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Stan Douglas - Helen Lawrence

There's something oddly off-kilter about Stan Douglas being
photographed in an ornate, low-lit and state-of-art 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 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
streets 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
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's Strathcona district
-  where the black community live, and the run-down 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. Onstage, Douglas'
story, scripted by HBO writer Chris Haddock, who has penned episodes of
Boardwalk Empire, 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 onto a huge screen against
computer generated backdrops, with every wide-eyed, tight-lipped
gesture exposed.

It is effects like this that prompted one of Douglas' black-suited
colleagues to earlier describe him as “a wizard of location.”

Douglas spoke plainer.

“Every performance is like the actors are making a movie live every
night,” he said. “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, whose artworks over the last thirty years have frequently
looked at the failed utopias of late twentieth century urban renewal,
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 neighbourhoods 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
explains, “and I thought that would be the end of the war on terror,
and 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 didn't
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's a recession now. The world banking system was a
shambles then and it's a shambles now. There was a housing crisis then,
and there's 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's a shadowy form of terrorism as seen by the west.

“The parallels were there, but the transition to stability didn't
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'm
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 haven't 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 in Edinburgh this coming 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.

As for Douglas, he has a plane to catch, and, after breakfast, stands
waiting outside his hotel for a cab to take him to the airport. On the
corner, with his luggage beside him, he takes shelter from the
mid-morning rain that's just started to fall, pulling his collar up
close as he goes. The cab pulls up and Douglas puts his luggage in the
boot, steps inside the back seat, and slams the door behind him. The
cab slowly drives away, turns the corner, and he's gone. If this were
night-time, a saxophone would be playing.

Helen Lawrence, King's Theatre, Edinburgh, Aug 24-26, 8-9.30pm; Aug 25,
3-4.30pm. Stan Douglas, Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh, November
7-February 15 2015.
www.eif.co.uk

The Herald, August 19th 2014




ends

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