Stan Douglas: Staatsgalerie Stuttgart and Wurttembergischer Kunstverein, Stuttgart, Germany

By Holert, Tom | Artforum International, November 2007 | Go to article overview

Stan Douglas: Staatsgalerie Stuttgart and Wurttembergischer Kunstverein, Stuttgart, Germany


Holert, Tom, Artforum International


"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 Wurttembergischer 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.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

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 Video, 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-scene of the derelict space. …

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