Stan Douglas distils a novel

The Secret Agent- Stan Douglas

Victoria Miro Gallery, Wharf Road N1 until  24th March.

I have always been very attached to the work of Stan Douglas.  His early film Der Sandemann,  inspired by the nineteenth century folktale, had me transfixed when I saw it back in the 90’s and it made me realise for the first time what potential this medium offered to artists. Essentially the film is an extended panning shot of a patch of ground. Projected simultaneously on either side of the screen are two versions of the same location; one scene when it was an allotment with a old gardener pottering around and the same scene decades later when it is a building site.  The two scenes seemed to merge along the centre rather than cut by a cinematic style split screen. This subtle sense of symmetry underlies Douglas’s latest six screen film installation. The Secret Agent is an adaptation of the Conrad novel of the same name published in 1905, originally inspired by the anarchist bombings in London in 1894 . Douglas sets his version in Portugal in the 1970’s but sticks very closely to Conrad’s plot and characters. All Conrad’s key themes and his distinct ironic style are reflected with great subtlety.

Douglas has installed his 55 minute film across three pairs of screens facing each other across the the gallery. You feel implicated in the action as you position yourself on the line of symmetry between them.  Usually only a single pair is used with one screen showing the action close up while the other projects an obscured view of the same scene as if shot by a hidden snooper. This ramps up the voyeuristic frisson as the viewer is now implicit in the act of surveillance. Sometimes a third screen is used. I particularly enjoyed the screen which focuses on the audience watching The Last Tango in Paris which is being shown at the cinema that acts as a front for the plotters’ base. The viewer is pitched into the role of watching the watchers, mirroring the air of paranoia that pervades the story. There is also the chilling ironic contrast between the static cinema audience and the required mobility of the gallery visitor who must stalk the action  as it moves across the six screens.

The other genius touch is the way that the theme of the original novel is updated. In both the film and the novel the bombing is designed to scare the middle classes away from the communist cause. In the Conrad novel the Russian embassy is supporting the anarchist cell because this is pre revolution politics. In the Douglas update it is the American embassy that takes this position. We thus learn that a government of any shade will use the fear of the “enemy within” as a  pretext for draconian security. How current is that!

Douglas captures so many of Conrad’s key motifs. Bathos is heightened as the bombers plot in a bar accompanied by a clunky pianola playing waltzes and mazurkas in the novel and a cheesy keyboard/guitar duo in the film. Giving this band a screen of their own opposite the plotters is a witty visual master-stroke. The bitter misanthropic nihilism of the Professor, the  chief bomb maker, seemed a grotesque caricature in the novel but on the screen he comes over as entirely credible thanks to some fine acting. His warped world-view makes sense of the current crop of fanatical terrorists.

So far none of the reviews I have read have noted that this film includes a staggeringly clever new solution to one of the key problems that bedevil all artists’ films screened in galleries rather than in cinemas. As they do not have fixed screening times, the audience can arrive at any point in the narrative. If they arrive half way through a conventional film the narrative arc is interrupted and the tension is dissipated as you reach the end and have to return to the start. In Douglas’s film the two halves of the film can be seen in either order without this happening . The narrative is linear in time but split into two: the planning of the bombing  in the first section  is preceded by the caption TWO WEEKS EARLIER and the  second section,  the bombing’s aftermath, is preceded by the caption TWO WEEKS LATER. At whatever point you arrive, you are whisked onto the merry go round of plotting and recriminations.  This neatly parallels the  time shifts that feature in Conrad’s novel.

This is the latest in a long and distinguished line of memorable large scale  film/video installations that VMG have presented over the last decade. Their large gallery space was packed out when I saw the Isaac Julien’s PLAYTIME on its final day in 2014.  In London only Marian Goodman, White Cube Bermonsey and the Brewer Street Car Park can compete with VMG’s ability to stage spectacular installations at the present time.




The figure in the abandoned building

Abandoned buildings are like cat nip to the video artist. Abandoned international airports (and there a  ridiculous number of them around the globe at present)  have a poignant glamour to them and they provide an opportunity for reflection on the arrogance and corruption of  venture capitalists and politicians. The lone figure in such spaces is a highly evocative image. This week I was reminded of the many moving image artworks that have exploited this, some more successfully than others.

Airport- John Akomfrah

Lisson Gallery, Bell Street until 12th March

A spaceman  plods around Athens derelict international airport for much of this 52 minute film. It reminded me of Mark Wallinger in a bearsuit wandering  through the empty spaces of a Berlin art gallery at night in his Turner award winning film Sleeper. The Akomfrah spaceman is featureless and unreadable behind his smoked glass visor and there is no apparent emotion in his movements. At least in Sleeper we can adopt the viewpoint of the naturalist observing the animal’s behaviour. We know that Wallinger is inside the bearsuit but as we watch him  padding around the gallery  we suspend our disbelief and empathise with the animal’s excitement and boredom.

In Airport the spaceman is meant to remind us of 2001: A Space Oddessy as we also encounter a man in an apesuit echoing Kubrick’s signifiers  of human progress.  Although this is the curator’s view,  to me it seems that Akomfrah is driven by the wider symbolic power of placing a human figure in an abandoned building. Is it the first created Man in the Garden of Eden or the last man standing in a post apocalyptic wasteland?  Freud might argue that it represents the dream scenario of the person exploring in the recesses of their psyche as they go from room to room. Wallinger humorously cuts through this poncy intellectualising by playing up the droll absurdity of a man masquerading as a bear caged by the sleek glass and steel lines of a modern gallery.

