Taking on a piece of history from the Canadian West, Stan Douglas creates a compelling mystery in Klatsassin at the Vancouver Art Gallery.
BY: Ann Rosenberg
There’s a true story about Klatsassin, the Chilcotin warrior at the centre of one of western Canada’s most dramatic historic incidents. In the spring of 1864, as the gold rush in central British Columbia was in full swing, Klatsassin and a small band of his followers attacked a road crew at work in the middle of Chilcotin territory. They killed a handful of men, and through the summer of that year, a few more people — settlers, prospectors — were killed, while the Crown carried out a relatively unsuccessful manhunt for the killers.
In early fall, invited to meet with government representatives for what he believed to be a peace conference to end a war, Klatsassin was arrested and charged with murder. He and four other Chilcotin men were hanged at what is now the city of Quesnel. It was one of the most deadly clashes between whites and Aboriginal people in Canadian history.
But for Vancouver artist Stan Douglas, that was only the beginning. In a minor footnote to the true story, during the trial one of the Chilcotin men was escorted to New Westminster to be identified by a witness. He escaped during the transfer and was never heard from again. The escape of this lucky warrior is the springboard for Douglas’s filmKlatsassin, which will be shown for the first time in B.C. in its entirety this summer at the Vancouver Art Gallery.
In the film, Douglas imagines that a deputy has been put in charge of escorting the suspect to New Westminster. The deputy is killed by an unknown assailant, and the prisoner escapes. There are witnesses to the crime, and people who come across evidence of it after the fact, but the truth of the story is lost in competing versions.
It’s the deputy’s murder that provides the backstory for the film — the mystery that everyone in Klatsassin is trying to solve or elude. The film includes scenes in which characters talk about what they did or didn’t see or remember. There are vignettes from an impromptu trial in a tent in the woods, and scenes of two characters, prospectors, who are discussing the incident five years on.
This work is grounded in the style and technique of many of Douglas’s earlier films, including the looping visuals of his first film, Overture (1986), a repeating fragment of early 20th century film footage of a locomotive wending its way through the Canadian Rockies. In Journey Into Fear (2001), he uses a form of the “branching narrative”, a technique that repeats random and variable dialogue and soundtrack over a looping visual, making the film completely different for every viewer.
Klatsassin is a leap forward. The film was first shown in 2006, as an installation with its accompanying still photos at Documenta 11 in Kassel, Germany, and was shown again in 2007, at Secession in Vienna and at the David Zwirner Gallery in New York.
Lush and cinematic, it is inspired by the style and, to some degree, the content of Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 film Rashomon. Immersed in the history and narrative style of film and video, Douglas has built work around classic (and not-so-classic) films before — including Hitchcock’s Marnie, and Dario Argento’s horror film Suspiria. In 2006 he told ArtForum that although he’s not a fan of westerns, he was influenced by the fact that Hollywood had already made a series of westerns out of Kurosawa classics. With Klatsassin, he was able to make an unconventional western, with Rashomon-like themes of memory, clashing narrative and layered viewpoints.
The film has multiple short scenes, totaling about 15 minutes, but including points of view from several characters — the prisoner, a constable, a prospector, a thief, an innkeeper — in concise and clashing dramas, and varying time periods. Viewers see scenes that take place before, during, and after the deputy’s death, hear opinions on the murder from every character in the film, and watch the drama play out as it’s being described.
The art is in Douglas’s reconfiguration of what is already a non-linear cinematic narrative. He further confuses the issue by manipulating scenes and dialogue with a computer-generated randomization program — a technique he calls recombinant cinema. To sit through every variation on every scene would take about six days. Douglas has a sense of humour — he knows and even welcomes the fact that people will come and go. Binding the 860-piece construction is an audio track composed by Berlin’s Rhythm & Sound. The music is the only consistently repeating piece of the viewing experience.
Douglas is certain that viewers will almost immediately grasp the essence of Klatsassin, which is about the kind of memory loss and pointlessness characterized in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, a play that Douglas has studied in great depth. They may also sense that the film is fundamentally about the futility and unfairness of the justice system and racial bias.
Communication between the characters in Klatsassinis further clouded by the fact that none of them speak the same language — we hear a Chinese cook and a German miner and a French trapper, all explaining the actions of a Chilcotin-speaking prisoner. There are no subtitles. “You understand what’s being said, or you don’t,” Douglas says. “But you get the idea of the diversity of people in the Cariboo and Chilcotin region.”
For 25 years, Douglas has been creating work that uses innovative film and narrative technique to subvert the viewing experience, and to recreate the fleeting concepts of memory and perception. Born in Vancouver in 1960, his professional career started when he left Emily Carr College of Art in 1982. Combining film, video, installation and still photography, his work continually explores fragments of history, film history, and representations of industrialization and technology.
Accompanying the film at the Vancouver Art Gallery, Douglas will show a series of still photographs, some from the film, and some that look like they could be from the film, but just have a Klatsassin-like veneer. Ten black-and-white head shots of the film’s characters, actors in character, are well-cast.
Of the seven large-scale, panoramic colour photos in the installation, none of the scenes in the photographs appear in the film, although shots of the Masonic Lodge in Barkerville and the Stanley Cemetery would have been appropriate locations. Modern photographs, they depict places close to where the action of the Chilcotin uprising happened. Others, including an image of Vancouver’s Maritime Hall, are completely unrelated.
There may be a clue to Douglas’s methods in his description of one image, a shot of the interior of MacLeod’s Books in Vancouver, a shop filled with antiquarian and used titles, spilling from the shelves and stacked on the floor. Asked about the photograph, Douglas says “one suspects that, in spite of the complexity, the person who sits at that desk in MacLeod’s Books knows where everything is.”
The Vancouver Art Gallery will show Stan Douglas’s Klatsassin, along with the artist’s 1992/3 work Pursuit, Fear, Catastrophe: Ruskin, B.C May 30 to September 13, 2009.