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Stan Douglas, ‘Suspiria’, 2003, video installation, still

Four musicians are improvising free jazz. At Documenta 9, in 1992, this sober yet poetic video projection was shown on the front and back of a suspended screen. It highlighted the cultural/political context which regarded the creation of free jazz as a vehicle of black consciousness. This form of installation was new and appeared alien at the time; the related ‘media-theatre of cruelty’ by Bruce Nauman, was more familiar. Then, it was not possible to work out whether the jazz session was the presentation of a documentary, whether it was a new performance, or just archive material. Only intensive examination finally revealed it as a construct.

The Canadian artist Stan Douglas had produced a recording in the style of a 1960s television concert. One side of the screen showed the ‘authorised’ version whilst a rejected version flickered on the other side. This way he was able to present not only the performance, but also refer to the conditions of its production. With hindsight, this installation ‘Hors-champ’, 1992, can be placed at the beginning of a development in which a self-reflection of the medium itself gained entry to exhibitions by way of video booths, multiple projections and screenings, as well as used references to über-father Alfred Hitchcock. Today many artists use film, research, ‘docu-fiction’ and references to media history. They also engage in filmic reconstruction, as well as deconstruct historic events.

Douglas’ first major retrospective here, Past Imperfect Werke 1986–2007, comprising 14 video and film installations and more than 120 photographs, illustrates that he has not simply anticipated or triggered many of today’s widespread art practices, but that he has always understood how to employ them in a sophisticated and complex way.

The retrospective is impeccably presentated and highly entertaining though Douglas’ film and media works are by no means easy to consume. Complex layers, depth of reflection, references to literature and film history, often only reveal themselves with further study of the catalogue. But the style and originality of the film, photography and video is astonishing. In his confident reaction to today’s omnipresence of the media, he avoids being an artist exclusively for cineastes and intellectual explorers, revealing his theories and ideas to any willing spectator.

Every so often Douglas presents a story from multiple perspectives, as in ‘Klatsassin’, 2006, in which Wild West heroes each give their own versions of the same situation. Developing a technique used in the film Rashomon, 1950, by a famous predecessor, Akira Kurosawa, Douglas combines different scenes on the computer over and over again in new constellations; presenting the same thing in what seems like infinite ways. The quest for the truth dissolves in the 840 variations and a total running time of 67 hours.

He also frequently sends his films, sometimes just a few minutes long, into endless loops; pushing the medium’s possibilities to the limits of understanding, he refers to the space between perception and knowledge. The wealth of connotations created by dissecting and abbreviating feature films and literature into a stripped back yet highly complex structure of references leaves the spectator occasionally feeling like a part of media theory and epistemological experiment. Even though Douglas’s work is forever trying to expose itself, it remains part of the cinematic narrative tradition. His plots are appealing even without knowledge of the many references and complex connections: Samuel Beckett, Franz Kafka, Orson Welles and Jean-Luc Godard being just a few.

The silent work ‘Pursuit, Fear, Catastrophe: Ruskin B.C.’, 1993, stylistically combines exaggerated gestures of the silent movie era with a ‘film noir’ twilight. An inspector is witnessing the search for a missing worker, when suddenly, a piano plays ‘Begleitmusik zu einer Lichtspielscene’, a score composed by Arnold Schönberg in 1930 for an imaginary silent film. The effect is baffling. Who is playing? This elegant connection between atmosphere and content can also be found in his latest film ‘Video’, 2007. It is not essential to make out the parallels with Samuel Beckett’s Film, 1965, or to view scenes from Orson Welles’ The Trial/Process, 1962, in order to revel in the narrative thread and see its charm.

Douglas opposes the wealth of references in his films with his photographic works and their straightforward representation of their subjects. Soberly registering the object, these images come alive through a vividly precise observation of reality, a continuous depth of field through multiple scenic layers, and saturated colours. Yet despite all this rich detail, one’s gaze is often led into emptiness: the landscapes and sceneries are void of people, merely traces have remained. In his films, absence is often constructed through narrative; his photographs seductively present a melancholic mood with an arresting immediacy.

Michael Krajewski is an art critic and curator based in Cologne