Jan 2, 2007

"Is the adaptive re-use of human beings and their emotions possible?" [LINK]

From a review, by Leslie Camhi in the Village Voice, of Inconsolable Memories, a film installation by Canadian artist Stan Douglas that is showing at the Studio Museum in Harlem. Douglas's work builds upon Cuban director Tomás Gutiérrez Alea's 1968 film Memories of Underdevelopment, which focuses on a character named Sergio, who who watches his wife and best friend leave Cuba while he stays behind to brood. Douglas's film follows Sergio's fate up until the Mariel boat life of 1980.

This installation is accompanied by a series of beautiful, large-scale color photographs Douglas has taken on recent trips to Cuba. Many focus on the "adaptive reuse" of buildings whose original purposes have been sacrificed to more pressing needs. Bank lobbies have become parking lots; movie theaters are carpentry workshops; one corner of a private home sells sandwiches and drinks; an elegant villa now houses a refrigerator-repairshop. Numerous contemporary photographers have found inspiration in Havana's picturesque ruins, where a variety of temporalities intersect: the remnants of a former colonial playground, the utopian hopes of mid-century, and the present-day austerities that threaten to reduce it all to rubble. Devoid of nostalgia, Douglas's deeply sober pictures reward the patient examination that teases out these multiple perspectives.
No doubt about it: contemporary Cuban life provides us with an arresting series of images. While economically moribund, it's like a gold-rush town for artists seeking to depict alternate contexts.

Camhi continues with an interesting observation about why human psychology itself may render utopian schemes impossible:

In relation to his film, they also pose the question: Is the adaptive re-use of human beings and their emotions possible? Freud -- and Proust, who would appear to be Douglas's muse -- would say that's what we do whenever we fall in love: We harness that old feeling and bring our memories of past affections to bear upon the person standing before us.... The revolution promised an eternal present, but people like Sergio had trouble adjusting -- they were glad to see the old order go, but unwilling (or unable) to marry the moment.
Camhi adds that the film's "status as a kind of cinematic remake" as well as its "characters trapped in time" reinforce the difficulty of living in the present.

Of course, there is nothing about an obviously decrepit socialist Cuba that doesn't also deserve a swipe at capitalism:

When was it exactly that living with perfect attention to the present moment became impossible? I'd like to blame it on certain late-capitalist phenomena: cell phones, iPods, pagers, and BlackBerries. But reel-to-reel tape recorders work just as well in Douglas's film as devices of alienation. And really, you'd need to go much further back -- to a time before the first photographs were taken, or even before the first words (those signifiers of absence) were spoken.
So just how do even these more archaic technologies prevent us from living in the present? Can't say for sure. If anything, these various "late-capitalist" artifacts appear to do the opposite, crowding out attention to long-term history by swamping your senses.

But the howler is the concluding paragraph:

Speaking of quasi-utopian pasts, it would seem truly churlish not to mention my esteemed colleague Fred W. McDarrah's wonderfully absorbing show, "Artists and Writers of the 60's and 70's," at Steven Kasher Gallery (521 West 23rd Street) through January 6. McDarrah was the primary photographer at this paper during its first 30 years. Over 100 vintage prints from his archives show assorted scene makers -- from a boyish Bob Dylan to a wizened old Marcel Duchamp -- getting down, getting arrested, getting naked, and making art. Where is the downtown of yesteryear? Will it come again?
Yep, we harness that old feeling and bring our memories of past affections to bear upon the person standing before us.

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