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Sarah Morris / Capitain Petzel

Sarah Morris’ exhibition, Cloak and Dagger, wins no points for skulduggery with regard to its title. The reference, to 1946 Fritz Lang’s film, however, does establish perhaps the pervading theme of the exhibition: the ways in which information is revealed, concealed and reinterpreted. This is doubly fitting as Lang’s film itself is an adaptation. The film, starring Garry Cooper and Lilli Palmer, is a dramatisation of a book by Corey Ford and Alistair MacBain which purports to tell “The Secret Story of the O.S.S.” — the precursor to the CIA. Upon reading it, one finds that the book is brimming with stories of heroic derring-do, so it’s hard to imagine Allen Dulles, the wartime director of the Office of Strategic Services, was jealously guarding these tales from the public eye. Indeed, Lt. Ford — to give him his proper title — and MacBain were more like early adopters of the classic Hollywood tactic of weaving fulsome tales about the virtues of the national security state constructed from granules of truth than they were bold, investigative muckrakers. Their title has lived on in other forms as well. Lang’s film preceded a popular radio programme which also used the title, but Morris’ Cloak and Dagger places its primary focus on Lang’s work, and on the man himself. There is, for example, a poster from Lang’s film, M., among those which Morris has collected and altered for the show. In these works, the images from the film advert are overlain with geometric outlines which complicate and disrupt — but which ultimately reinforce — the underlying aesthetic construction. The shapes exist as a form of half-hearted encryption deployed more to assert its own presence than to supplant or disguise any underlying message. Often these collisions of abstract forms and cinematic romanticism produce engaging dialogues. The introduction of such raw, Platonic geometries into the free-wheeling, sensual world of the Emmanuelle franchise — where “platonic” is the dirtiest word of all — for example, has a particular resonance in an age saturated in digital erotica where frankness has long been surpassed by a kind of quasi-medical scopophilia. Somehow, the film posters held my attention more fully than the less ambiguously composed abstract works in the show. The bravura mural on the gallery’s western wall had plenty of visual dynamism, but seeing it, I somehow felt the posters still were the centre of the upstairs portion of the exhibition, made all the more significant by their comparatively modest scale and unresolved structural and narrative tensions.

Moving images are also included in Cloak and Dagger, among them, footage of Lang himself recounting a variation on the tale of his immigration from Nazi Germany to France. Though Lang is not visually present in it, the film screened in Capitain Petzel’s basement gallery also traces its origin story to him. The work is largely composed of an interview with the German filmmaker and writer, Alexander Kluge. Kluge, who originally trained as a lawyer, was connected with Lang by way of Theodor Adorno who hoped Lang would discourage Kluge’s cinematic ambitions. #sabotagefail. Adorno’s failed nostrum has been the cinema world’s gain. Kluge’s prolific output of films is rich with melanges of visual, theoretical and literary ingredients. Listening to his and Morris’ discussion is fascinating, and the subject matter on which they touch ranges widely. The press materials state that the film is a precursor to a work Morris will present later in the year, but it is full of ideas in its present state, and, like meeting Lang, is very unlikely to deter any aspiring filmmakers from seeing the form as a heroic and romantic undertaking. Like the posters upstairs, the film is a reminder that complication, if effectively deployed, can actually constitute narrative rather than causing it to rupture. As any spy could tell you, tradecraft is a message of its own.

Sarah Morris
Cloak and Dagger
Karl-Marx-Allee 45
Capitain Petzel
10178 Berlin
Until 26 August

Image courtesy of the gallery and the artist.