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Inconsolable Memories is a black and white film installation consisting of two 16 mm film loops projected alternately onto one screen in a dark gallery space. Both films feature archival documentary material, including footage of the streets of Havana and black and white photographs of artists and intellectuals in Cuba, combined with scenes filmed by Canadian artist Stan Douglas on a set in Vancouver. One of the films consists of five sequential parts, while the other has only three parts. The five-part film is almost twice as long as the three-part film, so that although both loops start playing together, they quickly go out of sync with one other.
Inconsolable Memories acts as a kind of sequel to the film Memories of Underdevelopment (Memorias del subdesarrollo), which was made in 1968 by the Cuban filmmaker Tomás Gutiérrez Alea (1928–1996) and centres on a bourgeois intellectual named Sergio. Alea’s film is set during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 and portrays Sergio struggling with the social situation in Cuba having chosen to remain in the capital Havana after the Cuban Revolution, even though many people, including his friends and family, had relocated to the US. Douglas’s Inconsolable Memories was made in 2005 but is set in 1980, the year when more than 125,000 people fled Cuba for the US in what is now known as the ‘Mariel boatlift’. Among them were several thousand prisoners who were given the choice by the Cuban government to go to the US or remain incarcerated in Cuba. Douglas’s film shows an older Sergio, who is now a convict and is given the chance to leave once more in 1980, but again decides to stay. He spends time in his apartment, pretending to write a book, and also walks the streets thinking about his past and ‘hoping to discover an “inconsolable memory” that would prove there has been some kind of development in his life’ (Douglas quoted in Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery 2005, p.93). Both of the video loops in Inconsolable Memories focus on the Sergio of the 1980s, but both use vignettes and flashbacks filmed by Douglas to compare these events with moments from Sergio’s personal history, as well as the recent history of Cuba.
The narrative of Inconsolable Memories and its mode of presentation offer a reflection on the complicated relationship between repetition and change. When displayed in a gallery the films repeat indefinitely, but since one film is longer than the other, different scenes are played in varying sequences with each loop so that the combination of images changes over time. As Douglas has stated, the two films are ‘synchronised but running in and out of phase with one another. Typically, if there is an image projected from one machine, the other is dark (and vice versa), but there is the occasional superimposition of images and mixing of sounds’ (quoted in Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery 2005, p.93). By allowing this superimposition to take place, Inconsolable Memories seems to suggest that Sergio’s life has not progressed, since he remains beset by the same problems as he was in Alea’s film. However, the direct comparison of the two historical moments also indicates the temporal shift from the 1960s to the 1980s and the altered social circumstances in Cuba. For instance, in Inconsolable Memories Sergio is played by a black actor, whereas in Alea’s film he had much paler skin, reflecting the fact that ‘while the earlier exodus was mainly white and bourgeois, the later migrants were often black and working class’ (Douglas quoted in Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery 2005, p.131).
Douglas has been producing film installations since the mid-1980s. His practice can be compared with that of the British artist Douglas Gordon and the French artist Pierre Huyghe, both of whom also produced works during the 1990s and 2000s that draw on the history of cinema. However, the art theorist Sven Lütticken has observed that while his contemporaries have tended to work with modern video techniques, Douglas has continued to use the more outmoded medium of celluloid film, as is the case with Inconsolable Memories, revealing an ‘anachronistic streak’ in his practice (Sven Lütticken, ‘Media Memories’, in Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery 2005, p.124). Lütticken has also remarked that while film remakes and sequels often recycle successful stories to avoid taking risks with new material, Douglas’s experimentation with the desynchronised looping of his films and their different temporal layers means that in his work, ‘the remake becomes a form of speculative history rather than reprocessed content’ (Sven Lütticken, ‘Media Memories’, in Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery 2005, p.131).
Stan Douglas: Inconsolable Memories, exhibition catalogue, Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery, Vancouver 2005.
Nancy Princenthal, ‘Stan Douglas’s Fugue States’, Art in America, vol.95, no.4, 2007, pp.108–11.
Lisa Coulthard, ‘Uncanny Memories: Stan Douglas, Subjectivity and Cinema’, Scope: An Online Journal of Film & TV Studies, no.12, 2008, http://www.academia.edu/306933/Uncanny_Memories_Stan_Douglas_Subjectivity_and_Cinema, accessed 7 October 2014.
Supported by Christie’s.