Stan Douglas : Disco Angola
Victoria Miro, Mayfair
23 November 2013 - 11 January 2014
Review by Yvette Greslé
Photography is a medium that despite historical claims to veracity is entrenched in the telling of tales. Documentary photographers, situating themselves at the forefront of the social and political, strive to convey an objective, distantiated truth: to transmit social and political phenomena or events via the circuits of the media, or the spaces produced by art worlds. As the critical history of documenting human subjects has made apparent, representation in the visual field is not benign. How the photographer looks (and is received) has a great deal to tell us about the nature of prejudice. The representation of human subjects and related questions of citizenship - not as theoretical abstractions, but rather as that which is tangible and lived - remain central to the political struggles of the 21st century.
Stan Douglas grapples with photography’s ambiguous relationship to the idea of fact. ‘Disco Angola’ (2012) is a body of large-scale photographs, vivid in colour. He performs the role of a documentary photographer, drawing geographical place into a dialogue with a cultural trend. He imagines, in these highly staged and orchestrated images, a historical time to which he allocates a date - the years 1974 and 1975. In the 1970s, Disco emerged as a major cultural phenomenon bringing together music, dance, fashion, and late-night leisure. In 1977, ‘Saturday Night Fever’, directed by John Badham and synonymous with John Travolta, rippled across the globe. Angola - the country - was, during the course of the ‘70s, in the midst of political turmoil. A Portuguese colony, its War of Independence lasted from 1961 to 1975. Independence was declared in 1975, the same year that a brutal civil war erupted, lasting until 2002. Perhaps similarly to many countries battling to emerge from the traumatic aftershocks of colonialism, war and political violence Angola, which is both a place and an imaginary construct, remains opaque. Any assumptions require suspension.
Douglas’ work with images (his interest in their relationship to histories, both visible and invisible) speaks forcefully to the failure of historical representation, of claiming or assuming to speak a ‘truth’ on behalf of others. His photographs suggest a dialogue with art historical genres that have migrated, along with their formal conventions and fictions, into photographic languages: landscape, portraiture, or still life. His images, and his performance of a fictional photographer, appear highly conscious of the visual language of photography - a medium, deployed as document, snapshot, or as one of the vehicles through which culture as commodity is transformed into a brand, and circulated on a global stage. At first, Disco Angola appears perfectly readable but then, upon reflection, it is not. Just as we imagine we’ve grasped what it is the photographs represent - a place, a human subject, human interaction - we are thwarted. The juxtaposition of Disco and Angola produces an imaginative space within which to begin a historical excavation. Photography as an art object has the potential to turn history upside down and inside out.