Art review: Stan Douglas | Beauty by Design

Suspect, 1950 by Stan Douglas. Picture: Contributed
Suspect, 1950 by Stan Douglas. Picture: Contributed
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IT BEGINS as a solitary red dot bouncing slowly from left to right and back again, from one side of the screen to the other.

STAN DOUGLAS

Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh

Star rating: ****

BEAUTY BY DESIGN: FASHIONING THE RENAISSANCE

Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh

Star rating: ***

Then, as though your eyes are adjusting to the light, what gradually emerges is the image of a camera, an oddly timeless or perhaps just peculiarly old-fashioned surveillance camera. It swings on its axis and our perception swings with it. Are we watching it? Or is it watching us.

Stan Douglas’s short film installation Vidéo is a retelling of Orson Welles’s version of Franz Kafka’s The Trial, a revisiting of Samuel Beckett’s experimental film, entitled Film and a re-imagining of Jean-Luc Godard’s Two or Three Things I Know About Her. It is impossible to think of the art of the Vancouver artist, a leading art world figure of the last 20 years, without using that prefix “re”. For Douglas has persistently re-invented the history of film and photography, and in the works in his show at the Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh, he uses new technology and techniques to evoke classic post-war aesthetics like film noir, press and police photography of the 50s and Hollywood set and sound design.

In Vidéo a young woman goes to her bed in a claustrophobic and darkened apartment and is abruptly woken in the night and interrogated by a succession of threatening male authority figures. Are they cops? Detectives? Immigration officials?

The woman is black, as is her next-door neighbour, a man whose apartment appears to have been ransacked. We don’t see her face, just those of the white authority figures she faces, like the mysterious woman official who issues her with a numbered card and the male judge at what might be her trial or some kind of appeal. Behind him is an image in which justice, traditionally blindfolded, seems almost tortured. Is race an issue here or not? We don’t quite know. In fact we don’t know what the story is about at all. The film is virtually silent but for the abrupt retort of its shock ending and it appears near monochrome, though shot in colour.

Throughout Vidéo lights flicker on and off, mirrors and apertures open and close, curtains are pulled and pulled back. Whole apartment blocks and public parks judder into bright life and dark silhouette. The whole construction is impeccable and terrifying. Rather than rendered ersatz by its many echoes and imitations, Vidéo is intensified: Douglas uses the layering of his sources and references to pile on an unspoken yet deeply familiar dread.

Douglas’s Fruitmarket show is a small survey dedicated to works from the last 20 years. Among them is Der Sandmann, the film that brought the artist to worldwide attention in 1997 when it was shown at Documenta, the five-yearly exhibition in Kassel, Germany that is a benchmark of what is happening in the contemporary art world.

Nearly two decades after it was first made, Der Sandmann reflects the artistic obsessions of its age. Technically innovative, Freudian in content, it was made by shooting two versions of the same narrative on a constructed circular set that shows the same setting, a faded Berlin allotment, 20 years apart. The films are shown side by side, as though spliced together vertically and as the camera rotates, one version of the story erases or uncovers the other. We hear an epistolary tale, recited slowly, of a sinister figure from childhood, and we try to unpick what is childish fantasy and what lived experience. We think of repressed memories, layers of meaning, ghostly reappearances. The very laboriousness seems dated now, but like Salvador Dali’s famous sequences for Hitchcock’s Spellbound it is an honourable and landmark attempt to revisit Freud’s legacy in the artistic idiom and available technology of its era.

The rest of the show is dedicated to photographs, some of which relate to Helen Lawrence, the artist’s film/play hybrid that was performed at this year’s Edinburgh International Festival. During the development of that project Douglas made astonishingly complex large photographs, which reconstruct old Vancouver neighbourhoods from archive images, to act as virtual sets for the action. You can borrow a torch from the gallery, to cast a light on the gargoyles on a complex facade, peer in through windows and imagine every lit room holds a drama as complex as Hitchcock’s Rear Window. There is a moment, in viewing, when you are tempted to deride the images as a kind of labour-intensive trickery, but their seductive qualities and monumental achievement use digital techniques to outstrip the very workaday ambitions of the digital world.

Douglas, deals knowingly in cliché, and his attempts to reimagine the noir world of the late 40s and early 50s are an attempt to reimagine the trauma and reconstruction of the post-war settlement, the fate of his own nation, Canada, as a kind of second tier USA, and his city, Vancouver, as a cheap Hollywood substitute. This is nowhere clearer than in Midcentury Studio, Douglas’s staged and reconstructed photos of crime scenes, lowlife types and police photography as seen through the lens of a fictional press photographer. The series owes much to the voyeuristic street and crime photography of Weegee (Arthur Felig) whose work was important for Andy Warhol. Weegee is the inspiration for the new Jake Gyllenhaal movie Nightcrawler, set in modern Los Angeles, and his unique and shocking images of the city at night still have currency.

Nearby the collection of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery deals similarly in types and stereotypes as much as real individuals. Beauty by Design, a small fashion exhibition made in collaboration with Edinburgh College of Art, also draws on historical images. In this case it explores the gallery’s collection of Renaissance portraits, in order, apparently, to suggest more complex notions of beauty than we night usually be exposed to in the age of skinny uniformity.

The source material is handsome: upstairs at the gallery you can see some fine paintings. Downstairs, with the exhibition, is the 1626 portrait of Margaret Lady Napier in a plunging back dress with lace collar and cuffs, painted by Adam de Colone. From their historical sources a number of designers with teaching links to ECA have produced beautiful one-off pieces: a dress, an elaborate Perspex headpiece, a sequence of fashion photos. The best of this stuff, particularly Mal Burkinshaw’s stunning black net shirts, decorated with black lace that has been painstakingly hand appliqued over 800 hours of labour and shown dramatically against a lightbox, is visually gorgeous. But the project as a whole feels strangely mechanical. Lovely as it is, the exhibition feels rather more like a carefully constructed exercise in research collaboration than a passionate, heartfelt and unpredictable show of either art or design.

Stan Douglas until 15 February; Beauty By Design until 3 May 2015