Stan Douglas: Humor, Irony and the Law
Rules, laws and arbitrary protocols propel the fates of historical and contemporary subjects in Stan Douglas’s most recent body of work at David Zwirner. Consisting of four large-scale photographs and a looping video project, the solo show “Humor, Irony and the Law” represents a significant new direction in the Vancouver-based artist’s practice. It not only introduces the first suite of photographs the artist has produced that use the cinematic staging of human figures and digital compositing techniques long associated with the work of Jeff Wall, but also presents a compelling challenge to the way that critics have understood Douglas’s work thus far. Organized around a looping video originally produced for the Centre Pompidou, the show at Zwirner follows a now-familiar formula for exhibiting Douglas’s work: a major film project is shown alongside still images of sites related to the film. But while in the past Douglas’s depopulated photographs seemed dependent upon the films for their significance—often described as “site scouting” for the films—in “Humor, Irony and the Law,” they are only obliquely related, operating instead as independent representations of specific historical events.
In this case, Douglas’s film project, Vidéo, follows K, a female protagonist of African descent, as she travels through suburban Paris. Entirely silent, except for one cracking gunshot and an incongruous riff of wah-wah pedal guitar, Vidéo is a film noir drama where K becomes increasingly entangled in a mysterious plot involving government file folders, men in suits, a chain-smoking archivist and a panoptic courtroom of academics. Unlike Douglas’s previous films where the narrative is scrambled and rearranged with each viewing, Vidéo is linear. Each screening shows the same story, opening and closing with a shot of a panning surveillance camera outside K’s apartment, and each time offering the viewer another chance to try to put the clues together into a coherent plot. The literal and symbolic violence of state bureaucracy is undoubtedly a central theme, as is the insidious power of surveillance. The fact that we never see K’s face, for instance, implicates the viewer in the act of surveillance, while the gallery’s dimly lit screening room cleverly makes us the object of inspection; because we’re blinded when we first enter the space and are forced to grope for our seats, we sit for a few awkward moments unaware of whether we are being watched by other spectators whose eyes have already adjusted to the light.
Authoritative acts of looking reappear in Douglas’s newest suite of photos of crowd phenomena in 20th-century Vancouver, and at first glance that is where the similarities between the video and the photographs end. Using actors and reconstructed sets, Douglas’s four images restage obscure moments of public unrest from the city’s history, often collaging together up to 50 separate photographs in order to achieve the final staging. While Powell Street Grounds, 28 January 1912 and Ballantyne Pier, 18 June 1935 re-enact disputes between workers and law enforcement, Abbott & Cordova, 7 August 1971 pictures the Gastown Riots—a controversial clash between hippies protesting recent drug arrests and Vancouver police officers, some undercover, aiming to end the demonstration. Douglas’s digital manipulation of the image is overt in the chaotic blur of running figures and theatrically posed mounted police in riot gear, creating a “seamed” construction that immediately calls attention to the processes of its own making. Commissioned for the redeveloped Woodward’s building in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, the photograph will be installed as a 44-foot mural on the corner where the scene is set, potentially stirring up further public controversy about how the city wants to remember the event.
But what do conflicts from Vancouver’s civic history have to do with an unknown protagonist’s struggles with pernicious bureaucracies on the outskirts of Paris? As with all of Douglas’s work, the structure and manufacture of his projects are just as important as the events they depict; a point underscored by the exhibition’s title, which is taken from a 1967 essay by French philosopher Gilles Deleuze. Arguing that laws are arbitrary structures separate from their substance, Deleuze concludes that the only way to contest the law is to overthrow it with anarchy or subvert it by exaggerating its ridiculous punishments. By combining narratives of drug protest, labour unrest and insidious forms of state-sponsored surveillance, Douglas creates a visual representation of Deleuze’s essay, levelling bureaucratic and physical violence to draw attention to the law’s structural absurdities across time and place. (533 W 19 St, New York NY)