BY Ingrid Chu in Reviews | 03 MAR 00
Featured in
Issue 51

Stan Douglas

BY Ingrid Chu in Reviews | 03 MAR 00

That Stan Douglas decided to show his new work for the first time in Windsor lent the piece a relevance that extended beyond the gallery, which straddles the border between two cities (Windsor and Detroit) and two countries (Canada and the United States). The exhibition opened with 31 photographic stills that register Douglas' appraisal of Motor City, inspired in part by its 'characteristic identification with machines and industry'. Abandoned homes, depressed neighbourhoods and condemned buildings dominate the images. While students at Alma's Beauty College (1997-98) have long disappeared from its hallowed halls, Michigan Theatre (1997-98) reveals a lamentable, if practical conversion of a lavish arts complex into a car park. Collectively, these photographs do more than document his research. From buildings left in disrepair to the barrage of shattered windows providing sure signs of vacancy, Douglas highlights the conspicuous details that reveal the city as a literal shell of its former self.

From the reality of Detroit's exterior to the plot line of an imagined interior, Douglas offers a close look into the ruins in Le Détroit (1999), an eight-minute black and white film projection. A dual screen that sliced one room in half allowed viewers to watch either side of the screen. Douglas complicated the viewing process even further by tracking one frame visibly out of sync with the other, which registers as an opposition between positive and negative images.

Although his processes are as sophisticated as ever, Douglas weaves a yarn that is uncomplicated. Le Détroit follows a young black woman returning to what appears to have been once her home, perhaps to exorcise ghosts from her past. This 'evil old house, the kind some people call haunted and is like an undiscovered country waiting to be explored', introduces one of Douglas' sources: Shirley Jackson's novel The Haunting of Hill House (1959). As a witness to the past, Douglas' protagonist rummages through the debris until she discovers a footprint in the dust. Venturing further, a closet door creaks open to reveal a dress hanging inside. A piece of paper she picks up and places on the kitchen counter falls again to the floor once she leaves. All of these scenarios culminate in a suggestion of a supernatural presence. Only when she attempts to retrieve something hidden inside one wall does Douglas alleviate any doubt as to the woman's familiarity with the house and its contents. Then a door slams and the woman leaves as she entered, and everything happens in reverse. Once inside her car, she starts, then stops the motor and the cycle begins again.

In the absence of dialogue, Douglas deposits visual clues to reveal how the past invariably leaves an imprint on the present. He shows two sides of the same story in Le Détroit to survey the history, physical damage and psychological implications that reside within these abandoned structures, and pursues his longstanding interest in the erasure of history and failed utopias. At times, the rigorous process of streamlining technology to suit his creative purpose overwhelms Douglas' intentions. However, Le Détroit strays from the artist's usual formulas by resisting the seamless vision evident in his earlier works. As an outsider translating events that have shaped a collective history, Douglas introduces a narrative sequence that could be considered either cynically repetitive or optimistically affording an opportunity to learn from the past. Le Détroit offers no easy answers, even for Douglas, whose past works demonstrate that he is fully capable of providing them.

Ingrid Pui Yee Chu is a Hong Kong-based curator, writer and, with Savannah Gorton, co-founder and director of the non-profit commissioning organization Forever & Today, Inc.