Can an artwork distil 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.

 

 

 

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