this issue contains
>> Interview: Stan Douglas
>> Select Eclecticism: Karen Kilimnik
>> Elegiac Landscapes: Elger Esser
>> Drowning in Décor: Adriana Czernin

>> archive

 
A Deceptive Landscape
Stan Douglas on his work Nu.tka.


It’s one of the highlights of the exhibition True North at the Deutsche Guggenheim. In his video installation Nu.tka., Stan Douglas combines the romantic idea of the North with a dark chapter of colonial history. In an interview with the curator Frank Wagner, the Canadian artist explains his aesthetic and complex work.






Stan Douglas, Nu.tka. (video still), 1996,
© Stan Douglas

A pale blue, pastel-colored sky. Blue mountains covered in fog; wooded, gently descending cliffs that end in a cragged, rocky coastline. The image resembles a gently filtered sketch that is difficult to grasp. When the eye adjusts, one sees that the picture is comprised of two images that repeatedly overlap while moving in opposing directions. This artificial electronic perception of nature is immersed in a cacophony of voices that only seldom and briefly converge to speak in unison. During these moments, the picture grows still and a constructed image of a landscape emerges - hypnotically beautiful, distanced, virgin - only to then blur again and dissolve into a hallucinatory flickering haze of the sublime. Stan Douglas calls this effect an "uncanny apparition." The temporal divide creates an image that blends different wind and tidal movements and compresses time in a synthetic manner.



Stan Douglas, Nu.tka. (installation view), 1996,
Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner Gallery, New York
© Stan Douglas

This beautifully captivating video installation addresses the first late-eighteenth-century contacts between the colonial powers of Spain and Great Britain and the native inhabitants of what is today the Canadian province of British Columbia. The story is based on an armed conflict between the two powers that sought to trade with the First Nations people living on the Pacific west coast. Each laid claim to the land, which nearly led to a war between Spain and England in 1789. Stan Douglas uses this carefully researched historical constellation as the basis for a fictional story that takes place in the days before July 14, 1789 - the date that marked the outbreak of the French Revolution and the onset of a new era.



Stan Douglas, Nu.tka. (video still), 1996,
© Stan Douglas

The bodiless, ethereal voices that fill the space before the landscape projection can be attributed to two historical personalities: Commodore Estéban José Martinez, who was commissioned by the Spanish crown to found a colony on Canada's northwest coast, and Captain James Colnett, who organized the fur trade on Nootka Sound under the English flag.Conflict ensued. Martinez held Colnett as a prisoner of war. Locked away, Colnett fell into delirium. Yet the situation was hopeless for both of them, because when the news of the armed conflict between England and Spain reached the Nu-Chah-Nulth, the First Nations people of Nootka Sound retreated further north to escape the Europeans. After Colnett was taken prisoner, Chief Callicum told Martinez that his people had had good trade relations with England that they did not wish to transfer over to Spain. In the struggle that followed, he was shot by mistake. This put an end to the trade relations.



Stan Douglas, View of Mount Adair from Resolution Cove,
from the series "Nootka Sound", 1966,
© Stan Douglas

In Douglas' video work, both Martinez and Colnett project their fears and apprehensions onto the alien surroundings that had been abandoned by the First Nations people. Speaking simultaneously, each of them seeks to rationalize his situation, yet occasionally they speak in unison whenever they quote from sixteenth-, eighteenth-, and nineteenth-century novels that often explore the unknown and uncanny. Afterwards, they quickly become lost once again in their own thoughts. The literary quotes, carefully woven into the narrative by the artist and his collaborator Peter Cummings, are from Edgar Allan Poe, Miguel de Cervantes, Jonathan Swift, Captain James Cook, and the Marquis de Sade. For instance, Poe's description of the monumentality of the House of Usher becomes a description of the monumentality of the landscape of the New World.



Stan Douglas, Gold River Mill,
from the series "Nootka Sound", 1966,
© Stan Douglas

Frank Wagner: Jennifer Blessing, the curator of the Deutsche Guggenheim exhibition "True North", chose a work of yours [Nu.tka. (1996)] that is very Canadian - you call it a "Canadian Gothic"- a narrative that is accompanied by dramatic visuals of the northwestern coast.

Stan Douglas: I began working on that project as soon as I came back from Berlin, where I was living in 1994-95 as a guest of the German Academic Exchange Service. I was homesick for the climate and atmosphere around Vancouver and as soon as I got back to British Columbia I wanted to go to a place that was as "west coast" as possible. On the ferry to Vancouver Island, where I was going to visit some friends, I found a 1909 book called British Columbia Coast Names that contained an account of the first contact between natives and Europeans here, at a place called Nootka Sound. And I decided to make a road trip there before the winter rains set in.




Stan Douglas, Marble Quarry at Hisnit Inlet,
from the series "Nootka Sound", 1966,
© Stan Douglas


A little while later I packed up my camera and Peter Cummings, my co-scriptwriter and production manager, and I rented a Boston Whaler, drove across the island and made the hour-and-a-half boat ride from the town of Gold River to the outside coast, to a place called Yuquot, or "Friendly Cove." The ride down Muchalat Channel was fine, but the ocean swells where the Sound opens onto the Pacific taught us to use a more substantial boat next time around. Whenever I think about the sublime - that is, the sublime indifference of Nature to human will - this is the experience I remember. What initially struck me about the landscape there was that in spite of being somewhat remote, it still betrays evidence of a long history of human intervention, from the native culture to that of European industry and empire.

[1] [2]