Critics’ Picks

Stan Douglas, Exodus, 1975, 2012, digital C-print mounted on Dibond aluminum, 71 × 101 1/2". From the series “Disco Angola,” 2012.

Stan Douglas, Exodus, 1975, 2012, digital C-print mounted on Dibond aluminum, 71 × 101 1/2". From the series “Disco Angola,” 2012.

Montréal

Stan Douglas

PHI Foundation for Contemporary Art
451 & 465 Saint-Jean Street
February 19–May 22, 2022

Conceptual photographer Stan Douglas is acclaimed for mining the counterfactual potential of the image to create historical reconstructions that reflect upon the present’s fraught relation to the past. The reason to see his show here is not only that he will represent Canada at the fifty-ninth Venice Biennale, but because some his large-format, digitally collaged photographs on view are so pregnant with manufactured possibility that they quicken the blood with unexpected anticipation.

Half of the images, from the 2021 series “Penn Station’s Half Century,” were commissioned by New York City’s Moynihan Train Hall to memorialize forgotten moments in the original, now razed, structure. Save for two of the scandalous personae presented in these tableaux—one a female outlaw, the other a Black labor organizer—these CGI composites merely interest. The other series, “Disco Angola,” 2012, is attributed to a fictional 1970s photojournalist covering New York City’s disco scene and Angola’s concurrent revolutionary struggle. In tautly choreographed works that feature a racially diverse cast of actors pictured in medias res, Douglas excavates the simmering power struggles that dance below the surface of these ersatz re-creations of the past. What the artist makes visible in his almost-too-cannily-paired images of release and rebellion is not the revolutionary transformation promised by these moments, but their inescapable proximity to co-optation and neocolonialism. Exodus, 1975, 2012, the most powerful of these artificial artifacts, digitally aggregates a group of Portuguese colonists sitting outdoors with bags packed and time to kill as they attempt to flee from the newly independent nation of Angola. Immobilized in a series of encounters staged for (rather than captured by) the camera, each cluster of actors negates Henri Cartier-Bresson’s notion of the decisive moment. Nearly all of documentary photography’s potential for contingency has been eviscerated from this meticulously manufactured image. Why then, in an era when fake news hardly astonishes, do I still experience a bristling tension watching these actors pretend to wait for a future that came and went long ago in a moment that never was?