6 things you need to know about Stan Douglas, Canada's representative at next year's Venice Biennale
The celebrated Vancouver creator will be the first Black artist to take over the Canadian Pavilion
It's just been announced that the Canadian artist representing us at the Venice Biennale next year will be Stan Douglas — and that's cause for celebration. His work is unrepentantly smart and incredibly layered, and it throws back to some pivotal moments in Canadian history (particularly that of Vancouver). If you're new to his work, here are six things you might want to know before you dive into Douglas's photographs, video works and installations.
1. History matters, especially in moments of transformation
Stan Douglas often looks back (in incredible detail) to particular historical events that see society grappling with change — like in his 2008 work Abbot & Cordova, 7 August 1971, a huge photographic mural restaging the violent Gastown Riots in Vancouver. For this image, he spent about half a million dollars building the set and precisely choreographing the characters, who are spread across the photograph like a contemporary cinematic history painting.
2. Speaking of the cinematic...Douglas is fascinated by film
There have been plenty of references to films in Douglas's work, from Alfred Hitchcock's Marnie to Dario Argento's Suspiria. In the case of his 1989 piece Subject to a Film: Marnie, he re-creates a familiar scene, updating it with contemporary technology and endlessly looping Marnie's actions. Douglas is not only interested in how we see film, but how technology "sees" it in the form of cameras, lenses and frames.
3. He confused TV viewers in British Columbia in 1992
When Douglas made a series of (very) short films called Monodramas, made up of "micronarratives" under 60 seconds long, they aired during commercial breaks on television in B.C. One of them, called "I'm Not Gary," simply features two men — one white, one Black — passing each other walking by a building. The white man says, "Hi, Gary," as he walks by, and grows visibly upset as the Black man fails to acknowledge the greeting. The Black man then turns and says, "I'm not Gary." This simple exchange acts as an emblem of cultural invisibility and misrecognition. Other films in the series are similarly enigmatic in their narrative. When they aired, people called the TV station to ask what they were selling — itself a comment on the way we consume.
4. He comments on race in complex ways
Here's an example: for Hors-Champs, his video installation exhibited in 1992, Douglas meticulously re-created a performance using four American musicians, all of whom lived in Europe at some point in the 1960s. In the double-sided video, they perform a work of Free Jazz composed in 1965. Free Jazz represented a kind of freedom and improvisation. It was also perhaps at its most popular in France, where many Black American musicians fled during the 1960s to be in a place where they could be at more liberty to express themselves artistically. On one side of the screen viewers see the full performance; on the other side, they see the outtakes and in-between moments that might not have been presented at the time. Here, Free Jazz is a sort of stand-in for racial oppression and exile.
5. He's interested in our present and future, not just our history
In his recent works Scenes from the Blackout and Doppelgänger, the artist imagines events from a not-too-distant future marked by technology and very human behaviours. In Blackout, he looks at an imaginary New York power loss that blends the 1977 blackout with the more recent one in 2003, creating a present (or future day) emergency blending riotous looting with neighbourly behaviour, all against the backdrop of a very dark — and, of course, cinematic — city. In Doppelgänger, Douglas takes his work to outer space as a double-screen projection shows the journey of a protagonist who leaves her planet at the same time as her twin does. Their journeys split in two — one of them is hailed a hero upon her return, the other confined or quarantined as a prisoner. Douglas references the principle of quantum teleportation, or the idea that particles entangled upon their creation maintain a relationship even after they separate. I don't understand the principle. Maybe you will!
6. He is the first Black artist to represent Canada at the Venice Biennale
Despite having shown his work several times as part of other exhibitions at the Biennale, this is the first time Douglas will be taking over the Canadian Pavilion. That means it's the first time that a Black artist is representing this country at the massive international exhibition — and it's about time. (And hey, if you're wondering what a biennale even is, check out this Art 101 explainer.)
Find out more about Stan Douglas here. And you can see him at the Canadian Pavilion at the 59th Venice Biennale, from May to November, 2021.