B.C. artist Stan Douglas Canada’s next representative at Venice Biennale

Stan Douglas. Photo: Evaan Kheraj. Courtesy the artist, Victoria Miro and David Zwirner.

Canada will be represented at the 59th Venice Biennale in 2021 by the Vancouver-based artist Stan Douglas.

His multidisciplinary practice involves film, photography, and, more recently, theatre  productions. His work tends to “reflect on the dynamic potential embedded in pivotal historical moments,” the National Gallery of Canada announced in a media release.

The 59 year old has been knocking off major awards throughout his career. Last year he was awarded the $100,000 Audain Prize, one of three annual, six-figure Canadian cash arts awards, along with the Giller Prize, celebrating excellence in Canadian fiction, and the Sobey Art Award for a contemporary Canadian artist under the age of 40, which is also connected to the National Gallery.

The announcement was made Wednesday morning by the National Gallery which programs the Canadian Pavilion in Venice.

One of his most prominent works is a massive 15-metre photo mural of the 1971 Gastown riot, also known as the Battle of Maple Tree Square. The mural is in the historic Woodward Building in Vancouver, on the edge of the infamous downtown east side.

“Stan Douglas is one of this country’s most internationally respected artists and we are thrilled to be supporting the development of a new work for the Venice Biennale.” said Sasha Suda, the director and CEO of the National Gallery in the release.This is the only international visual arts exhibition to which Canada sends official representation. As owner and commissioner of the Canada Pavilion in Venice, the National Gallery of Canada is in a perfect position to share with the world what Canadians are most excited about in art.”

This is an installation view of Stan Douglas’s Doppelgänger, 2019, in Venice. Copyright Stan Douglas. Photo courtesy of the artist, David Zwirner and Victoria Miro.

Douglas was selected by a national committee including John Zeppetelli, director and chief curator at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal; Reid Shier, director of The Polygon Gallery; Kitty Scott, the recently appointed deputy director and chief curator of the National Gallery and Suda.

In the release, the jury said of the choice: “It is a privilege to nominate Stan Douglas as Canada’s representative to the 2021 Venice Biennale. Douglas is one of the country’s most internationally respected artists, with a practice recognized for its critical imagination, formal ingenuity and deep commitment to social enquiry. In conversation, the jury cited the artist’s continuing re-imagination of the mediums of photography and multi-channel film and video installation, together with his paradigmatic investigations into the relation of local histories with generational social forces. The currency of Douglas’ practice is especially relevant in the context of the Biennale’s global dialogues, and the jury was unanimous in its enthusiasm for his selection.” 

Suda told ARTSFILE in an interview that the jury was unanimous in their choice of Douglas. 

“Part of what we all agreed upon was that he’s a senior figure within the Canadian art landscape. He’s someone who last year was chosen by the curator of Venice Biennale to be part of the larger group show. It as the right time to single Stan out and put him on the biggest platform that we have to give to contemporary artists.”

Douglas’ films and photographs have been included in exhibitions internationally since the early 1980s, including at documenta IX, X and XI (1992, 1997, 2002) and in four Venice Biennales (1990, 2001, 2005 and 2019). A survey of his work, Stan Douglas: Mise en scène, toured Europe from 2013 until the end of 2015. From 2014 until 2017 his multimedia theatre production Helen Lawrence was presented in Vancouver, Toronto, Munich, Antwerp, Edinburgh, Brooklyn and Los Angeles. Douglas received the International Centre for Photography’s Infinity Prize in 2012, the Scotiabank Photography Award in 2013 and the Hasselblad Award in 2016. Between 2004 and 2006 he was a professor at Universität der Künste Berlin and since 2009 has been a member of the core faculty in the Grad Art Department of Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California.

His work takes on forms such as film and photography and “inflects them with kind of a critical message. He is deeply engaged with the history of places. He is someone who is incredibly rigorous and has a socially aware practice which we think is urgent today,” Suda said.

Douglas, who is the first African Canadian artist to get such an acknowledgement is the kind of artist who could have had this honour bestowed earlier.

Suda doesn’t disagree but she added “there is a time. I’m sure his name has come up many times in the past. What I have come to decide is that there is a kind of crazy alchemy around what the right timing is.”

She said his work “quietly” has an eye on issues of race and ethnicity as they play out across the colonial and post-colonial world. he thinks about these universal truths that peel back the onion on relations between communities.”

Douglas was unavailable for comment because he is at present preparing an exhibition of his work Doppelgänger, in the David Zwirner gallery in New York. The exhibition opens Thursday and runs to  Feb. 22. 

Doppelgänger is a two-channel video installation by Douglas. It debuted in the 2019 Venice Biennale, in New York. It will be installed in the Victoria Miro gallery in London on Jan. 31. Douglas’s work is included in major museum collections including the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, London’s Tate Gallery, The Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim in New York along with the National Gallery of Canada and the Vancouver Art Gallery.

Douglas was born in Vancouver and studied at Emily Carr University.

“His ongoing inquiry into technology’s role in image-making, and how those mediations infiltrate and shape collective memory, has resulted in works that are at once specific in their historical and cultural references and broadly accessible,” reads an online biography.

To that end, Suda said, “we can’t anticipate yet what Stan is going to do, but I think we can imagine an experience that will be immersive, intense and multi-sensory. We are really excited about his ability to bring the Canada Pavilion to life in new ways.”

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.