January 3, 2007

Crafted From Memories

Art Fag City: Douglas's exhibition in Harlem recasts 1960s Cuba in disorienting contemporary dream

By Paddy Johnson

A still shared by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea's 1968 film Memories of Underdevelopment and Stan Douglas's exhibition Inconsolable Memories (Photo: The Studio Museum of Harlem)

I t took me three days to figure out what Inconsolable Memories, Stan Douglas's exhibition at the Studio Museum of Harlem, is about, which placed it in the same company as David Lynch's Mulholland Drive. I harbored some initial reluctance to let that bit of information out of the bag -- of course, you always want to sound as though you are so cultured that no reference goes by you -- but it wasn't long before I came to the conclusion that even with my hard-earned understanding of the piece, I wasn't going to fool anyone into believing that this came so easily. There may be some audience members who didn't have to immediately run home, rent the movie the exhibition is based on, Google about 500 key terms and then discuss the show with three of their closest friends before forming any kind of cogent thoughts on the work, but I'm not one of them.

For the two remaining readers dying to do this much homework for the sake of understanding an art piece, I have good news: It's worth your trouble. Douglas's two-part exhibition of photographs and video uses Tomás Gutiérrez Alea's 1968 film Memories of Underdevelopment as a starting point to explore the socio-political history of Cuba, while employing his mastery of technology to investigate the role memory plays not only in the construction of timelines, but the medium itself; the result is a surprisingly complex portrait of sexual relationships, race and national identity. Intermittently narrated by the psychologically stunted but erudite protagonist Sergio Corrieri, Alea's original film relates a lack of social awareness on an individual level to that of the culture as a whole: Sergio loses his job as a journalist and eventually has his apartments confiscated in the middle of the Cuban Missile Crisis; while he occasionally seems to have the awareness that he should leave Cuba, he irrationally remains unwilling to do so. His relationships fall apart, and he likens the failures he sees in the women he partners with to those of the country.

But Sergio himself represents these failures as well. "Everything you said was taped," Sergio creepily tells his young lover Elena, in one of many lines Douglas takes verbatim from Memories of Underdevelopment to effectively transplant the fullness of these characters to Inconsolable Memories. Now set against the backdrop of the Mariel Boatlift emigrant crisis in 1980, Douglas's film mirrors this period of Cuban history -- prominently featuring scenes with criminal characters and once again emphasizing that individual storylines cannot be separated from national events. Sergio, who has been recast as a successful Afro-Cuban architect, faces the same existential dilemma to either remain in the country or leave. In Douglas's version he decides to stay as well, jumping off the ship at Mariel Harbor and swimming to land only to find that his relationships with women, which remain equally troubled, lead to his untimely death.

But unlike that synopsis, Douglas's film does not use a straight narrative path to construct a storyline, but a grouping of events that emphasizes emotional response and manufactured environments. Like many memories that are recalled occasionally and eventually remembered differently, the movie repeats and loops these recast vignettes, resequencing the same events with new material to create seemingly countless permutations of a single storyline. Technically, this is achieved by printing the film on two reels, each containing different scenes and projected onto each other. The scenes alternate across reels, with a printed scene from one reel running over a blank space on the other. If you are lucky, you will see some overlap of the two that will not only clue you into the process, but also trigger a physical representation of the idea that fact and fiction -- not to mention past, present and future -- do not always merge so seamlessly.

Stan Douglas, Beach Resort/Cultural Center, Tarara Cuba, 2004. Color photograph (Photo copyright David Zwirner, New York )

In contrast to the black-and-white film, Douglas's large-scale color photographs represent both a present and future that builds upon Cuban history. Beach Resort/Cultural Center, Tarara Cuba, 2004 for example (right), mimics an early shot in Alea's movie in which Sergio Corrieri watches the city through a telescope, observing, "Everything looks like a set -- a city made of cardboard." While the shots in Memories of Underdevelopment-- in contrast to Douglas's photographs -- show a few people within the landscape, both are meant to be viewed as stages for which history has and will unfold. There isn't anything necessarily extraordinary about this choice -- stage-like photos are, after all, common. What isn't, however, is the emotional resonance built by the layers of visual information in this exhibition that represent both the failure and promise brought about by political and social change.

Which brings to mind the unnamed Cuban in Alea's film who begins a speech at a round table saying, "People become conscious of their ability to change their social life, to write their own history." The statement suggests that the set-like qualities of the city observed by Sergio earlier in the movie are as malleable as he thinks. But Memories of Underdevelopmentcan only present a vision of the future that is within its protagonist's field of vision. Douglas takes this concept one step further, imagining histories that never existed and a future that is as full as possibility as the past.

Paddy Johnson is the editor of the New York art blog Art Fag City.

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