Through photography, film and installation the Canadian artist Stan Douglas has, since the late-1980s, examined complex intersections of narrative, fact and fiction while simultaneously scrutinising the media he employs and how it shapes our understanding of reality. Douglas' work is often in the first instance an examination of place – Lisbon, Potsdam, Havana and Detroit have provided the impetus for, respectively, The Secret Agent, 2015, Der Sandmann, 1995, Inconsolable Memories, 2005 and Le Détroit, 1999 – but entangled with the detail of specific geographical and political circumstance is a diverse range of source material that has included the literary constructs of Franz Kafka, Joseph Conrad, Herman Melville, Samuel Beckett and ETA Hoffmann, and the films of Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles.
While we may recognise the literary, filmic or musical references, along with the stories, places or even characters appropriated in these complex works, expectations are often frustrated. Instead of narrative fulfilment, Douglas offers us complexity, perplexity and doubt. The artist has remarked that 'life is all middle' and in Douglas' work the viewer often finds himself plunged into events whose beginnings are obscured and whose ends seem to dissolve into mutability.
For instance, the films Journey Into Fear, 2001, which makes reference to Eric Ambler's 1940s spy novel as well as Herman Melville's 1857 novel The Confidence Man, and Klatsassin, 2006, which referring to Akira Kurosawa's 1950 film Rashomon reveals details of a murder in nineteenth-century British Columbia through a series of sometimes contradictory flashbacks and anecdotes, unfold over many days. Both are examples of Douglas's 'recombinant' works - sequences of imagery and dialogue generated by computer as permutations that are capable of running without repetition for timespans way in excess of the conventional art-viewing experience. As such, the works unmoor themselves from formal requirements of narrative and expectations of authorship as they liberate the viewer to reflect on the contingencies of truth in the wider world.
A retelling of Joseph Conrad's 1907 spy novella – a story of espionage, double-crossing and murky political entanglement – the six-screen work The Secret Agent restages the narrative in 1970s Portugal and the aftermath of the country's Carnation Revolution. Characteristic of Douglas' sensitivity to the nuanced dynamics of public and private memory in its subtle blending of historical fact, meticulous reconstruction, and fictive source material, this immersive six-screen work withholds conclusions from the viewer, even as multiple viewpoints tantalisingly suggest the possibility of privileged access to the truths of a complex situation.
Midcentury Studio, 2010, a series of large-scale stark monochrome photographs, each depicting a single scene from a much larger narrative, takes up the conceit of a fictional photojournalist as central protagonist. The series follows an orderly sequential chronology, yet Douglas defies straightforward storytelling conventions in favour of more elaborate constructed narratives in a questioning of authorship and reality. This affords Douglas the chance to create a series which, whilst being rooted in the contemporary evokes the aura and preoccupation with melodrama of the mid-century through the guise of jugglers, actresses, magicians, carnival curiosities, paparazzi and crime scene reportage. Through these individual casts of characters, Douglas carefully choreographs the underlying tension of the era and documents a series of events highlighting a historical nascent dystopia.
It is no coincidence that Douglas often chooses to locate his work where failures of political and social systems are most apparent. Douglas' preoccupation with failed utopias and the obsolete of the post-war North American period, is not about a redemption of past occurrences, but rather, as the artist says, a way to reconsider them, to understand why these utopian moments did not fulfil themselves, what larger forces kept a local moment a minor moment: what was valuable there – and what might still be useful today.
Premiering at Victoria Miro in 2017, the first in a series of works triggered by the uprisings of the early 2010s, including the Arab Spring and riots across global locations including London and the artist’s home town of Vancouver, focused on two scenes associated with events in London in August 2011: Mare Street in Hackney Central, and Hackney Downs, where events were focused around the Pembury Estate. To create the panoramic mise-en-scènes on display, Douglas conducted intensive research, mining sources including contemporary aerial news reports and still images. He also chartered a helicopter to fly over the locations, meticulously combining his own footage with media images to reconstruct moments frozen at specific points in the unfolding disturbance.
The video installation Doppelgänger debuted at La Biennale di Venezia, 58th International Art Exhibition, May You Live in Interesting Times, in 2019 and was exhibited for the first time in the UK at the gallery in 2020, concurrently on view at David Zwirner, New York. Doppelgänger is set in an alternative present. Displayed on two square-format, translucent screens, each of which can be viewed from both sides, the looped narrative unfolds in side-by-side vignettes that depict events on worlds that are light years apart. When one spacecraft embarks on its journey, another is launched at the same time in a parallel reality. Alice, a solitary astronaut, is teleported to a distant planet, and so is her double. Then, Alice and her ship, the Hermes II, for unknown reasons, return. Alice assumes her mission has failed and she has somehow returned home; but she has, in fact, arrived at a world where everything, from writing to the rotation of the sun, is literally the reverse of what she once knew. Intercut with quasi-abstract passages of colour and light, which nod both to avant-garde cinema as well as the history of space exploration, Doppelgänger presents a nuanced and layered parable that powerfully addresses the slippery notion of objective truth, and the position of the ‘other’ in contemporary society.
About the artist
Born in 1960 in Vancouver, where he continues to live and work, Stan Douglas has been the subject of numerous exhibitions at prominent institutions worldwide. Recent venues for solo exhibitions include Venice Biennale, Canadian Pavilion, Venice; Phi Foundation, Montreal, Canada (2022); Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio; The Bourse de Commerce - Pinault Collection, Paris (2021); Victoria Miro, London (concurrently on view at David Zwirner, New York (2020); Julia Stoschek Collection, Berlin (2019-2020); MUDAM, Luxembourg (2018–2019); the Hasselblad Center, Gothenburg (2016); Pérez Art Museum Miami, Florida (2016); Salzburger Kunstverein, Salzburg, Austria (2016); WIELS, Centre d’Art Contemporain, Brussels (2015); Museu Coleçäo Berardo, Lisbon (2015); Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh (2014-2015); Carré d’Art - Musée d’Art Contemporain, Nîmes (2013, solo, travelling to Haus der Kunst, Munich, 2014; Nikolaj Kunsthal, Copenhagen, 2015 and Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin, 2015); Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Minnesota (2013) and the Moscow Photobiennale 2013.
His work has additionally been presented at the Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin (2020); Tokyo Photographic Art Museum (2020); 58th International Art Exhibition, La Biennale di Venezia (2019); Sharjah Biennial 14, UAE (2019); Haus der Kunst, Munich (2019); Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin (2018); Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (2018); Tate Modern, London (2018); Aargauer Kunsthaus, Switzerland (2017); Hayward Gallery, London (2016-2017); Audain Art Museum, Whistler (2016); The Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia (2016); Museum der Moderne Salzburg, Austria (2014); Bildmuseet, Umeå, Sweden (2013); Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago (2013); The Museum of Modern Art, New York (2013); Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, (2012, travelling to Whitney Museum of American Art, New York and Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus, Ohio); Walker Art Center, Minneapolis (2012); ZKM/Museum für Neue Kunst, Karlsruhe (2010); and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York (2010).
Work by the artist is held in major museum collections, including the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto; Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris; The Israel Museum, Jerusalem; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa; Pérez Art Museum Miami; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; Tate, UK; Vancouver Art Gallery; and the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis.
Stan Douglas is the recipient of the 2016 Hasselblad Award and the 2019 Audain Prize for the Visual Arts. He will represent Canada at La Biennale di Venezia in 2022.