Stan Douglas’s “Doppelgänger”

Kevin Brazil

March 10, 2020
Victoria Miro, London
January 31–March 14, 2020

A thread linking Stan Douglas’s work across various media—installation, film, television—is the creation of what he has called “speculative histories.” Take “Scenes from the Blackout” (2017), a series of large photographs on display downstairs at Victoria Miro’s north London outpost. One photograph (Skyline) shows a blacked-out Manhattan skyline; another (Jewels) a hand stealing diamonds. Elaborately staged, lit with spotlights, and shot from high angles as if by a movie camera, this alternative history of a New York power cut is produced by manipulating the formal artifice of photography as a medium.

This same impulse has produced the main work in the show, the film installation Doppelgänger, which premiered at the Venice Biennale in 2019 and which is projected onto two square screens hanging side by side from the upstairs gallery’s ceiling (in another of its many doublings, it was also exhibited concurrently at David Zwirner, New York until February 22). Doppelgänger is set in an alternative recent past with futuristic yet analogue technology, where typewritten messages are transmitted in metal boxes. One screen tells the story of an astronaut called Alice (call her Alice-1) who is simultaneously cloned and teleported to a spaceship in another galaxy. Her race is never mentioned yet is clearly significant: she is the only visibly black person in the piece. At the same time, the other screen tells another story: on a planet identical to our earth in every way except that everything is mirrored, another Alice (call her Alice-2) has been cloned and teleported to another spaceship. The two Alice clones arrive on opposite earths: Alice-2, arriving on our earth, is quarantined, drugged, and questioned in an interrogation room; Alice-1, arriving on the reverse earth, is welcomed and given medical support.

In a formal sense, Doppelgänger is fiendishly complex. But in another, it is bluntly literal. When Alice-1’s clone is received by Mission Control, a scientist jokes that it’s silly to think she is an alien, since only white Americans believe in aliens: “Whites like to think they belong in the US, but every time they see an Indian they are reminded they descended from settlers, so they fantasize an alien more alien than themselves.” With this statement, the piece’s “meaning” lands as heavily as a spaceship returning to earth. This speculative history is an allegory of contemporary attitudes towards migration. In one world migrants are treated suspiciously, in the other with care. Which world is ours?

Being literal can be a virtue, but it can also betray a failure of nerve, a lack of confidence in a work’s formal construction or in its audience. Speculative histories have been a powerful tradition in black thought in the Americas, from Martin R. Delany’s Blake; or, the Huts of America (1859–62), which imagines a successful slave uprising in Cuba, to Octavia E. Butler’s trilogy Lilith’s Brood (1987–89), which portrays a future in which humans are coerced into breeding with aliens to produce new species. Douglas appears to want to invoke this tradition; Alice’s awakening on the spaceship seems to be a direct reference to the “Awakening” that opens Butler’s trilogy. But rather than let the cinematic doublings leave us in a place of uncertainty mirroring that experienced by Alice—and that of all the Alices trapped in universes where they can never know whether they will be received with sympathy or hostility—Douglas’s work feels less nuanced than these predecessors. They use speculation to open up interpretation, rather than close it down into a single message, however worthy it may be.

In the end, Doppelgänger is less like these works of black speculative fiction than one by a writer Douglas has referenced throughout his career: Samuel Beckett. Late in life Beckett produced a short text called “The Lost Ones,” a schematic description of a cylinder in which “lost bodies” roam to find the partner from which they have been separated. Formally ingenious both as an imagined world and as a prose text, the obviousness of the allegories—Plato’s theory of love, Dante’s Commedia—and the involuted repetitions describing different portions of the cylinder leave the reader to observe someone else’s pleasure in formal speculation, rather than to imagine how it must feel to be truly lost, in this or any other world.

Film, Race & Ethnicity, Migration & Immigration
Historicity & Historiography, Fiction, Science Fiction, Blackness

Kevin Brazil is a writer and critic based in London. What Ever Happened to Queer Happiness, a collection of essays, is forthcoming from Influx Press in 2022.

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Victoria Miro
March 10, 2020

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