Stuttgart, Germany

Stan Douglas

Staatsgalerie Stuttgart and Württembergischer Kunstverein

“STAN DOUGLAS. PAST IMPERFECT: Works 1986–2007” is the most comprehensive exhibition of the Canadian artist’s output to date. Not unexpectedly, this undertaking—the result of a collaborative effort by two prominent art institutions in Stuttgart, Germany, the city’s Staatsgalerie and the Württembergischer Kunstverein—fosters an intense awareness of the extent to which viewers are able to cope with complexity. Much of Douglas’s recent work, from Suspiria, 2002/2003, in which the Brothers Grimm meet Marx’s Kapital as well as the 1977 Dario Argento classic from which Douglas takes his title, to Klatsassin, 2006, the Rashomon-inspired film he has called a “dub western,” falls under the rubric of “recombinant” video. As Douglas uses it, this term designates a methodology by which visual and aural modules are iterated in various combinations to create a sort of mathematically sublime series of sequentially random recombinations (whose mere duration easily exceeds the human attention span). The significant intellectual and perceptual task required of the viewer of even a single of Douglas’s film or video installations is, then, blown up to overwhelming proportions in the Stuttgart exhibition. Starting with a modest gallery in the Kunstverein lobby, where “Monodramas,” 1991, a series of short pieces made for television, is on view, the show breaks into a garden of forking paths through thirteen large cinematic projection galleries interspersed with ten spaces featuring photographs, proposing a varied, eventful, and—to deploy one of his critics’ most cherished adjectives—labyrinthine itinerary through more than two decades of Douglas’s artistic production.

Given this shift to a grander scale, one might argue that the formidable challenge to the audience’s physical, as well as cognitive, fitness becomes of central importance to any consideration of the work. Just how long is the viewer supposed to remain in an installation such as Klatsassin? It would take almost seventy hours to see all 840 permutations of the filmed reenactment of the events surrounding an investigation into the killings in 1864 of European settlers in the woods of British Columbia. Indeed, the air-conditioning in the Staatsgalerie maintains a temperature low enough to induce hypothermia over a much shorter period.

In considering that endurance is at issue even in individual pieces, one should bear in mind the observation in the catalogue by one of the curators, Iris Dressler, that two registers of time are juxtaposed in Douglas’s installations—one pertaining to the viewer’s perceptual apparatus, the other to the randomized, computer-controlled projection. Hence, simply by entering and leaving an installation, one participates in the generation of the work, producing, in effect, yet another of the various ongoing recombinations. Though this is probably the case to some extent of any encounter with an artwork, decisions about entering and leaving Douglas’s loops are more fully implicated, automatically structuring the experience of the piece in question and, in turn, of the artist’s oeuvre as a whole.

One should also note that Douglas’s approach is notoriously perfectionist; he insists on controlling the way his films and videos are displayed not only in terms of their discursive framing but of their physical installation as well. Nevertheless, the factors that actually come into play when viewing, interrupting, or revisiting a particular work or group of works are hard to pin down. What, for instance, are we to deduce from the absence of chairs or benches in certain galleries, as is the case here with rooms for Der Sandmann, 1995, and Vidéo, 2007? The former piece, a looped, roughly ten-minute, two-channel projection of a 16-mm film, was made in the disused UFA studios in Potsdam-Babelsberg, outside Berlin, and features sections of the E. T. A. Hoffmann short story from which the work takes its title being recited in English by two offscreen voices and by a young black man standing in the mysterious mise-en-scène of the derelict space. (He speaks with a strong German accent, and the sound and image of his moving lips are at times purposefully out of sync.) But there are other layers too: The piece also deals, in part, with the history of Germany’s Schrebergärten: complexes of small suburban gardens named after Moritz Schreber, the nineteenth-century advocate of education reform whose son, Daniel Paul Schreber, penned Memoirs of My Nervous Illness (1903)—which was famously used by Sigmund Freud as prime evidence in his own research on paranoia. Awareness of such echoes inevitably informs the understanding of this odd piece. Vidéo, on the other hand, consists of six versions of the story of a black woman, always filmed from behind, who is obliquely modeled, both narratively and formally, after Franz Kafka’s K. as played by Anthony Perkins in Orson Welles’s version of The Trial (1962); Samuel Beckett’s “O” as played by Buster Keaton in Film (1965); and Jean-Luc Godard’s Juliette as played by Marina Vlady in 2 ou 3 choses que je sais d’elle (1967).