In contrast Akomfrah’s spaceman is deadly serious. His smoked glass visor robs him of humanity and we can only regard him as an aesthetic image. The dissonance between his high tech garb and the dilapidated wreck of the disused airport buildings is visually arresting but that palls after a while. The other figures who appear are styled in the fashion of the 1940s when the airport first opened and they too make their visual point but hang around too long in enigmatic tableaus. It is the contrived portentousness of these figures  raising expectations of a denoument that never arrives that is unsatisfying. If this film had been 15 minutes long it would have been just as effective.  Even without the figures we would have plenty to absorb.

I’m reminded of the excellent film on a similar theme in Fiona Tan’s Ghost Dwellings shown in May 2015 at the Frith Street Gallery. The buildings were family homes in Ireland abandoned by the bankrupt developers before completion standing forlorn in the landscape. The simple soundtrack  of wind and rain and the absence of human life were all that were needed to give this film its emotional punch. There are many still images of the shell of Athens airport on the internet. The one that is most compelling is the departure hall escalators stacked high with redundant cardboard files, an image too ugly and unsettling to make its way into Akomfrah’s  stylish film. His 2013 film documentary, The Stuart Hall Project,  compiled from archive footage, is a worthy tribute to this famous cultural theorist but is similarly languorous.

Karikis and Thornton valuing the child’s voice

Copyright Mikhail Karikis. Still from video Children of Unquiet (2015), courtesy of the artist

When a child appears in an artwork we grant them privileged status. Their words seem surrounded by an aura of purity and authority.  “What does he do, Mr. Godot?” asks Vladimir and the Boy, Godot’s messenger, replies “He does nothing, Sir”. We believe him and the simple clarity of Becket’s modernist world view strikes our hearts more profoundly than if the words had come from an adult.

Two artists’ films  I saw this week exploit this response by placing children in post-apocalyptic landscapes. The burden of our adult fears and hopes seems to weigh on their shoulders.

Mikhail Karikis at Carroll/Fletcher Gallery, Children of Unquiet 

Asserting a philosophical debate through visual language can often be a success. But I am usually disappointed when artists attempt to philosophise through their own written text. So often it can end up as an incoherent mess  – after all if an artist has a talent in visual expression is is unlikely that their written expression is as skilled. I was therefore relieved and intrigued that Karikis had selected quotes of the Italian philosopher Antonio Negri and allowed his cast of children to voice them. He filmed them against the backdrop of the remnants of a derelict village that housed the now redundant workers of the recently fully automated geothermal power station in Tuscany close to the town in which they are growing up. This gives the film a rich brew of political, aural and visual ingredients. The artist’s website has a trailer.

Putting Negri’s aphorisms on “biopolitical science” into the mouths of children gives them added resonance and poignancy. The essence of the quotes is the contrast of wasps and bees. Bees are social insects in a symbiotic relationship with flowers in the biological economy. Orchids attract solitary wasps without giving them anything thus undermining the overall productivity of the system. Bees are the good guys. This has direct lessons for the de-industrialised community of Lardarello which is the film’s location. It is recovering from the automation and subsequent mass redundancies at the geothermal power generation plant.  The children’s bright mono-colour outfits and melodious chanting evoke the flowers and insect life in Negri’s utopia, bringing new life and hope to the abandoned worker’s village.

This film is part of a more wide ranging installation that is based on Lardarello’s story of decline which includes a board game that revolves around the forces that led to the geothermal plant’s closure. I hope the kids learnt something about global capitalism from playing it!

Leslie Thornton at Raven Row Gallery

Peggy and Fred in Hell: Folding

This work has been developing over Thornton’s entire artistic career and has cropped up in many different incarnations over the past three decades. It seems to have been initially inspired by her young protagonists’ love of the limelight that was evoked by the whirring cine camera when they first met her.

Shot in black and white video and 16mm, memorable landscapes form a bleak backdrop to the action:  a sunset, a beach, a roaring river, a storm all emanate a tired, bleached, beauty. In colour these images would be too sentimental but here their stark symbolic load presses home: the world is a threatening place. Moving through these environments with a sense of unfettered, but sometime anxious, recklessness are two children, a girl and her younger brother. These siblings sing, dance, fight and role-play. There is no overarching narrative tension but nevertheless the 95 minutes are engrossing. A clear episodic structure presents bite-sized visual treats with frequent changes of atmosphere and location. The images are often filtered through an interesting repertoire of mainly “old school” special effects. There is one short burst of colour digital animation highlighting the destructive power of warfare – a toppling cityscape (Hiroshima?) and clinical missile strikes (Iraq?) reflecting the pervasive white noise of conflict that Peggy and Fred have lived through. It is as if their childhood analogue adventures are punctured by the digital realities of a cruel adult world.

At specific points the adult world intervenes in an unsettling way. It was fascinating to see again the astonishing sequence of the lunar module docking with the Apollo mother ship against the background of the Moon’s surface overlaid by a Bible-basher preaching hell-fire. Perhaps the most poignant and bizarre sequence occurs when Peggy and Fred sing from memory. Fred sings a rousing country gospel song while in whispered tones Peggy gives a spooky, downbeat rendition of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean”.

Children are our future and should be granted a voice so it is compelling when the artist puts them at the centre of their work as Karikis and Thornton have done.