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Jacques Derrida loved the word “observe.” He paid special attention to its root word, “serve” (in French: server), which tied observation to respect, service, and deference. To observe something, he thought, was an act of humility. You gave yourself over to the details, gathering data and storing it in reserve for the future (Jacques Derrida, Memoirs of the Blind: The Self-Portrait and Other Ruins, trans. Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993, 23). Stan Douglas uses lens-based media to facilitate this kind of servitude to details. I mention Derrida not to overemphasize the theoretical structures at work in Douglas’s output (and there are many), but rather to point out that the production details Douglas wants viewers to notice in his work are many and fine, and require sustained concentration. Stan Douglas: Mise en scène, a catalogue accompanying a traveling exhibition of the same name, is an invitation to become curious: about the narratives that have brought Douglas’s subjects to his camera and to the viewer’s gaze; about the processes Douglas uses to make an image look the way it does; and about how his subjects have emerged from seemingly long-lost historical moments and ended up in his pictures.
Douglas begins each body of work with an intense research process, using historical events as his source material and drawing from existing photographs of those events. He fashions his photos to resemble his sources, but uses contemporary digital technologies to make them. The resulting work has the high finish of blue-chip-gallery color photography but performs as historical documentation. He often ends up with sharp, clear, gorgeous pictures of things one might expect to see suffused with the look and feel of old, perhaps even forgotten, photographs. Two of his most recent series, Disco Angola (2012) and Midcentury Studio (2011), follow this framework. Other series are meticulously staged photographs of riots or crowd scenes.
Born in Vancouver in 1960 and trained at the Emily Carr University of Art and Design, Douglas is associated with the Vancouver school of photoconceptualism. His practice is a bit broader than photography alone, however, in that he also uses film and video, and makes the specific characteristics of these mediums feel very clear for the viewer. It is not only the image that requests contemplation, but the location in which the image is encountered—the specific environments in which news photographs are experienced, for instance, or the space of cinema. And despite the fact that his work takes many cues from the history of free jazz and other black musical forms, it has been, until recently, rarely explicitly concerned with race.
Mise en scène surveys Douglas’s output since his 2007 retrospective in Stuttgart. According the book’s editor, León Krempel, the selection of work is meant to “encourage theory-driven reflection upon history” (9). Krempel does not mention that what prompts this “theory-driven reflection” are often subtle details in the picture, details that have been observed by the artist in his research process (the texture and weave of an Angolan capoeira player’s pants in the mid-1970s, for instance) and are left, as performed physical cues, in film or photography for the observer to take notice of. The viewer registers these details as historically accurate, but the contemporaneity of the images violates this sense of history. The capoeira player’s pants look authentic, but the player himself looks a little too of-the-present, and the color photography is sharp and crystal clear. As a result, viewers are left to wonder what exactly in an image delivers them away from the present and into the past. Is it gesture? Costume? Style? Scenography? The idea is not to resolve these questions but to become aware of them; photography historian David Campany argues in his contribution to the volume that Douglas’s polished, meticulously staged photos have a “stillness and artifice that serve to signal the past rather than summon it forth as authoritative spectacle” (12). If this is true, then the central question is not about history but rather about the images that mediate and transmit it: what kind of work can a photograph do if it is not summoning the past?
In service to this tension, Krempel and curator Séamus Kealy identify crisscrossing matrices of loss and recovery in Douglas’s work. On the one hand, the lost subjects and photographic styles from which Douglas borrows are indeed vanished: his Midcentury Studio series tells the story of a fictional World War II pilot who takes up the vocation of news photographer when he returns to civilian life. The photos are all dated 1947 in order to simulate having been pulled from the archive of this invented anonymous photographer. (In preparation for the series, Douglas himself spent months studying similar photographic archives in order to effect quick, intuitive picture taking.) These wildly diverse black-and-white pictures, none having much to do with the other, evince a Weegee-esque guilelessness bordering on the purely weird: a single pair of shoes, for instance; or a pair of figures in costumed masks; or a woman’s hairstyle seen from behind. Kealy points out that “there is an uncanny precision in the way [Douglas] has re-created the unstable signs and gestures that are bound within the mechanical chance of the camera as activated by the photographer” (55), proving that the pictures’ observable details might revive lost parts of everyday life, but since it is difficult to place them anywhere, they remain forever liminal. Undead, even. The careful intentions of the photographer and the unstudied technique he is performing are in ghostly conflict.
On the other hand, Douglas’s attention to archival details results in a charm similar to that of a good costumer. It is a charm that reanimates lost characters and places. For instance, a substantial amount of space in the exhibition is devoted to Douglas’s ambitious film and theater work Helen Lawrence (2014–present), a simulation of a 1947 noir film about the inhabitants of the demographically altered neighborhood of Hogan’s Alley in Vancouver. The work is a combination film and stage play. The characters perform behind a scrim onto which a film is projected, with this screen becoming alternately more transparent or opaque depending on the density of the images projected onto it. In this case, the audience sees the play being performed onstage—and with very little scenery, so the authenticity and verisimilitude must come entirely from the actors—and, upon close examination, may realize that the film being projected onto the screen is a recording of the actors in real time. Even more patient observers will notice that the people filming each scene are the actors themselves. Viewers, then, are witness to the effects of the filmic medium on live actors: the way film condenses, frames, and sometimes subdivides a scene.
Art historian Catherine Soussloff sees the scrim as paramount here. Through and across the scrim viewers become aware of a disjunction between the film’s smooth close-ups and dramatic stills, and the live stage performance’s broader intimacies. For Soussloff, the scrim enhances a “perception of aesthetic difference” in Helen Lawrence, which then produces “an aesthetics of blackness” (165). Nothing could be more true when Helen Lawrence’s plot and setting are closely examined, which Soussloff does. She points out that it takes place in Hogan’s Alley, a space populated by immigrants and people of color until mass urban renewal took place in the mid-sixties. The characters—a family of African American émigrés, a Japanese-Canadian prostitute recently returned from an internment camp—are precarious; they could not have existed after the neighborhood’s restructuring. By accessing an archive of lost figures, Soussloff argues, Douglas activates difference and loss.
It is here that I note a failing in the book—its paucity of researched academic essays on Douglas’s art. It is divided into sections that describe certain bodies of work but do not theorize it. There are also no images of Douglas in his studio, or any scenes that might make visible the intense process behind the images, films, and mobile app that comprise the exhibition. The works stand by and for themselves; they are a testament to the inherent theater of the medium, but the reader is left to figure this out on her or his own. This is bracingly unusual in an era in which monographic exhibitions are expected to provide the kind of transparency that gallery shows usually do not. And this prompts the question: if some of Douglas’s archival sources for his images that perform archival clarity were revealed, to what extent would this compromise Douglas’s project? My sense is that images of the artist’s process might erode the work’s theoretical robustness quite a bit. After all, the archive signals truth in its most pure, vulnerable state—proof of a staged archive would shatter the tensions at play in many of the images, and would relieve the viewer of precious, labor-intensive observation.
PhD candidate, Department of Art and Art History, University of Texas at Austin