To mark the upcoming opening of its Stan Douglas retrospective, we sit down with WIELS artistic director Dirk Snauwaert who distills the Canadian artist’s work, deeply-rooted in post-war historical narratives and their re-imagined possibilities and reveals the effort behind exhibiting Douglas’ thorough and demanding oeuvre.
First, thank your for taking the time to meet with us. Perhaps we can start by contextualizing Stan Douglas and the works selected for this exhibition ?
Stan Douglas came to the ‘European awareness’ with an incredible project in 1988, linking his plays with Samuel Becket’s TV work. He is an artist that works a lot with mass media, conceptually looking at how opinions and meanings are formed. Since then he’s been working on large installations that look at the early tropes of cinema in the late 19th early 20th centuries. His early work also tries to look at consciousness and simultaneity. Douglas has been a major artist of a black consciousness, using media to change the visibility of black actors, and as a tool for historical revaluation. For the first time, we will bring together three bodies of work that have seen the light over the last years: a photography series, a video installation with a single screen, and a brand new six-multiscreen video installation, plus two more photography series. We’ll have a body of work, Midcentury Studio, going back to immediately after the Second World War. It explores street photography, like with Weegee, the US journalist, with mis-en-scenes that look like original photography, but are all recomposed in a studio. Then there is Abbot & Cordova, 1971 [part of the series Humor, Irony and Law] where he recreates the Vancouver Gastown Riots of 1971, and Hastings Park, 1955, where he is interested in the way social class can be recognized by vestimentary codes.
Another body of work, which will be discussed with post-colonial theory, is a series which existed since 2012 called Disco Angola. It is set in the capital of Angola during the Portuguese reign and it’s a collision he makes with two or three important historical facts coming together. One is the deliberation of the African countries wanting to become liberated and fighting the Portuguese. Then there is the moment when disco starts to become a world-wide phenomena. We’ll also show Exodus 75, of when the Portuguese were driven out of Angola after the Carnation Revolution in ‘74 in Lisbon. Then the new film we’ll present takes the basic framework of the novel, The Secret Agent, and puts it in 1975, a few months after the Carnation Revolution. It’s filmed in Cinema Nouvo style, a very progressive, left wing cinema movement, new at the time. It plays with narration by leaving gaps… it’s also a kind of spatial montage of the novel, where it’s as if the spectator becomes part of a historical logic. This is, for Douglas, an innovative approach to the principle of montage, and as if he compresses a story line in time and dramatizes it. I am quite curious to see it. It’s also about a historical, utopian moment, of how the Portuguese revolution could have gone anywhere. This is where the title of the exhibition, Interregnum comes from, the moment when things are possible and there is no domination after a revolt or turmoil. There will also be an ongoing jazz film, Luanda Kinshasa, which will run for four months in a never-ending loop. It has a random principle, so it will never be the same. It shows a group of fusion jazz musicians in a very specific studio in New York, referencing a time when Miles Davis brings in electronic instruments together with African instruments, creating what we now call fusion jazz.
How and when did you first encounter Stan Douglas’ work?
It was in Documeta in 1997, if I remember correctly, in Kassel, with a work about being on and off camera, in a sort of Godardian way. Everything was live, the registration, the editing and the music.
Can you talk to us about the production stage, and about working with Douglas during this time?
He is one of the most demanding professional artists today. He is a very decided guy who designs super professional exhibitions, with the best projection and the best sound. It will take up two and a half floors, and it completely transformed the space. It was very expensive to plan for someone like Stan Douglas, who has a reputation of being very demanding – he only works with the best, and if he says he wants that speaker, there is no discussion. As this involves five institutions, there is one work still in Dublin, which in the end we will not have because I don’t think it’s so telling for what I wanted to show. Because we are in Brussels, and we also have a colonial past, I wanted to bring two different series that speak to this. This time the Single in Antwerp decided to show his theatre play, Hellen Lawrence. It was a colleague of mine in Lisbon who first told me about the project and the opportunity to have his work here – and that was five years ago.
How do you think visitors will experience the exhibition, or what main statements do you think the viewer might take from it?
You can actually watch this show on different levels. Aesthetically, it is extremely seducing, as it’s quite a monumental work that invites looking at all the details. I’ve seen the show in a few places and people are immediately responsive, even if they don’t necessarily know the historical context. You can also read it as a kind of exercise in how to deconstruct a historical time – he almost does it perfectly. It’s only its size that tells you it was not made fifty or sixty years ago, but the quality is stunning. In addition, I think it’s also important to think of the jazz improvisation, and its random looping, as a jam session without direction, it’s just ongoing, and it’s very joyful and beautiful to watch …
Lastly, how do you think certain works might resonate with Belgium’s colonial past?
It’s different because in Belgium it happened abruptly, and in Portugal it took twenty years. Also, their population was in Angola for much longer, and I think for Belgians it was easier, because when they were kicked out none of them were third or second generation, they all were first generation migrants. In the end, it’s not just art, that is why he’s such an important artist, it’s also about media history, and the fiction of history, which we all tell a short version of.Stan Douglas: Interregnum Until 10th of Janurary 2016 wiels.org