Sense of a Moment: Representation, Re-imagination and Style
The Beat Goes On, one of the new displays at the National Gallery of Canada, presents works that explore various sites and communities in North America and the United Kingdom, where creativity and musical experimentation flourished between the 1950s and 1970s. These works complement the video Luanda-Kinshasa by Vancouver artist Stan Douglas, which is on view in the adjacent gallery. Together, they ask us to consider how cultural movements and political identities take form through creative endeavours, whether in film, publishing, design, music or fashion. They also highlight how these phenomena are influenced by the co-creation of spaces where people can come together. A backdrop of social and political upheaval extends across many of the works, underlining the importance of artistic expression in helping make sense of challenging times.
The six-hour-long video Luanda-Kinshasa, created by Douglas in 2013, combines a variety of his many interests: imagined and failed utopias, the reconstruction of past events to understand the present, the use of video loops and the role music played in the cultural turmoil of the 1960s and 1970s. The video depicts a fictional and seemingly never-ending jam session at the famed Columbia 30th Street Studio in New York during the 1970s, where iconic albums were recorded by musicians such as Leonard Bernstein, Glenn Gould, Bob Dylan and Miles Davis.
Douglas painstakingly replicated the one-room studio and hired musicians to play a Miles Davis-inspired Afro-jazz-funk groove. The fictional live session combines a series of solos, with each performer given equal focus, set against a backdrop of technicians and groupies. The title references two African cities – the capitals of Angola and of Zaire (the Democratic Republic of the Congo) – that were thriving cultural hubs at the time and played a role in influencing a number of musical and social movements in North America. Douglas layers this triad of historical spaces to probe the failed promise of racial and cultural equality of the 1970s, while suggesting what a truly harmonious social situation might look like.
In their installation 1+1-1 (2007–09), the artist duo Hadley+Maxwell transform the gallery space itself into a recording studio, complete with sound baffles, lights, speakers and a monitor – evoking a space for the emancipation of creativity and process. The installation is accompanied by a series of drawings depicting the elements of a recording studio: amps, musical instruments, lights, microphones, patch cords and wires, giving them an animated quality bordering on the anthropomorphic. These works reference Jean-Luc Godard’s 1968 film 1 + 1 (which was released with the alternate title Sympathy for the Devil), in which the French-Swiss director combined documentary footage of the Rolling Stones recording their track of the same name with staged scenes referencing the most politically steeped problems of the day: race issues, war, and perceived threats to freedom and democracy through its antithesis, Fascism.
Hadley+Maxwell dissect and respond to Godard’s film, echoing its non-linear structure and using similar strategies of deconstruction, interruption, repetition and juxtaposition. The filmmaker had wanted to keep his film open-ended, focusing on the stop and start of the 1968 recording session, but the producers insisted on including the finished song in the final cut. Hadley+Maxwell attempt to “un-finish” the film, isolating and re-creating its elements as a multi-part installation.
Sitting quietly in a corner and yet probably the most controversial element of the installation, the video Freudemocracy 6 presents a streaming transcript of the film, in karaoke-style, on a monitor. The white text turns to black, set against a red background. It moves between Godard’s studio footage of the Rolling Stones and his staged sequences, providing an alternative experience of the band’s recording process and the political turmoil of the time. The reversed text can only be read in the reflection, so it is more demanding on the viewer. The presentation of the script in this way also removes the dialogue from its original context, as the viewer does not know who is talking, nor what the scene is.
Hadley+Maxwell homogenize the backdrop, props and band in order to shift the focus away from the cult personality. The abstract paintings Mick, Olympic Studios, 1968 and Brian, Keith, Charlie, Bill, Marianne, Jimmy and Anita, Olympic Studios, 1968 are portrayals of the band members and other vocalists. Here they become vertical bands of colour based on the clothes they were wearing, mixed in with the hues of the background and surrounding props. Derived from the projection of the original film, the paintings are “democratizations,” treating both the musicians and the backdrop of the recording studio in the same way. The artists use clothing or instruments to evoke the personalities of band members, suggesting the rebelliousness of youth culture as well as the influence of music and fashion on identity. In Colour Field for Charlie, a vintage snare drum and metronome have been customized with red automobile paint to create an unconventional portrait of drummer Charlie Watts. Shown in proximity to a configuration of colourful sound baffles, the sculpture suggests the environment of the Olympic Sound Studio in London, where the 1968 recording took place.
Works by five other artists form part of this exploration of forms of musical expression and styles of the moment, including through photography and print. Austrian-born American photographer Lisette Model relished the energy of life and unconventional moments. Her photographs of Ella Fitzgerald and Dizzy Gillespie, and of Bud Powell and Percy Heath at the New York Jazz Festival at Downing Stadium on Randall’s Island around 1956–58, encapsulate her fresh vision and the dynamic quality of her work. The proximity to the action and low camera angles give the subjects a larger than life presence.
Swiss-born artist Robert Frank, who divided his time after 1971 between Nova Scotia and New York, had concentrated on filmmaking from 1959 onwards. In 1970, however, he returned to the photographic medium, often collaging images with film stills and text. Frank’s connection to the Rolling Stones was through lead singer Mick Jagger, who in 1971 invited the artist to film a documentary of the band. Frank’s photograph of them walking down Main Street in Los Angeles was used for the cover of their Exile on Main St album. The photographer included the image in his series The Americans, first published in Paris in 1958 and in the U.S. the following year.
Photographer Sam Tata immersed himself in the cultural life of Montreal when he immigrated to Canada in 1956, taking portraits of celebrated literary and artistic figures. His 1974 photograph of musician Trevor Payne exemplifies the pictorialist skills that mark his mature work – subjects are respectfully posed, thoughtful and contextualized within a personally significant setting.
Ningiukulu Teevee is one of the current generation of artists who are reinvigorating Inuit oral traditions through their graphic depiction. Although she largely looks to traditional legends for inspiration, she also explores contemporary subjects with unexpected candour and grit. Commenting on both sources of inspiration and her process, she states: “Sometimes I draw what I see: life in the community and my own thoughts about how things have changed. I see a lot of changes, and I know that people older than I am have seen even more ... I think of myself as an artist, but sometimes I feel pressure to keep coming up with ideas and new stories.”
Her depiction of a record player and Beatles album may seem unexpected to some viewers, but rock 'n roll has found a place within Inuit musical history, which goes back centuries. In her tongue-in-cheek title Yesterday, as our fellow curator Christine Lalonde points out, Teevee refers to both the famous Beatles song as well as nostalgia around the rock 'n roll era of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. In particular, she reflects upon her personal memories of her uncle's portable record-player and the image in this sense is an homage to a dearly loved family member.
Photographer David Hartt takes the viewer behind the scenes to evoke fashion and design. His 2011 Stray Light series of photographs (and a video), features the iconic 1971 modernist office tower in Chicago that was the headquarters of the Johnson Publishing Company (JPC). Publisher of Ebony and Jet magazines, the company had a foundational and ever-evolving influence within African-American culture, politics and identity. The artist spent several weeks photographing and filming the interior, observing how the decor and ambience “crystalizes a then-dominant notion of black taste.” Together, these photographs present a visual meditation on the specific style and workplace culture of JPC.
A sense of moment, time, representation and music resonates across all these works. The display can itself be understood as a form of “jam session” in which different curatorial voices have come together, first by selecting works, and then re-configuring them in this specific context and conversation. The resulting installation is but one version of myriad possibilities.
The Beat Goes On and Stan Douglas' Luanda-Kinshasa are on view in B103 and B103a at the National Gallery of Canada until December 2021. 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.