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.