2022 Revealing Narratives exhibition at Montreal’s PHI Fondation for Contemporary Art, in 2011 ≠ 1848 he orchestrates complex staged re-enactments through multi-day photo shoots that are composited with high-resolution plate shots of specific locations. Collaging together numerous photographs into a cinematic tableau composed of multiple vantage points, Douglas focuses each figure, object and structure sharply within his lens to enhance the uncanny feel of artifice. The discernibly fictional nature of these carefully composed images foregrounds notions of fact. Their constructed premise poses questions about the role of constructed realities in an age of “fake news.” Moreover, the artist's meticulous attention to historical detail tempers theatricality to create photographs that co-opt intricate digital manipulation to amplify the underlying social urgency.
Formal qualities aside, the interconnectivity of these specific moments is fundamental to the power of the Venice exhibition. Unevenly positioning a scene of seemingly senseless destruction, such as the Vancouver riots against the protests in Tunis, is at first perplexing. How does a riotous scene of near-hedonistic destruction relate to political uprisings that brought about a transition to democracy? Therein lies the essential quality of Douglas' strategy. By connecting these reimagined moments of riot and resistance, he suggests a common thread, provoking questions about the implications of their efficacy within a global sociopolitical context. By extension, 2011 ≠ 1848 seems to ask, in simultaneous exasperation and as rallying cry: “What more can be done?”
If the photographs of 2011 ≠ 1848 take a decidedly pessimistic stance, Douglas' film work ISDN – the second part of the Venice exhibition – embodies a more hopeful, even joyous, yearning for empowerment and an alternate future. ISDN is being presented in the Magazzini del Sale no. 5, a large historical warehouse. The two-channel video installation presents a fictionalized collaboration between Grime and Mahraganat rappers trading verses of dissent. Originating in London and Cairo respectively, Grime and Mahraganat were popularized in the mid- to late-2000s as genres evocative of collective discontent and youthful revolt.
The thrum of music draws viewers from the streets of Venice into the darkened space. Two screens hang facing each other, each spanning the width of the warehouse. London musicians TrueMendous and Lady Sanity on one side exchange the spotlight with Cairo’s Yousef Joker and Raptor on the other screen, as they duel back and forth. Set in improvised studios, their voices resonate against an exhilarating backdrop of bass lines, drums and melodies. Although the rappers appear to battle it out in real time, the sessions were actually recorded separately and woven together in this imaginary, hypnotizing call-and-response that seems to go on endlessly. In fact, the algorithm used by Douglas loops the beats and verses together in myriad alternate combinations which, if strung together, would go on for three days, reflecting the artist’s enduring interest in themes of multiplicity and possibility.
Douglas employed a similar strategy in Luanda-Kinshasa (2013), another work of speculative history in the form of an imagined, seemingly continuous 1970s Afrobeat jam session running over six hours. If Luanda-Kinshasa functioned as an embodiment of revolutionary politics, ISDN also speaks to a pervasive frustration with the powers that be and the importance of impassioned expression – whether in rap or riot – in challenging the status quo.
Along with music and the delineation of time, multi-channel video installations have permeated Douglas’ practice since the early 1990s, as a means of proposing multiple vantage points and overlapping narratives. He presented dual-screen installations in his investigation of Free Jazz in Hors-champs (1992) and his video work Doppelgänger (2019), an exploration of parallel realities which debuted at the 2019 Venice Biennale. In ISDN, Douglas’ use of opposing screens, coupled with chest-pounding beats and a visceral sense of urgency, culminates in an intoxicating musical experience.
Douglas was not the only artist to address themes of resistance at the Venice Biennale this year. From the refusal of Russian curators and artists to participate amidst the invasion of Ukraine, to the temporary Ukrainian Pavilion – a colossal tower of stacked sandbags at the heart of the Giardini – a distinct undertone of defiance has permeated the Biennale. The French Pavilion presented installations and film by Zineb Sedira, examining the Algerian independence movement of the 1960s. The Sámi Pavilion took the place of the Nordic Pavilion this year, displaying the works of three Indigenous artists in an effort to bring visibility to the struggle of Sámi communities in securing land rights and guardianship in the Arctic.
Where Douglas stands apart is not only in his effort to bring visibility – in painstaking detail – to reactions against particular social, economic and political inequities, but in his insistence on pursuing universal notions of unrest and upheaval within a global context. The two formal approaches of photography and film in his presentation at the 59th Venice Biennale may have been divergent, but the common thread in his work is the attempt to disrupt the binary viewpoint of artifice and authenticity. By remaining at a distance from real events, he creates space that allows viewers to draw their own conclusions about the potential of collective resistance as a vital force of revolution in pivotal moments of change.
The Venice Biennale continues until November 27, 2022. 2011 ≠ 1848 by Stan Douglas is currently on view at the The Polygon Gallery in North Vancouver until November 6, 2022, and at Remai Modern, Saskatoon, from January to April 2023. It will be shown at the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, from September 2023 to August 2024. Stan Douglas will be giving this year’s Stonecroft lecture on October 6, 2022 at the National Gallery of Canada. 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.