Stan Douglas is into riots.
Douglas grew up in Vancouver, went to school here, and his most familiar work for local folk is probably his large-scale mural depicting the 1971 riot in Gastown that graces the entrance of Woodward’s atrium on Cordova Street. A prolific artist, he has been exhibited widely. His most recent work, 2011≠1848, is featured in the Canada Pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale.
It is also the focus of a new exhibition at the Polygon Gallery in North Vancouver. In the barest facts, it consists of five large-scale photographs and a two-channel video installation.
The title refers to two pivotal years: 2011 and 1848. Also known as the Springtime of the Peoples, which sounds like a hit from Mel Brooks’ movie, 1848 was one of the most revolutionary moments in human history, sweeping away fusty old monarchies and replacing them with crisp new democracies.
The second revolutionary period in 2011, coming out of the financial meltdown of 2008, was effectively the revolution that never happened. Despite the violence, the massive protests and the seismic upheaval, nothing really changed. It was like a magma bubble that burbled up to the surface then went back down below. Maybe it’s still down there, roiling around, waiting around for the right moment to erupt all over again.
All fine and good, except that that this is a false equivalency. The struggle for democratic reform that took place in 1848 wasn’t the same as 2011, hence the “≠” in the show’s title.
It’s an interesting premise. But standing in front of the large-scale depictions of protests that recall the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street and the London riots in the U.K. that were sparked by the police shooting of a young man named Mark Duggan, it felt like there was something missing. Given the staggering amount of human effort and energy that each of these events represent, I expected to feel something. And I didn’t.
Why? It’s a question that’s been bugging me for days.
In talking about the show, a friend made the point that presentations at the Biennale itself are holdovers from dioramas of the Victorian era, staged partly as theatre and partly as a re-creation of world events. This kind of spectacle was built to draw audiences into happenings or places they could not witness but only read about. The photographic images in 2011≠1848 do something similar, flattening events into diminutions that reminded me, weirdly enough, of Victoria’s Miniature World. But in the current era of fake news, there are uneasy implications in restaging events with an almost trompe-l’œil level of detail. If the intent in taking out the real stuff and replacing it with a facsimile or simulacra is meant to heighten and accentuate the unreality of the scenes being depicted, then I guess it succeeds. And maybe this is the point?
But it feels strange.
The split between art and the meaning it carries can be very odd. Intimately conjoined, the two lay alongside each other, in an occasionally unsettling coupling. I appreciate the effort and the ideas in 2011≠1848, but the overt staginess, the theatricality that borders on the slightly goofy, feels weird when applied to events in which people struggled, and in some cases died.
The police killing of Mark Duggan is a case in point. Duggan’s death and the subsequent police coverup was the subject of an exhaustive re-creation by the artistic collective Forensic Architecture. The murder set off the largest riots in the history of the U.K., but the tragedy of this event feels lost in Douglas’s image. It details the buildings and the neighbourhood in exacting detail but misses the bigger picture.
Douglas is matter-a-fact that these are not documentary images, but carefully calibrated, orchestrated re-creations. This is especially the case in the image of the 2011 Vancouver hockey riot. The flat bald falseness is proclaimed in every precisely placed piece of trash and carefully rendered bit of face-paint on the rioters. Douglas terms this kind of image “hybrid documentaries.”
Mostly these images made me long for real documentary. Not long after seeing Douglas show, I watched Patricio Guzmán’s new film My Imaginary Country (playing at VIFF this year). Guzmán is a Chilean filmmaker whose work, from The Battle of Chile to Nostalgia for the Light, has documented the struggle of people to fight back against oppression.
My Imaginary Country takes as its impetus the recent social change happening in Chile, fomented in large part by young women. The 2019 uprising began, improbably with an increase in subway fares. But it wasn’t really about people having to pay more for ordinary things as much as it was about the bloated corruption of the country, and ordinary people suffocating under a system that favoured the old, the rich and the privileged.
Protests began with young folks pulling up pavement to make projectiles to hurl at the police. Guzmán films the stones lying on the ground, stating that they remind him of the similar tactics implemented when Augusto Pinochet seized power in 1973. The military junta arrested thousands, including the filmmaker himself, imprisoning him in the National Stadium for weeks.
In capturing the action, My Imaginary Country uses some of the same overhead perspective that Douglas also implements in his work, but the feeling is radically different. This is revolution on the hoof as it were, with a boil of bodies in action, hurling rocks, fighting, bleeding and dying.
The result of the protests that rocked the country was a radical redrafting of the country’s constitution. Although the initial draft was defeated, deemed too extreme, a re-draft is currently underway.
Watching Guzmán’s film, I had a flashback to another documentary, Chris Marker’s film essay A Grin without a Cat (Le Fond de l’air est rouge) that also captures the rise and fall and rise again of revolutionary movements. Guzman is clear about Marker’s influence on his work and My Imaginary Country begins with Guzmán’s recollections of Marker.
This kind of a call and response, the sense that the past echoes down through the present, is also present in 2011≠1848, in a rap exchange entitled ISDN. It features two pairs of rappers: TrueMendous and Lady Sanity from London, and Raptor and Yousef Joker who are based in Cairo. As Reid Shier, the curator for Douglas’s exhibition at the Biennale’s Canada Pavilion, explained in his introduction to the show, the video installation in Douglas’s work was not as widely seen as the photographic images, partly because it was housed across the city in what was once a salt warehouse.
The video installation featuring the rap exchange took place in the Magazzini del Sale No. 5, which dates back to the 16th century. As Shier explains, it was a massive space that gave the work something of the quality of spectacle. The Polygon’s version is a much more intimate affair, the two installation screens seemingly speaking to each other in an immediate and direct fashion. The music itself is a key element, raising the idea of anger and activism, set to a beat. The musical genre grime emerged in the U.K. in the early 2000s, and mahraganat popped up in Egypt a few years later.
Although it is filmed as to appear that the two groups of musicians are reacting to each other in real time, they were actually shot separately. But despite this technical sleight of hand, the effect is very different from the static images in the show.
As Chris Marker said of capturing any real moment of revolution: “When you want to film a fire, you must be at the place where the first flame will appear.” In the case of 2011≠1848, this flame isn’t in the re-creation of events long after they have burnt out, but in music, febrile, bracingly alive, flickering with spunk, humour and bravado.
The contrast between the two treatments of revolutionary change hit me like a brick in the head. To wrest away the furious reality of events and transmute them into something removed, dispassionate, almost clinical suddenly felt stiff, frozen in place. Theme-park re-creations of the Avenue Habib Bourguiba in Tunis, Occupy Wall Street protesters getting kettled on the Brooklyn Bridge or what was once the central Post Office in Vancouver, flattened and made static sucked the dirty, messy reality from these places and events, hollowing them out so that they feel consumable, suitable for audiences and gallery attendees to look at in an outdated version of Canada.
Give me music instead, irascible, uncontainable, irreducible, songs for marching in the streets, tunes to throw rocks to, anthems for real change. To its credit, 2011≠1848 does this.
Stan Douglas’s ‘2011≠1848’ runs until Nov. 6 at the Polygon Gallery in North Vancouver .