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Stan Douglas, Luanda-Kinshasa, HD video, color, sound, 361 minutes.

Stan Douglas, Luanda-Kinshasa, HD video, color, sound, 361 minutes.

Stan Douglas

Stan Douglas, Luanda-Kinshasa, HD video, color, sound, 361 minutes.

In the spring of 1974, a coup d’état in Portugal sent the dictatorship of António de Oliveira Salazar tumbling from power. Salazar himself had died some years earlier, having suffered a brain hemorrhage in 1968, when he reportedly fell from a chair. His colleagues in the Estado Novo party were not only right-wing and repressive but were also increasingly unable to manage Portugal’s far-flung colonies. When the junta finally seized hold of the state, it simply cut those colonies loose. And so, like the dominoes of Arab autocracies in a more recent season of supposed reawakening and rebirth, countries across Lusophone Africa, such as Angola, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, and Mozambique, found themselves thrust into independence and, more often than not, plunged into civil war.

As case studies in postcolonialism go, Angola was in many ways the most fascinating of the former colonies, in that the three parties that were fighting it out there represented, in ideology and patronage alike, the full postimperial spectrum of political hopes and dreams. In recent work such as “Disco Angola,” a series of photographs from 2012, and a mesmerizing new video, Luanda-Kinshasa, 2014, the Canadian artist Stan Douglas approaches the Angola of the 1970s as a kind of utopian space, a place of experimentation, ambition, and drive. To see the country and its capital city, Luanda, as such has allowed him to make highly intriguing if also just barely plausible connections to American disco, the migration of Afrobeat, and, happening just about contemporaneously and a few hundred miles north, in Kinshasa (the capital of what was then Zaire and is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), the “Rumble in the Jungle,” Muhammad Ali’s legendary championship boxing match against George Foreman.

Re-creation and reenactment have always been among Douglas’s most interesting and critical tools, and for his twelfth solo exhibition at David Zwirner, he spent the summer of 2013 with a roomful of formidably talented musicians, all dressed to the nines in vintage ’70s fashion, painstakingly reconstructing the interior of a fabled midtown Manhattan music studio that had been housed in an abandoned Armenian church on East Thirtieth Street. “The Church” was where Miles Davis, Billie Holiday, Johnny Cash, Aretha Franklin, Glenn Gould, Charles Mingus, and Pink Floyd recorded seminal tacks and albums, before Columbia Records closed the place down in 1981. With two six-hour sound tracks stitched together and strung through the video such that there is no clear beginning or end (the video loops through arbitrary edits and seems to go on forever, endlessly combining in different permutations, while the music returns again and again to the same themes), Luanda-Kinshasa bends the space of music (and the heyday of jazz, dub, disco, rock, reggae, and even heavy metal) to the space of revolutionary politics, and tries, Venn-diagram-like, to find in their overlay the promise of liberation. Obviously, the title makes explicit, and perhaps overdetermined, reference to Luanda and Kinshasa, but the politics of both locations are also quite clearly evoked through the syncopation of the music (distinctly drawn from Afrobeat). As he has done in much of his work, Douglas conveys history through mood and an abundance of detail, including period dress (for the musicians and for their producers, significant others, and groupies, who are shown in atmospheric panning shots), newspaper headlines, the placement of iconic products and logos, and body language.

The show, also titled “Luanda-Kinshasa,” presented the video alone in an enormous gray room. Douglas introduced it as a work of “speculative history,” re-creating a notably international, wide-ranging studio session that never really happened, but could have. On drums, Kimberly Thompson, with her Angela Davis Afro, steals scene after scene with a solo passed off to another musician with a glance, or a moment of pure musical ecstasy signaled by the tilt of her chin. How does all this tether to African politics? Maybe it does so only in urgency, or in a willingness to push genres of art and music beyond their usual boundaries. In cities all over the world, in trying times, whether wrecked by actual explosions or crippled by class warfare, there’s a sealed room, somewhere, channeling violence into music, hysteria into art, and making the imagination real, despite or even because of its proximity to danger.

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie