Stan Douglas, The Secret Agent @David Zwirner

JTF (just the facts): A six-channel color video installation (with eight audio channels), projected in a loop on six screens in the Eastern-most gallery. The work is 53:35 minutes in duration, and dated 2015. It is available in an edition of 4.

A separate exhibition (originally shown at 525 West 19th Street and later at the 537 West 20th Street location) is a mini-retrospective of 31 photographs, variously framed and matted. It includes (the works on view changed slightly from venue to venue):

  • A set of 12 gelatin silver prints, from 1987, each sized roughly 21×12 inches.
  • 16 digital fiber prints mounted on Dibond aluminum, from 2011, each sized roughly 41×31 and available in editions of 5+2APs.
  • 2 digital C-prints mounted on Dibond aluminum, from 2009 and 2010. These are sized roughly 60×90 and 60×84 respectively, and are available in editions of 5+2AP.
  • 4 digital chromogenic prints mounted on Dibond aluminum, from 2014-2015. These works range in size from roughly 39×99 to 63×122 (or reverse), and are available in editions of 56+2AP.

(Installation shots of both shows below. Installation shots and film stills of The Secret Agent courtesy David Zwirner Gallery)

Comments/Context: When Alfred Hitchcock adapted Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent for his movie Sabotage, he placed a bomb at the core of the plot. In the most celebrated sequence, a boy rides a packed London bus unaware that the movie canister he has lugged aboard holds a timed explosive device. It detonates and (spoiler alert) the boy and several other innocent passengers are killed.

Harrowing though this death is for the viewer to witness, the emotional focus of both the novel and the 1936 film is the boy’s uncle, Mr. Verloc. The inept manager of a local cinema, he is mixed up with a cabal of foreign radicals. He is willing to plan acts of terror with these cutthroats so long as no one is harmed. It is he who gave the bomb to his young nephew to carry, never thinking that it would be a deadly package.

Hitchcock’s movie is about the unforeseen and widening toll that political violence can have on noncombatants. The most guilt-ridden character is not Verloc but his wife who feels responsible for her brother’s death. At the end of the film she exacts her revenge on her self-exculpating husband. The hapless actions of Verloc, the inadvertent murderer, lead to nothing but grief for his wife and to his own death by her hand.

In adapting Conrad’s material, Stan Douglas has cut the fuse to the cliches of suspense in Hitchcock’s thriller. The action unfolds across six screens during the time before and after the bomb has gone off. We never see or hear the explosion, or anyone’s death. Our role is to reconstruct the chain of events. As cause and effect are not in linear sequence and the story jumps around the room unpredictably, we are forced to shift attention accordingly, turning from side to side as one screen lights up with animated dialogue and another two screens go dark.

Transferring the story to Portugal during the “hot summer” of 1975, a year after a military coup had overthrown the Salazar dictatorship and as a tentative democracy was being born, the film portrays a country under threat from terrorists on the Right and the Left. The time period allows Douglas, once again, to costume people and interiors in burnt oranges and rusty browns, colors that also saturated the photographs of Disco Angola (2012) and the film Luanda-Kinshasa (2013) and that are somehow warmer, less sinister and glamorous than black-and-white.

The center of the action in Conrad’s novel is a movie theatre, a circumstance that both Hitchcock and Douglas relish. Playing on the screen in the cinema of Sabotage are Disney cartoons, while a lobby poster in The Secret Agent advertises the main attraction is Last Tango in Paris. Douglas’s space is a Lisbon art house cinema rather than a London entertainment palace. A small bookstore near the ticket counter is stocked with titles by André Breton and Walter Benjamin, authors beloved by 1970s European intellectuals.

Douglas must have enjoyed creating a scene in a theatre where members of the audience smoke. Unlike Hitchcock, for whom the homely cinema is mainly a backdrop, Douglas reminds us constantly that we are watching a movie. Some of his characters sit in a theater and watch an unseen movie, and all of them speak as if they would like to be the heroes in one genre or another.

Verloc in this remake is a lowly employee of the U.S. Embassy and supplies information to Left wing terrorists intent on blowing up a Marconi installation. The suspense comes from the hunt for this ambivalent activist by the Portuguese military. An atmosphere of fear and suspicion hangs over every action. Before attempting an escape to another country, Verloc risks capture by feeling honor-bound to apologize to his wife who runs the cinema and whose young brother has died, thanks to him. But Verloc is followed by an agent of the military to the cinema, which in Douglas’s version itself is a haven for the Left-wing and thus could be a target by Right-wing terrorists.

Portugal throughout the 20th century was a bit player on the European stage, much as Canada has been on the North American one. Douglas, a native of Vancouver, has viewed the waning years of African colonialism and the War on Terror from this sidelong vantage point. In none of his projects does he clearly identify winner and losers. Seismic events in his eyes are riddled with layers and holes and multiple perspectives, as though history were always happening elsewhere, around the corner from where most journalists and news teams have trained their cameras.

Douglas’s photographs also refuse to take sides between fact and fiction, This small sample, originally a pop-up show, begins chronologically with Television Spots, a set of 12 composites from 1987 in which text blocks, specifying a set of cinematic directions, appear beside a photograph. The words extend our view of the image, were they to be realized in a camera’s moves. At the same time the piece undercuts these expectation by showing us a crude photograph, with titles such as “Slap Happy” or “Sneeze.” Neither what we’re seeing nor what we could be seeing is altogether inviting; the material, after all, is a conventional set of television scenarios. As early examples of his Conceptual thought, they nonetheless point  where Douglas’s mind wanted to direct his cameras.

His 2011 series of large portraits, Malabar People, 1951, are the characters he imagines frequenting a nightclub in Vancouver’s Chinatown during the late ‘40s-early ‘50s. Defined in this scenario solely by their roles in this multi-cultural after-hours joint —“Bouncer,” “Student,” Waitress I,” “Waitress II,” “Bandleader,” “Construction Worker”—they are almost interchangeable in appearance. Why he decided to strip them of possible names, identify them purely by their function, and photograph them in dim light isn’t clear, and it can’t be said it was a wise choice.

In all of these later works, he is pushing the dark tones in his monochrome prints toward illegibility, letting only the barest amounts of light define objects and figures. As the scenes in some of these photographs refer to storied places from Vancouver’s past—Bumtown, Hogan’s Alley, Lazy Bay—he may be saying that reality as it is remembered always threatens to dissolve into inky abstraction or that the places where the poor have gathered over the decades to live or eat and drink and dance are always obscured in a dangerous light by middle-class history.

Or, as Mike Nichols once said, in explaining his decision to abstain from color when filming Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?: “One of the advantages of black-and-white is that it’s not literal, it’s already a metaphor. It’s not life, it’s about life.”

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced as follows. The Secret Agent  video is $600000, while the photographs range from $20000 for the Malabar People portraits to $120000 for the large urban landscapes. The TV Spots diptychs are not for sale.

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JTF (just the facts): Published by Skinnerboox in 2022 (here). Hardcover (17 x 21.5 cm), 134 pages, with 60 color and black and white photographs and illustrations. Includes texts by ... Read on.

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