Dire strait

When yuppies start showing up on your doorstep in Woodbridge, asking if your house is for sale, you know something has changed radically. Detroit is coming back and, with it, the white middle class chased out by riots and rhetoric. Everyone loves a winner, even if it’s been a loser for a long time.

So what are we to make of Stan Douglas’ color photography exhibit, "Le Détroit," currently on display in the Art Gallery of Windsor? Douglas has won much praise for his visual meditations on "failed utopias," art-scene shorthand for places where the modernist dream of machines and factories turned to picturesque rust. Little wonder that the Motor City, long notorious for its many failures, would be high on his itinerary.

Our visitor certainly took in the local hit parade during his visit: the Hudson’s building in mid-demolition, a row of tenements sulking next to I-94, an abandoned housing project, the ruins of Paradise Valley, the parking lot inside the Michigan Theatre, a view of the river from an immaculate Grosse Pointe park, a well-tended home next to a shambles, etc.

The style of the shots is adamantly minimalist – no filters, no fancy compositions, no fidgeting with the saturation. Point and shoot. In not one of the photos is there any moving object. The sky is a thin blue, laden with white mummy clouds – the kind of sky you see on a sizzling mid-August afternoon when the air is as still as it is sticky.

Curious thing that title, "Le Détroit." It translates from Old French as "the strait." Stan Douglas is Canadian and nothing brings the dilettante out of a Canadian like the American inner city. Broken-down projects, abandoned factories and sundry squalor are proof to the Canadian mind that the American Way, contrary to the hype, may not be the best way. You can almost hear sanctimonious champagne socialists in Toronto tut-tutting their way through some of these images.

But on the other hand, the American experiment certainly is more colorful and galvanic than the anodyne provincialism that infects almost all of Canada. Not even the most notorious slums of Montreal or Toronto or Vancouver can compare in dashed majesty to Detroit’s blight. America, troubles and all, bristles with a ballsy authenticity that is the envy of the world.

That’s why for more than two decades legions of Windsor hipsters have continued to cross the "strait" for a tour of ruins, culminating in a visit to the train station where snapshots and videos are taken, gee-whiz comments exchanged. Then off to a coney island or a dive bar, and it’s back to safety across the river.

I’m sad to report that these day-tripping fetishists of urban exotica are in fact the spiritual kin of the Stan Douglas we meet in this exhibition. For all their technical proficiency, the photos seem little more than postcards from a postindustrial amusement park thrown up by the caprices of Detroit’s troubled history. Douglas is trading in cityscape taxidermy here. Whatever documentary quality there is in the images themselves is greatly diminished by the arty sterility of the aesthetic. They would be far more at home mounted on the walls of a "with-it" diner in Toronto’s Queen Street than in a historical text about Detroit.

Douglas, perhaps sensing that his work may underwhelm hard-bitten American audiences who actually live near the places he snaps, refers to the photographs as "images of composting." Ah yes, of course, a noble thought: There can only be renewal after decay, all part of the life cycle, blah, blah, blah.

Further evidence of Douglas, the fetishist of urban ruins, can be found in a makeshift theater next to the photo galleries. A large screen has been hung at an angle. Onto it are projected two identical film loops – one positive, one negative – two frames out of synch. A young black woman, sporting a black bomber jacket and toting a flashlight, enters an abandoned home. She stumbles around, going from room to room, until a door slams and, panicked, our heroine bolts out to her sedan. The question begs: Who in her right mind would go rooting around in an abandoned house in the middle of the night? The simultaneous projections, rather than enhancing each other, merely cancel each other out, producing at times a washed-out jumble of moving shapes that wear on the viewer’s patience.

One has to give Douglas credit for one thing. As naive and dated as his work seems, it has the power to accomplish something I hitherto thought impossible. Stan Douglas has made Detroit boring. But perhaps being boring is what this city needs most now.

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