Reality within abstraction

Step into the exhibition and you enter the fast-paced world of post-war debauchery. The Canadian artist Stan Douglas is fascinated with identity and the relationship between past and present. Here, in Fruitmarket’s first room, Douglas poses as a press photographer, setting his elegant images in the 1950s when in reality they were completed just three years ago. Displaying a range of film and photography, the exhibition starts in Berlin circa. 1995 and ends just months ago with two photographs that relate to Helen Lawrence, Douglas’ play shown at this year’s Edinburgh Festival.

Although rather unclear, the exhibition continues upstairs and it is here that colour is introduced to the show. At the heart of Douglas’ work is the notion that things are never quite what they seem. This is particularly prominent in ‘Corrupt Files’, which at a first glance is an incongruous series of abstract paintings. On closer inspection (and a quick read of the exhibition guide) it appears that these are in fact photographs, and a result of broken digital images that reference the past similarly to Douglas’ post-war pictures.

Filled with references to text and film, the two video installations, ‘Vidéo’ and ‘Der Sandmann’ are beautifully shot and make use of interesting artistic methods but can be rather confusing and arduous for those with a short attention span. The latter won Douglas great critical acclaim in the 1995 Documenta exhibition, and is one of the reasons why this show has come to Edinburgh.

The viewer is invited to interact with Douglas’ works both mentally and physically, the simple white walls and open space of the gallery providing no distraction from the process. Our brains are continuously picked as to the identity of the figures and the artistic processes behind the works.

The most engaging part of the show takes place upstairs where, on request, the gallery assistant provides a handtorch in order for the viewer to examine the extremely dark photographs taken from the computer-animated set of Helen Lawrence. The attention to detail is simply stunning and one can spend hours scanning the streets of downtown Vancouver and the apartment blocks in the upstate West. The artist has also created an accompanying free app, ‘Circa 1948’, which allows you to walk around these two areas of the city.

The exhibition is a successful introduction to the aims of the artist and, with the aid of titles and kind assistants, educates the viewer about specific historical events. Falling somewhere between reality and abstraction, Douglas’ works are both captivating and puzzling and, when displayed as a whole, firmly reiterate the artist’s belief that “the past is always with us”.

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