Such references, in these and many of Douglas’s other works, assume the role of mental resting places—posts for the viewer’s intellect to lean on, so to speak, while the body tries to keep its equilibrium. Indeed, much more could be said about Der Sandmann or Vidéo, for there is always another reference to be noted or reminded of in the artist’s intricate filmic architecture. And it’s thanks in large part to the resulting evocative power that “Past Imperfect” turns out—considerations of potential exhaustion notwithstanding—to be one of the most gratifying treats among this year’s exhibitions. Diligently curated by Dressler and Hans D. Christ—longtime admirers and supporters of Douglas’s, both currently directors at Württembergischer Kunstverein—with the help of Sean Rainbird and Gudrun Inboden of the Staatsgalerie, the survey allows an unparalleled immersion in Douglas’s artistic vision, even if, as the referential density and recombinant structuring mentioned above suggest, his works end up continuously questioning precisely such concepts as “artistic vision.” Despite his penchant for control, Douglas at the same time ardently pursues, if not the abandonment of authorship and intention, then at least their methodical bracketing.

IN A 1993 INTERVIEW with curator Lynne Cooke in Frieze, Douglas dubbed the kind of relationship he endeavors to engage with his audience “poetic resonance,” which allows viewers “to have other kinds of engagement with the work.” Resonance is here very deliberately an acoustic metaphor. The webs Douglas weaves are unthinkable without the skillfully choreographed sound elements that define the relationships his works have with their specific gallery contexts and complement their visual and conceptual richness. In other words, the mechanical piano playing an Arnold Schönberg composition (Begleitmusik zu einer Lichtspielszene [Accompaniment to a Film Scene], 1930) in Pursuit, Fear, Catastrophe: Ruskin B.C., 1993, a noir-style fictional account of an investigation into a Japanese-Canadian power-plant worker’s disappearance; or the dense, linguistically transgressive sound track permeating Inconsolable Memories, 2005, Douglas’s visually saturated remake of Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s Memorias del subdesarrollo (1968), are directly relevant to the kinds of “poetic possibilities” Douglas makes available. That said, this poetics of potentiality organizes relationships and relationality not only by means of the interplay of sound and image but on many levels: from the competition between different cultural distribution systems—television and the museum, say—and their respective languages, to the interwoven complications of the historical and the contemporary, and all the unpredictable relationships construed in meaning production by the audiences of his work.

If the call for “other kinds of engagement” endorses independence from interpretations the artist himself provides, this does not make it wise to ignore the information he (and his critics) have made available. Any pretension to an unpreconditioned encounter—like that championed by the curators of this year’s Documenta—is completely out of place where Douglas is concerned. In fact, the Stuttgart show is accompanied by a 105-page brochure containing basic explanations—many written by Douglas himself—of the different pieces on view and a catalogue (albeit one whose appearance in print has been delayed until January 2008) with essays by Mieke Bal, George E. Lewis, Ivone Margulies, and the curators, which adds to an already extensive literature surrounding Douglas’s self-confidently heady oeuvre. Bal and Lewis in particular raise issues pertinent to contextualizing Douglas today, taking on topics such as the political efficacy of contemporary art; the mechanistic subjectivity of the computer, which here effectively supplements (if it does not actually replace) the artist’s subjectivity; and the negotiation of authorship and agency that is made unavoidable by the introduction of chance, a tactical engagement that underlies the recombinant autonomy of Douglas’s loops and their internal permutations.

GIVEN THE IMPORTANCE OF PLACE to many of Douglas’s videos, it is somewhat lamentable that not a single gesture toward the locality where this exhibition takes place is to be found. Stuttgart seems far away. It is perhaps a necessary absence, brought about by the retrospective nature of the show. Even so, the city’s geography plays a minor role: Walking between the two venues, which are topographically divided by an infamous highway axed right through Stuttgart’s center in a postwar planning frenzy, one is once more moved to wonder how it is that this work manages to hold together at all. In spite of the distance Douglas takes from the idea of the artist as isolated genius, “Past Imperfect” is still clearly a one-man show, the retrospective of a single artist’s achievement. It is astonishing how identifiable and even of a piece his output remains, all its variety and versatility notwithstanding.

