History and place have long been muses for Canadian artist Stan Douglas, whose peripatetic, time-traveling work includes film, video, photography and installations. The two muses conjoin in Douglas’s riveting six-hour film Luanda-Kinshasa (2013), which purports to document an eclectic band recording in a famous New York studio in the mid-1970s. Between 1949 and 1981, the Columbia 30th Street Studio in Manhattan was legendary. There, pivotal, genre-spanning albums were made: Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited, Pink Floyd’s The Wall, Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story, and the 1955 and 1981 versions of Bach’s Goldberg Variations by Glenn Gould, among many others. Often called “The Church” for its location in a former Congregational and later Armenian church, Columbia Studio was beloved by musicians and understood to be the preeminent recording studio of its time. When it was ignobly demolished in 1981 (replaced eventually by a nondescript apartment building), New York lost a force at the core of the diverse music scene that helped define an era.
Douglas has frequently updated, re-created and recast historical material and obsolete things for his own purposes. Here he meticulously reconstructed Columbia Studio, down to walls, windows, floors, equipment and furniture. In this convincing facsimile, stellar contemporary musicians (selected by renowned jazz keyboardist Jason Moran) constitute a fictional 1970s band performing music that before Douglas’s video hadn’t been composed or imagined, for a record that, obviously, had never been made. Influenced by and perhaps directly quoting Jean-Luc Godard’s Sympathy for the Devil, the 1968 film of a Rolling Stones studio session teeming with cultural references from a hugely conflicted time, Douglas slowly pans across the ensemble. You become entranced by these musicians, singly and together, even though you register that something is seriously off and grossly implausible. The music is a jazz/funk/rock/world fusion with a percussive Afrobeat and ample doses of jam-band improvisation, a mishmash that, even if it had existed in 1974, probably wouldn’t have topped the charts. Electric guitars combine with Indian tablas and chimes. Congas, played by Abdou Mboup from Senegal, mix with drums played by American Kimberly Thompson, who sports a period Afro (she’s the only woman in the band, and she’s great). Circa 1970s semiotics abound: bell-bottoms, alligator boots, a hippieish headscarf for bearded and long-haired lead guitarist Liberty Ellman, bassist Burniss Earl Travis’s pink shirt and light purple trousers, abundant cigarettes, iconic Anthora coffee cups. The inspired musicians contrast with blasé technicians, a journalist and record company suits who mill about. You briefly see two bored girlfriends of band members on a couch, and they are hilarious: a white hippie chick with long hair and a big leather hat, and a black woman with an Angela Davis Afro.
While this fictional recording session seems like a whopping explorative jam with few interruptions, the musicians actually play multiple permutations of two improvised songs, titled “Luanda“ (the more clearly African-influenced) and “Kinshasa.” The titles refer to signature mid-1970s events in Africa: the liberation of colonial Angola and the Muhammad Ali-George Foreman heavyweight title fight in what was then Zaire, when Ali’s “rope-a-dope” strategy exhausted and ultimately vanquished the younger and more powerful Foreman. Unlike Godard, Douglas never strays from the recording studio; instead, the outside world, including questions of race, economics, fashion and competing styles, subtly infuses the studio. As Douglas explores the African origins of and influences on 1970s culture and music, his film—drolly humorous, yet transporting and hypnotic—celebrates music altogether and is a rapturous ode to creativity.
For nearly 30 years, in films, television spots, slide shows, installations and photographs, Vancouver-based artist Stan Douglas has considered the history of modernity and what the past might tell us about the present. Until recently, Douglas’s photographs have largely been documents that served as pendants to his film works-the images of Havana’s crumbling historic buildings, for example, which accompanied his 2005 film Inconsolable Memories. Beginning in 2008, however, he began to produce stand-alone stills made like motion pictures with Hollywood-style sets and costumed actors. These culminated in the 2010 series “Midcentury Studio,” a suite of elaborately staged black-and-white pictures-of a murder victim covered with newspaper, a brawl at a sports event, an illegal craps game-that conjured a fictional, Weegee-like press photographer working in the years immediately following WWII.
“Disco Angola,” Douglas’s 11th show at Zwirner, likewise supposed a fictional protagonist, this time a photojournalist working in the 1970s in New York and Africa. Four of the exhibition’s eight photographs imagine what this unnamed photographer might have encountered on trips to Angola in 1974 and ’75. Four others purport to describe the scene at the disco he frequents when in New York. Here, Douglas draws parallels between the moment before the African nation-newly liberated from colonial Portuguese rule-descended into civil war between rival factions backed by outside powers, and the moment before New York City’s after-hours dance parties-attended by a diverse mix of Latinos, blacks and whites, men and women, straights and gays-were discovered by the mainstream.
The photographs, all shot in California in 2012, fall into rough pairings. A young man works out a dance routine based on Bruce Lee moves in Kung-Fu Fighting, 1975, while in Capoeira, 1974, a ragtag group of Angolan rebels watches as compatriots show off their skills in the eponymous Afro-Brazilian martial art. Two Friends, 1975 depicts a couple of sleek curiosity seekers watching the action from a table at the edge of a disco’s dance floor; similarly out of place is the cosmopolitan young African woman in mint green bell-bottoms, posing uncomfortably against a wall painted with revolutionary slogans in A Luta Continua, 1974.
The works make no effort to reproduce the look of the faded snapshots on which they are partially based. Rather, they more closely resemble such iconic images of the 1960s and ’70s as William Eggleston’s 5x7s, Larry Burrows’s Vietnam War photographs and Malick Sidibé’s shots of young Malians dancing to rock and roll. Nor do they pretend to be anything other than reenactments, as witnessed by the improbably relaxed poses of the actors playing Portuguese colonists awaiting deportation in Exodus, 1975, and the rather too-bright lighting in Club Versailles, 1974, which shows the dance floor itself, with its complement of flamboyantly dressed partygoers. They nevertheless vividly evoke an instant in time coinciding with the end of both the ’60s and capitalism’s “golden age,” and-in their intimations of moneyed interests just beyond the frame-convey a cautionary message for the present day.
Photo: Stan Douglas: A Luta Continua, 1974, 2012, digital C-print on Dibond aluminum, 47½ by 71¼ inches; at David Zwirner.