Isaac Julien

ZOO Magazine #46, 2015

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Isaac Julien can be counted among a select group of filmmakers who have succeeded in navigating both the art world and the filmmaking industry successfully. Just as Steve McQueen or Nicolas Provost for instance, Julien has directed commercial movies and documentaries but also short films that have been exhibited at the most prestigious art institutions around the world including the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris and the MoMA in New York. Julien’s artistic work usually takes the shape of immersive multichannel installations. In Ten Thousand Waves from 2010 the viewer is literally submerged in a sea of screens — nine of them, double-sided and suspended in the air. The experience of a work such as Ten Thousand Waves is literally overwhelming. On the other hand, Julien also seems concerned to highlight the artificiality of the medium. In Ten Thousand Waves the incoherent storyline is a mere excuse to show the green screens and technology required to achieve realistic depictions of impossible actions in cinema, such as flying and spectacular fighting. In this way, Julien prevents viewers from once again believing blindly in the seemingly natural yet highly constructed world of action movies.

In his own mainstream movies and documentaries, Julien has repeatedly addressed the problem of multiple discrimination inspired by his own personal history being both black and homosexual. Looking for Langston from 1989 is a homage to the famous Afro-American poet and leader of the Haarlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes, who Julien turns into a black gay icon. Julien has also explored an oft-underappreciated moment in the history of film featuring main characters who were black. BaadAsssss Cinema from 2001 is an introduction to the 1970s B-movie genre of Blaxploitation typically featuring African Americans seeking bloody revenge. Julien’s latest endeavor is PLAYTIME. For this sevenscreen installation Julien uses the attractive visual language of Hollywood cinema — and one of its prime actors James Franco. PLAYTIME follows the stories of four characters who all testify to the dubious power of the true star of the film, capital and its many faces. Here is another reference perhaps to the history of cinema and one of its luminaries, Orson Welles, whose most famous character Citizen Kane viewers only get to know through recollections of those who had met him. This is Julien’s special skill: to endlessly import and export elements of cinema into art and vice versa, creating an endless hall of mirrors reflecting the politics of production in both fields.