One reason for this coherence may be the inclusion of his photography. The pristine, highly balanced, symmetrically composed pictures of locations and film sets do not merely provide Douglas’s gallerists with products they can sell more easily than the expensive editions (often limited to four) of the installations. They also serve as a kind of aesthetic glue that holds together the disparate film and video projects. (Granted, the Stuttgart exhibition may reveal some curatorial problems with respect to the difficulties of adjusting from the dark projection rooms to the brightly lit galleries filled with glossy, framed, and increasingly large-scale photographs—even if this discrepancy between dark and bright ambiences almost, and probably unintentionally, functions as a Brechtian showstopper.) Beyond that, the photos also explain, visually, a good deal of the historical background of the works on view.

Win, Place or Show, 1998, is a case in point. This video’s two channels—which are projected onto two adjacent screens, filmed from perspectives that never match and so never suture the fine gap lingering between the images—show two men quarrelling and fighting in a bare modernist apartment, built for Douglas according to blueprints made in the 1950s for low-rent, high-rise housing for single male workers in the Strathcona neighborhood of Vancouver (the development was eventually blocked by local resistance). The photographs mounted outside the projection room show views of the neighborhood as well as of the set in which the film was shot, thus introducing a documentary dimension to the piece, and yet at the same time leading to a questioning of the very (historical, epistemological) possibility of documentary truth. The photographs become a visual reminder of an urban social reality—one that, through the effect of Douglas’s operations, no longer functions as a reliable referent. (Indeed, “Past Imperfect” as a whole relentlessly poses the question of who is playing whose truth game.) It is not surprising that Douglas and his critics look for a solution in the trope of the ghost or the phantom. The fact that the action and the dialogue in Win, Place or Show is repeated thousands of times makes even the actors’ performances unreal, turning the two men into filmic icons of frustrated obsession. They come to stand for a phantasmal existence that is actually impossible, unlivable, and only conceivable within the parameters of this particular installation, within the diptych of the two screens on which the seemingly endless variations of their struggle in a hostile environment can be watched like a shadow play. The viewer is left with the responsibility to carry information—about the history of Strathcona, about the photographic rendering of the place, about the material conditions of filmmaking, and about the physical and institutional constellation and constraints of the piece itself—in and out of the installation. This kind of information will not rescue the two men agonizing on the screen, but it might help explain their “poetic resonance” with the agonies of only seemingly less ghostlike characters among the people in the audience, and beyond.

THE PREMISES AND PROPOSALS articulated in Douglas’s work—involving the entanglement of historical and fictional information, and the constant probing of the methodologies and technologies of film and video, as well as of the production of historical truth—allow for endless reflection on the categories of art itself. Douglas implicitly asks that we consider the temporality of aesthetic experience, the boundaries of the work, the addressing of the audience, the relationship between ethics and aesthetics. And, in the spirit of such problematizing, there is no single moment in this ongoing “production of knowledge” (Douglas’s phrase) where the natural, mathematical, or technological sublime, or the beauty of a landscape or a body, is not undercut and severely damaged by reminders of past or present injustices. The harassment of Japanese immigrant workers in Canada during World War II that forms the background to Pursuit, Fear, Catastrophe: Ruskin B.C. is testament to this dialectic. So is the racism and the genocide lurking in the woods in Klatsassin, where the one “Indian” on the scene is singled out as the prime suspect in the killings by a deeply confused and disintegrating bunch of white settlers, police, and gold diggers; and the quadrophonic sound track of Nu·tka·, 1996, in which the voices of two late-eighteenth-century colonialists deliriously agonizing over land claims are set against slow dissolving pans over the coastline of Nootka Island in British Columbia, the breathtakingly beautiful homeland of the uncannily absent First Nation inhabitants. The past is imperfect, indeed. This artistic methodology succeeds, however, in leaving the viewer with the hope of the experience of a blissful now—the aesthetic reward par excellence, skeptically construed by the artist as a constantly deferred pursuit of happiness.

Close in approach to his fellow Vancouverite Rodney Graham, though perhaps less overtly humorous, Douglas has long been developing an open-ended series of epistemological and aesthetic quandaries, states of perplexity and doubt. His research is not directed to meet any definable goal. Instead, he builds provisional models for a politics of perception, in which the array of projection techniques, display styles, narrative codes, and visual rhetorics amounts to a fairly simple, but therefore no less awe-inspiring, statement: This is what has been done so far—if always with the implicit addendum: But it’s far from all that could be offered

“Stan Douglas. Past Imperfect: Works 1986–2007” remains on view at the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart and the Württembergischer Kunstverein, Stuttgart, Germany, through January 6, 2008.

Tom Holert is a writer based in Berlin.