STAN DOUGLAS at the Art Gallery of York University (Accolade East Building, 4700 Keele) in conjunction with Contact and the Images Festival, April 20 to June 26. Opening reception Wednesday (April 19), 6 to 9 pm. 416-736-5161. Rating: NNNNN Rating: NNNNN
Vancouver - I'm awash in confusing memories that aren't even mine. Stan Douglas's new work at the Morris and Helen Belkin Gallery, Inconsolable Memories, is messing with my head.
Douglas likes it that way. The internationally acclaimed visual artist has for years been working with recombinant narratives, toying with our confusion. These video or film works repeat looped scenes in an ever-changing order, switch soundtracks from one scene to another and generally thwart our reflexive need for linear narrative.
Often, Douglas will prey on film genres and familiar stories to make deep surgical incisions into the dominant structures of politics, economics, history and the media in order to reveal the ways they affect us. Basically, it's drop-dead-smart cultural criticism you can see and feel.
Asked to classify his new work, he doesn't miss a beat. "Existential melodrama."
Inconsolable Memories opens Wednesday at the Art Gallery of York University as part of both the Contact and Images festivals. A demanding and fascinating exploration of post-revolutionary Cuba, it consists of 18 large, gorgeous photographs of Cuba's decaying architecture and a 16mm recombinant film based on Tomás Gutiérrez Alea's groundbreaking 1968 film, Memories Of Underdevelopment.
Alea's film was itself adapted from the novel Memorias Del Subdesarrollo, by Edmundo Desnoës, after which Douglas named his show.
Why all the layers of complexity? The short answer would be that nothing is simple with Stan Douglas. For starters, he maintains a strict distance from his work. Greeting me briskly at his downtown Vancouver studio, the large, well-dressed man sits down across from me at a long table. I ask why he keeps silent about himself.
"There's a common fallacy that artists' work is a symptom of their life, and that their life explains their work in some way," he says. "Bad biographies do this. I just tend to avoid it because it turns into this personality thing that sometimes is wrong."
While he does admit that his work contains at least something of himself, what that is proves difficult to figure out.
If there's one thing he's not, it's disorganized. The long studio full of computers, camea equipment and filing cabinets looks immaculately ordered even though Douglas is preparing to move to a new, two-floor studio space a few blocks away.
Sitting opposite him, at first I feel like I'm losing a game of Mastermind. No stranger to interviews, the seasoned artist deftly turns my questions back if they contain any unwelcome assumptions about him or his work.
When we light on topics that interest him, like the "witchcraft" by which capitalism creates surplus value, or his next work (he's making a western), his eyes light up and he speaks more rapidly, making small gestures with his long arms.
The essence of Douglas's work lies in its ability to render tangible the cerebral theories about these heady, forgetful days of what theorist Fredric Jameson calls late capitalism.
But he's not translating theory into images so much as cutting through to raw human experience.
"What I am trying to do is make certain problems visible," he tells me. "If there's a problem I can't resolve in some way, I want to see what it looks like and hear what it sounds like, and that's why I make the work."
To pull this off, Douglas employs the dumbfounding effect of the recombinant narrative. "It's the Kuleshov Effect," he says.
With a calm intensity, Douglas describes the Russian filmmaker's 1918 montage experiments. Cutting between a static shot of a famous actor with a blank look on his face and a series of emotionally charged images, Kuleshov found that his audience believed they saw the actor display a variety of emotions. In other words, context made all the difference. People gushed over the actor's brilliant performance.
Recombinant narratives work the same way, Douglas explains. "The sequence in which you see things affects the way you understand what you're seeing."
Before you get to the film, the first thing you see in Inconsolable Memories is the collection of vivid, large-scale photographs Douglas shot in Havana. Many of the buildings have been repurposed, out of necessity or as a symbolic gesture.
One shot, Havana Hilton/Habana Libre, illustrates the point. The hotel was only open for a year before Fidel Castro nationalized it in 1959 and appropriated the top floors as his revolutionary headquarters. Douglas's image captures what appear to be a dozen turkey vultures circling in the blue skies above it.
A breathtaking image, Quarry, Vedado, depicts a neighbourhood not far from the Habana Libre that was built around a quarry once worked by Cuban political prisoners.
Panopticon, Isla de Pinos/Isla de la Juventud, shows a prison where one-time general and president Fulgencio Batista held Castro and others for two years in the mid-1950s. A five-storey circular prison block surrounds a central guard tower from which hidden guards could shoot at will into the open cells. Not surprisingly, the place has simply been abandoned.
The heart of the show, however, is the recombinant projection, which takes about 90 minutes to see in all its permutations. Alea's 1962 film follows Sergio, a brooding, white, bourgeois intellectual who remains in Havana after his friends and family escape to the U.S. after the revolution.
Douglas moors his appropriation of Alea's film to the 1980 Mariel boatlift, during which more than 100,000 Cuban workers and prisoners were permitted to flee the country over the course of seven months.
In Douglas's work, Sergio is a black architect who is imprisoned for four years and released on the condition that he leave the country as part of the boatlift. As in Alea's film, the perpetually dissatisfied Sergio decides to stay.
"The majority of people who left in the original exodus before Mariel were white landowners and bourgeois business owners," Douglas explains. "The ones leaving at Mariel were often black and working-class. That's the relationship between those two events and those two characters. That and, of course, one being born bourgeois and one becoming bourgeois through the revolution."
We watch Sergio over a period of four years, from the departure of his adulterous wife and best friend, through his imprisonment, to his release and eventual return to his apartment, which he finds has been reassigned to an attractive woman wearing one of his wife's old dresses.
In the gallery's dark screening room, however, it doesn't take long to get lost. As the Kuleshov Effect predicts, each scene affects the way we read the next, but here the constant shuffling of scenes ungrounds us, destroying any shreds of continuity. For a while, trying to extract the narrative is like trying to make sense of a fever dream. Sergio is experienced as being trapped, overwhelmed by his memories. His confusion becomes yours, not depicted on the screen so much as viscerally experienced by the viewer.
Eventually, as we piece things together, disorientation gives way to a far deeper and more nuanced appreciation of Sergio's predicament.
"The repetition we see is much like somebody reflecting on his life and trying to find some way it makes sense to fit these pieces together," Douglas points out.
Sergio can't see his own role in creating the condition of alienation that affects him, an innately capitalist condition that his society tries to erase. The revolution couldn't eradicate the first Sergio, as Alea's film illustrates. Douglas shows that "20 years later, that same personality, the one who is self-obsessed and concerned with status, etc, has been reproduced by the revolution."
Capitalism, it would appear, knows no bounds. We relate to Sergio in the end because his experience of alienation is ours. All of a sudden, the political, ideological and psychological threads weave into meaning.
That tangible experience that Douglas concocts through complex techniques coalesces into a vibrant and lingering image of Cuba's half-century-old experiment.