Stan Douglas's 'The Secret Agent' Offers a Refracted Vision of History and Terrorism
Henry James once described Joseph Conrad's writing as a "prolonged hovering flight of the subjective over the outstretched ground" of his stories.
For more than 30 years, the artist Stan Douglas has performed a similar kind of flight pattern with his lush, eerie photographs and films, collected by the Tate, the Museum of Modern Art and many other institutions around the world. But it has often seemed as if Mr. Douglas's own viewpoint were less that of a subjective human than of historical consciousness itself, peering down on the streets of Vancouver, where he has lived and worked his entire life; on the ruins of Detroit; on the economic stasis of Cuba; and on scenes he has carefully constructed to mimic documentary realism.
His newest film, "The Secret Agent"—based on Conrad's unusual 1907 novel about a terrorist plot to blow up the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, England—is in many ways one of the most straightforward pieces ever made by Mr. Douglas, 55, whose work can draw deeply and abstrusely on economic theory, linguistics and postcolonial politics. (The art critic Richard Dorment once described him, difficulty-wise, as "the Mount Eiger of contemporary artists," best approached from the foothills.)
Just as Conrad was coy in describing his novel as a "simple tale of the 19th century," Mr. Douglas's six-channel film—on view at the David Zwirner gallery through April 30—is far from a simple tale of the 21st. It closely follows Conrad’s plot, inspired by a real, failed, 1894 anarchist attempt to destroy the observatory. But Mr. Douglas's film transposes the story to Portugal in the "Hot Summer" of 1975, in the politically fragile days after that country's dictatorship fell. The target this time is the terminal of an underwater telephone cable that connects Portugal to the rest of the world, an attack that, as one instigator says, would be to "bomb modernity itself."