Stan Douglas: The Secret Agent

by Sue Hubbard

ScreenHunter_1774 Mar. 14 08.46It is said that the camera never lies – but that was before things went digital. At the Victoria Miro Gallery, Stan Douglas has created a number of disturbingly hyperreal images with the use of digital technology that give the illusion of documentary accuracy. These theatrical black and white mise en scènes explore the seedy underbelly of post-war North America before what the artist describes “as the sudden call to order and morality” that was achieved by peacetime prosperity. Based on archival photographs a hotel used to house World War II veterans has been transformed into The Second Hotel Vancouver, 2014, an uncanny image where Piranesi seems to meet Edward Hopper.

Small areas of cold white light glow against the foreboding brick walls of this looming Victorian Gothic façade with its dark stairwells and fire escapes. In the empty street below beams from a wrought-iron lamp post flood the crepuscular corners. Like a Christmas advent calendar there's the sense that behind every window of this building is a secret. If we look hard we can catch a tantalising glimpse of a coat hanging on a rack – who does it belong to? – an empty brass bed or a woman at an office desk, who might well be awaiting the arrival of a character from a Raymond Carver novel. Like some 50s film noir these lit windows draw us into the possibilities of the building's many hidden and possible stories.

On the opposite wall is Hogan's Alley, 2014. This now raised area of Vancouver, once populated by the poor and disenfranchised, was notorious for its bootlegging, gambling and prostitution. Black jazz musicians partied here until the small hours in the company of corrupt politicians. The low rise buildings are mostly constructed of wooden clapboard. Their roofs sag and the yards are full of junk, lumber and broken engine parts. Ghostly white sheets hang drying on the cramped verandas The rundown neighbourhood is hunkered close up under the shadow of the Canadian Junk Co. that supplies pipe fittings, belting, pulleys, shafting, beadings, gears and sprockets. Behind every pool of light and net curtain small lives of quiet desperation are being played out: the prostitute, perhaps, with her client, the junkie shooting up, the single mother at her wits end, or the girl recovering from her pimp's beatings. We are invited to enter these worlds and invent our own stories. How did that bathtub end up in the yard? Who lives behind the window in that far shack? What do they dream of, what is the reality of their lives? In Lazy Bay, 2015 Douglas has created a vision of a long established squatting community of house boats and shore dwellings where you can almost smell the hash browns and dope, hear the strumming of a lonely guitar. In Bumtown 2015, a waterside squat of the similarly disenfranchised is huddled under a highway. Romantic and seedy there is something both uncanny and nostalgic about these dark images.

ScreenHunter_1773 Mar. 14 08.46In 1940 Clement Greenberg wrote in the Partisan Review that a greater emphasis on form “was the signal for a revolt against the dominance of literature, which was subject matter at its most oppressive.” For the avant-garde ideas were seen to affect the purity and autonomy of painting. Art needed to ‘escape' from literature and was beginning to lay claim to language, but to a language that was conceived as ‘art' rather than as ‘literature'.

Such ideas now seem quaintly 20th century. In a postmodern world anything can be anything else. Literature, film, advertising all provide fertile terrain for the artist. In his work Douglas explores the boundaries between imagination and reality, authenticity and the simulacrum, in order to ask questions about objective truth and subjective interpretation. Reality, it seems, is very much in the eye of the beholder for, as Lyotard wrote in The Postmodern Condition, each of us lives at the intersection of different narrative elements. Authenticity itself is, as Baudrillard suggests something of an hallucination. Fakery, montage, digital manipulation all become shadows and signs of each other in a complex series of allegories and paradox.

Born in Vancouver in 1960, a city in which he continues to live and work, Douglas has recently had shows in Lisbon, Brussles, Dublin, Copenhagen, Edinburgh and Munich, as well as Minnesota and New York, in 2012 receiving the Infinity Award from the International Center of Photography. He came of age in the 1980s, a time when there was a renewed connection between the narratives of the everyday and art that was reflected in a move away from purity and formalism. Photography, with its possibility of manipulation and allegory, played a major role in this shift and was reflected in the work of artists such as Cindy Sherman and Andreas Gurksy. Made in the present moment the photograph always carries the sense of a lost past, a yearned for nostalgia. It is this quality that Douglas exploits. His photographs are constructs of both our historical and imagined fantasies and memories.

Accompanying the evocative black and white works, in the upstairs gallery, is Douglas's six-screen instllation, a realisation of Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent, set in Portugal. Douglas's transposition of Conrad's 1907 novel reflects the turmoil of the Portuguese Carnation Revolution of 1974 – the country had been under the despotic rule of Antonio Salazar since 1932- and centres on the shady manipulations by the authorities who tried to influence the outcome of the revolt. The fractured imagery on the six screens – often depicting different sequences simultaneously – creates the atmosphere of tension and stress evoked by the spy novel. Douglas is fascinated by neglected moments of history, as well as by the juxtapositions between fact and fantasy, the past and imaginative construct. But as I leave the gallery it is the potent black and white still images that remain with me, resonating through my head as I construct new stories and narratives.

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Victoria Miro Gallery until 24th March 2016


Courtesy the Artist, David Zwirner, New York / London and Victoria Miro, London © Stan Douglas

Stan Douglas Hogan's Alley, 2014 Digital chromogenic print mounted on Dibond aluminum 157.5 x 309.9 x 7.6 cm 62 x 122 x 3 in Edition of 5 plus 2 APs

Stan Douglas The Second Hotel Vancouver, 2014 Digital chromogenic print mounted on Dibond aluminum 243.8 x 152.4 cm 96 x 60 in Edition of 5 plus 2 APs