Exhibit | Stan Douglas: The Secret Agent

“Nobody looked at him. He passed on unsuspected and deadly, like a pest in the street full of men,” Joseph Conrad wrote in The Secret Agent, a political novel. First published in 1907, the story is set in London in 1886 and recounts an anarchist’s failed plot to bomb the Greenwich Observatory. It is considered to be among the first literary portrayals of terrorism, anarchism, and espionage. For over a century, it’s been widely regarding, ranking as the 46 best book of the 20 century by the Modern Library. On the other side of the coin, it has been said that the Unabomber, Theodore Kaczynski, kept a copy by his bed during his teenage years.

Also: Exhibit | Holly Andres: The Fallen Fawn

Undoubtedly a book of its caliber has seen many forms, including Alfred Hitchcock’s 1936 film, Sabotage. Now it’s artist Stan Douglas ‘s turn. He re-envisions Conrad’s classic in Stan Douglas: The Secret Agent, a film installation on view at David Zwirner, 519 West 19 Street, New York. The gallery will present a survey of Douglas’s photographic works spanning his career at 537 West 20th Street. Both shows are on view now through April 30, 2016.


In Stan Douglas: The Secret Agent, the action is set during Portugal’s so-called “Hot Summer” of 1975, the period following the Carnation Revolution of April 25, 1974 (a bloodless coup to end Europe’s longest dictatorship) and the ratification of a national constitution. The transition to democracy finally gave Portuguese colonies the opportunity for independence. At the same time terrorist acts by extreme right- and left-wing groups became an on-going phenomenon.

For The Secret Agent, Douglas shot on location in Lisbon with a cast including local actors. Here, the protagonist Mr. Verloc is employed by the US Embassy in Portugal. He becomes entangled in an ill-fated plot to bomb the Marconi installation outside of Lisbon, an important telephone connection between the country and North America.


Conceived as twelve episodes paired by scene on six screens, the viewer stands at the center of the installation, trying to take it all in. Many of the scenes are shot from differing viewpoints and overlap chronologically, creating a non-linear thread that runs through the work. The story is told in two parts: before and after, with the main event never explicitly shown. The fragmentation of information is as powerful as it is profound, recalling the way in which devastating acts are experienced in real time. Intense yet fragmented, with big blocks alternately burned into or blinded from memory.

Commenting on the coexistence of history and fiction within the film’s plot, Douglas observed in an interview with Ive Stevenheydens for Agenda Magazine that the coexistence of history and fiction within the film’s plot, “….enables us to look at transitional moments throughout history in a different way and to reflect on how things might have turned out differently. Maybe we can get closer to the truth by telling a fictional story instead of an obsessive search for strictly factual events. Perhaps exaggeration enables you to portray a time period more accurately than historical precision.”


All artworks: Stan Douglas. Still from The Secret Agent, 2015. Six-channel video installation, eight audio channels, 53:35 min (loop) with six musical variations, color, sound. Overall dimensions vary with installation. Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner, New York.

Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.