LONDON — Canadian artist Stan Douglas is known for appropriating film and literature genres to create context for his elaborate mise-en-scènes and sophisticated projects. His latest video, “The Secret Agent” (2015), recently premiered in the UK at the Victoria Miro gallery, following the exhibition Interregnum at WIELS Contemporary Art Centre in Brussels.
With “The Secret Agent,” Douglas borrows language codes from film noir, reinterpreting Joseph Conrad’s novel of the same name (published in 1907), which was inspired by the failed attack on the Greenwich Observatory in 1894, when a French anarchist prematurely detonated a bomb near the Observatory building in the first international terrorist incident in Britain.
In Conrad’s novel, the main character, Mr. Verloc, runs a shop that sells pornographic material as a cover for his real activity: being a spy and the leader of an anarchist cell. Someone at the embassy of the unknown country he works for (which is probably Russia) tells Verloc that to redeem himself from his poor performance as a secret agent, he must blow up the Greenwich Observatory in order to send the population into a panic.
For his film, Douglas transposed Conrad’s narrative, set in London in 1886, to Portugal in 1975, a pivotal moment in the country’s modern history.
From 1932 to 1974, Portugal was ruled by the authoritarian Estado Novo (“New State”) regime, led by António de Salazar. The regime closely resembled other 20th-century authoritarian and nationalistic systems of government, such as Nazi Fascism. When Salazar’s dictatorship was finally overturned by a relatively bloodless military coup, the so-called Carnation Revolution, on April 25, 1974, Portugal was a country characterised by incredible social and political backwardness, mired in an imperial power struggle in its attempt to cope with large colonial holdings in southern Africa. After the coup, power was assumed by a military junta, the Armed Forces Movement (MFA), and Portugal went through a turbulent period, during which numerous terrorist attacks were carried out by various extremist political groups. This period of extreme instability, which ended in 1976 with the election of the first constitutional government, also saw the start of the decolonization process in Portugal’s African colonies.
Although Douglas wrote “The Secret Agent” in 2008, he was not able to produce it until 2015. The project comes from the same meticulous historical research that gave birth to the series of photographs from Disco Angola (2012) and the video installation “Luanda-Kinshasa” (2013) — works that explore disco culture in the United States, the Angolan liberation struggles following the end of Portuguese rule, and the role of Afro-beat in liberation-identity dynamics.
“The Secret Agent” is presented on six screens, often depicting different sequences of the film simultaneously. Douglas’s combination of the classical modality of a film screening with the language of an art installation is not only extremely elegant but also instrumental to the narrative element of his work. Even though the experience of the video is fragmented, the story holds the viewer’s attention strongly. Visitors are literally immersed in the narration, following a modality of screening that is proving to be highly successful. (Ragnar Kjartansson’s multi-channel video “The Visitors” , presented last year in London, comes to mind.)
When I asked Douglas why he decided to shift Conrad’s novel to Portugal in 1975, he replied with a seemingly benevolent “Why not?” But it is clear the artist had strong reasons for doing so.
Firstly, Douglas makes a convincing comparison between the instability that characterized the aftermath of the Carnation Revolution and the various anarchist acts of the late 19th century, updating characters and spaces from the original novel. For instance, in Douglas’s video, Verloc’s pornographic shop becomes a movie theatre playing art films with strong sexual content, such as Bernardo Bertolucci’s iconic Last Tango in Paris.
Moreover, in Douglas’s version, Verloc is on the payroll of the U.S. government and answers to Mr. Vladimir, an embassy official who gives him specific instructions on the target of the terroristic attack. Conrad’s Verloc has to blow up the Greenwich Observatory, a strong symbol of science and therefore the embodiment of bourgeois positivistic values, whereas Douglas’s Verloc must attack submarine cables carrying communications through the Atlantic Ocean.
As Mr. Vladimir puts it:
You could blow up every embassy in Lisbon without influencing the public one bit. The only thing the Portuguese care about now is the future. They never want to be a backward country again. […] Blow up the Marconi installation at Sesimbra, Mr. Verloc. Sever the umbilical between Europe and the New World. All European telecommunication with America would be disrupted for months. What makes Portugal a modern nation? The colonies it couldn’t afford? Its useless industry? No, it’s that braid of copper under the Atlantic.
More than anything else, “The Secret Agent” is a film about modernity. Douglas chose to set his piece in 1975 Portugal because of the paradigmatic quality of that particular moment in history. After the revolution, Portuguese people underwent a drastic change from an archaic and anachronistic system to the full expressions of modern life. The political coup that overruled Salazar, backed by a significant part of the middle class, was greeted with enthusiasm by the population, but the cultural shift it brought about must have been traumatic. One of the first measures taken by the MFA in 1974 was to lift restrictions on freedom of speech, also revoking the strict censorship adhered to during the regime. All of a sudden pornography was available everywhere, as well as a considerable number of more or less explicit films. Sexuality and its representations became a way for the people of Portugal to taste modernity.
It isn’t by chance that Douglas has decided to visually quote Last Tango in Paris in his own work. At the time of its release, Bertolucci’s infamous film led to international controversy. But in Portugal, where society was gradually waking up from a long sleep, it was a huge hit. Douglas told me that he once watched a documentary about the revolution in which an old woman standing in line to see the film was asked if she knew what it was about. She replied that she didn’t, but she wanted to know what they didn’t want her to see.
For a time just after the fall of the totalitarian regime and just before the establishment of a democratic order, instability and political crisis gripped the country. It is to this moment, this breach in history where everything seemed possible, that Douglas’s imagination was drawn.
Crises — economic, political, cultural; they often come together — are exceptionally informative, telling us a great deal about how a given society and culture responds to bewilderment and upheaval. Douglas’s interests lie squarely in these uncertainties: the threat of economic collapse, the fear of terrorist attacks (both of which are just as relevant today) — in a word, the uncertainties of modernity.
The Secret Agent continues at Victoria Miro (London, N1 7RW) through March 26. The exhibition will then appear at David Zwirner (519 West 19th Street, New York) from March 31 to April 30.