Stan Douglas’s mesmerizing, deceptively simple Luanda-Kinshasa floats somewhere between music video, installation art, and historical reenactment. The square-format video is projected at movie theater dimensions in one cavernous, blacked-out gallery of David Zwirner. In the video, cameras pan around a recording studio full of musicians in the middle of a jam session. They are conjuring the African-infused funk-jazz of the 1970s, full of hand drums, guitar scrapes, electric piano, and strong bass lines.
It seems, at first, boring: a sort of static music video without the drama or special effects we are used to. We are not sure why the musicians are here, or what it means that they are. But the catchy drive of the music, led by the great Jason Moran, is enough to compel the visitor to stay a while. And the longer one watches the video, the more the subtle strangeness of it works on you.
There is no sense of narrative, or of time passing: the musician’s don’t get up, sit down, take breaks, leave the room. Any sense of time comes solely from the music, when a passage in the improvisation winds down or picks up volume or tempo. The colors of the clothes and studio are soft, neutral, earthy—washed out further by the camera to give the movie an aged, 1970s look.
There is, in fact, no evidence of the contemporary: no iPhones or modern recording equipment or contemporary fashion. One guitarist wears a short-sleeved turtleneck sweater, others wear dashikis; no one’s hair is straightened. The studio is littered throughout with blue and white “We Are Happy to Serve You” coffee cups. At one point, a photographer enters the scene to photograph the musicians using a steel-bodied film camera. These details reveal themselves over time, essential but not obvious, like the background in old master painting or the sets of an Italian neo-realist film.
The 1970s are an enduring interest for Douglas. His recent photographic series “Disco Angola” recreated scenes in both 1970s New York and Angola, capturing the excitement, danger, and style of New York’s troubled 70s and the recently-liberated Angola. A similar aging process is also applied those photographs, hazy with cigarette smoke, rich with details that create the illusion of time travel.
Douglas suggests a link between the style of the 70s and its politics: hair and clothes and music to afro-centrism, cultural liberation, post-colonialism. The act of jamming freely and endlessly seems to fulfill the promises of those liberation movements, a more open-ended space for expression than any manifesto. In video form, the illusionism of Douglas’s earlier photographs becomes even more seductive, an immersive lens into this part-fantastic, part-historical world. The simple, careful construction of the work creates moments of slippage where you forget that this is a recreation, that the music and politics of that studio weren’t made for today.
(All images: Stan Douglas, installation view; Courtesy of David Zwirner.)