I am not going to lie to you: I didn’t know Isaac Julien’s work at all before meeting him. I met him twice without knowing who he was, first at the ICA offsite at the Old Selfridge hotel and then at Tate’s Frieze party. Mr BB and I now feel slightly embarrassed by the memory of asking him what kind of work he did and where we could see it, and he humbly answering that his work was on show at MOMA, in New York. Since then, I have done my research on Isaac Julien.
Isaac Julien was born in 1960 in London – yes, he looks much younger – and studied painting and fine art film at St Martin’s School of Art, graduating in 1984. He became known in the film world in 1989 with ‘Looking for Langston’, his lyrical take on American poet Langston Hughes’ Harlem Renaissance. Later, Isaac Julien was nominated for the Turner Prize in 2001. His long and full biography of exhibitions and awards is here (source: Victoria Miro).
I couldn’t see ‘Ten Thousand Waves’ on my last New York trip as the show started shortly after at MOMA (November 25, 2013–February 17, 2014). So I went to a Tate screening on February 4th, which showed his 2000 film ‘Vagabondia’ and extracts from his past and latest works up to Playtime, currently on view at Victoria Miro Gallery. Isaac Julien was present to comment and answer questions after each screening in a staged conversation with journalist and author Dr. Sarah Thornton, and at the end of the event he opened the discussion to the public. Isaac requested the screening to be held in a red room, which made Tate Modern’s Starr Auditorium perfectly suited.
Vagabondia twin-screen installation was acquired by Tate in 2004. I was circumspect during the screening of Vagabondia, which featured a black female conservator and a dancing vagabond in Sir John Soanes’s Museum. I initially felt there was no narrative and only noticed the beauty of pictures and of the accompanying music. I was afraid of being left out as the only one not to understand his work – which I was seeing for the first time. Luckily, Isaac was there to talk about Vagabondia. He was keen to use creole language in the film as his parents are from St Lucia, in the Caribbean. Vagabondia deals with the idea of trespassing and walking and dancing refer to the idea of migration, a theme which is often present in Isaac’s works I learnt afterwards.
Looking for Langston (1989)
Looking for Langston is an ode to black gay culture in my view, and pays homage to Harlem Renaissance leader and poet Langston Hughes. The video gained a cult following and gained a political significance when it was released during the Thatcher era, as Isaac mixed the 1920 speakeasy atmosphere with 1980s London nightclubs. Beauty, which may be symbolised by a male figure holding a shell, is recurrent in Isaac’s works. A possible escape for Isaac Julien, who, in his own words, grew up on a “council estate surrounded by ugliness”.
Ten Thousand Waves (2010)
Again, I could see no obvious narrative, which made the film more poignant once I understood the story behind the installation. The film is in Chinese and not translated. It includes real footage of the Morecambe Bay tragedy of 2004, when 23 Chinese cockle-pickers died. Isaac connects the tragedy with the fable of the goddess Mazu (Maggie Cheung) who came from Fujian Province, which was where the Morecambe Bay Chinese migrants came from. I saw Ten Thousand Waves on three screens at Tate auditorium but the work was touring worldwide with a final stop at MOMA on nine screens. When asked about showing his film on nine screens, Isaac answered why not nine; he insisted that museum work should offer a different experience from a cinema. His use of documentary, poetry, complemented with fantasy added a lyrical tone to the tragedy.
We saw one of the six films of Playtime on the theme of capital and its migration, currently shown at Victoria Miro Gallery at the Tate screening. We watched the film with the hedge fund managers set in London. What is better than the financial industry to represent the theme of capital? Although I did not find the dialogue realistic, it was refreshing to see an artist openly inspired by the financial services industry. Isaac Julien admitted he was fascinated by hedge funds. I realised that Isaac finds interest and inspiration in everyman, after I subsequently saw the other Playtime films. Not everyone will be interested in hearing about the feelings of a maid in Dubai or a hedge fund manager in London, but Isaac is, and I believe this is the artist’s strength.