News Column

Douglas leads us down a dark alley

August 19, 2014

neil cooper; neil cooper

There is something oddly off-kilter about Stan Douglas being photographed in an ornate, low-lit hi-tech room in the Haus der Kunst, Munich, where his new exhibition, Mise en Scene, has just opened. For the past hour, the Vancouver-born artist, film-maker and photographer, whose large-scale piece of cinematic theatre, Helen Lawrence, opens on Sunday as part of Edinburgh International Festival, has been taking part in a panel discussion to talk about the series of elaborately constructed fictions contained in the exhibition.

Taken from real life historical events, the assorted images of staged street scenes, 1950s nightclub portraits and post- revolutionary 1970s hedonism may be steeped in meticulously realised retro imagery culled from film noir and pulp fiction, but they are quietly and deeply political in intent. Which is why Douglas appears as off-kilter as the shadowy 3D image at the far end of the long room where much of the exhibition is housed, and which reimagines the now razed Hogan's Alley in 1948 Vancouver as a ramshackle set for a post-war film noir. Which is what Helen Lawrence effectively is.

While his fellow panellists are dressed in standard issue European arts mandarin black suits, Douglas sports a dressed-down checked shirt, which, given the themes of Helen Lawrence, makes it clear where his loyalties lie. As does the show itself, which is performed later the same night at the Munich Kammerspiele's studio space, around the corner from the main theatre, and just off the main drag of the city's well-heeled centre.

In stark contrast to all this, Helen Lawrence switches between Hogan's Alley - the local name for Park Lane in Vancouver'sStrathcona district where the black community live, and the rundown hotel occupied by war veterans left on the skids once the war ended.

Into these highly-strung environments run on a black market economy steps a mysterious femme fatale catching up with her past. On stage, Douglas's story, scripted by HBO writer Chris Haddock is conveyed by actors performing on an empty stage, who are in turn filmed by other actors not in that scene. With a low-key jazz underscore setting the tone, a live black and white video feed of the performance is projected on a huge screen against computer generated backdrops, with every wide-eyed, tight-lipped gesture exposed.

Douglas said: "Every performance is like the actors are making a movie live every night. Twice on Sundays."

To explain the dual nature of Helen Lawrence, Douglas went on to quote Canadian-born classical pianist, Glenn Gould, who, when talking of his own charged relationship with playing, performing, and recording, spoke of how importance it was "to be aware of the illusion, but to be able to see the physicality going on".

Douglas also talks of "the social structure of a downtown bar."

This is an idea the real inhabitants of Hogan's Alley might have recognised. Like any ethnically diverse neighbourhood that existed in a world before cultural quarters, Hogan's Alley was also a melting pot of underground artistic activity, where the likes of Duke Ellington stayed when on tour.

The next day, over breakfast in the dining room of the hotel where he is staying in Munich, Douglas considers the political motivations and considerations behind Helen Lawrence, which began its road to stage and screen in 2008.

"George W Bush was coming to the end of his time in power," Douglas says, "and I thought that would be the end of the war on terror. I was curious about what a post-war period was like, both then, in Vancouver after the Second World War, and now, with what I thought was the end of the war on terror.

"Unfortunately, the war on terror did not actually end in the way I thought it might, and there was no real new situation, but there were still parallels. There was a recession back then, and there is a recession now. The world banking system was a shambles then and it is a shambles now. There was a housing crisis then, and there is a housing crisis now. Also, the Cold War was beginning then, with what was seen by the west as a shadowy sort of Communism, and now there is a shadowy form of terrorism as seen by the west.

"The parallels were there, but the transition to stability did not really happen in the post-war period, and the solution to the economic challenges then were to invent consumerism, so people who worked could buy the stuff they made, but this time they built the banks up, so I am not sure that bodes too well for the future."

In this respect, Helen Lawrence represents a society in flux, where old communities were clinging on by their fingertips to the bricks and mortar that would eventually be swept away by a form of urban regeneration and social engineering designed for the wealthy.

"I guess I try to look at things that are very abstract and very political," says Douglas, "and things that affect the world as well as affect individuals on a personal level. So all we have to experience in the play are these individual lives, and the challenges of these people who are living through these crises. You live it through them to a certain degree.

"The whole urban renewal thing changed things. Ethnic slums in urban centres were cleared out, warehousing for the poor was built, there was new housing in the suburbs for the middle classes, freeways were built.

"It was about normalising things again. During the war a blind eye was turned to gambling and prostitution, and you have a very different set of morals. The question for me was how do you go from a war situation to peace-time with a new set of morals? Sadly, we have not seen that yet."

As with the best movies, the end of Helen Lawrence is open-ended enough to leave room for a sequel. As with even better movies, it may be best to leave well alone. Either way, the 3D image of Hogan's Alley, 1948 that graced Mise en Scene in Munich will form part of an exhibition by Douglas at the Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh, in November.

Also on show will be Der Sandmann, Douglas' 1995 split-screen piece, which charts a post-war urban garden in Germany's transition into a building site.

Helen Lawrence is at the King's Theatre, Edinburgh, August 24- 26. The Stan Douglas exhibition opens at the Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh, on November 7 and runs to February 15, 2015.

l www.eif.co.uk


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Source: Herald, The (Scotland)


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