From the beautiful to the sublime – Glass talks to British artist and filmmaker Isaac Julien

From the beautiful to the sublime – Glass talks to British artist and filmmaker Isaac Julien

Since his early career in the mid 1980s, British artist and filmmaker Isaac Julien has developed a visually compelling and boundary-defying body of work. At ease in his studio Julien speaks of his latest film, immersive installations and his place in the two worlds of film and art.

When seeing your work it is difficult not to be drawn in by the sumptuous images, and yet, the seduction is not an unproblematic one, it is a version of beauty that often contains darker and more troubled strands.
I am very interested in the way in which one can have a certain disturbing or traumatic beauty, a form of sublime. It introduces a creative dissonance that has something in common with blues – I often think about how a lot of black music has been constructed through what are sometimes quite difficult and painful experiences and how that way of communicating has a certain sublimity to it. When I think of songs like Strange Fruit, I can see that it has something in common with works like Western Union: Small Boats and Ten Thousand Waves in that they allow for a certain level of poetry or lyricism. It is a way of allowing for a level of transience, of allowing the images to be more than indexes, more than the representations of a kind of truth.

This idea of allowing the image to be more than a representation is interesting when we think of the way your films are displayed.
In the mid ’90s I began to question how I could show my work in an art context. I started experimenting with the way in which I could use the screen as a more architectonic element. An important show in this process was one that I did at the Centre Pompidou in Paris back in 2005 curated by Christine Van Assche. We were interested in exploring the notion of the mobile spectator and were deliberately trying to break up the ontological gaze – we wanted to move the spectators into the space and surround them by screens.

Isaac Julien beautiful

One piece called Creole Phantom was shown on four very large adjacent screens, two on either side of the gallery, and we placed the seats in the middle of the space. It was interesting to see how the viewers kept on moving the chairs to a position where they could have a more omnipotent view – we are still so used to that way of viewing moving image. In my recent work, Ten Thousand Waves, I continue grappling with these questions by architecturally arranging nine screens, all of which are visible from both sides. Hopefully this will start breaking down how people are looking because you can never view the screens all at one time and whatever position you take the viewer will always have a different view; there is never one.

An inevitable part of the multiple screen display is also the way in which it makes narrative in a conventional way impossible.
If I think about my course (I attended the Saint Martins School of Art between 1980 and 1984), we were under the teaching of Malcolm Le Grice, Peter Gidal and John Smith, basically filmmakers working with a structuralist kind of aesthetic. But I think that by the mid ’80s a new generation had come along that was interested in another more narrative side of cinema and also felt the need for a more direct engagement with popular culture. We were looking at MTV, scratch video and other popular expressions of what I would call a critical cultural moment, right there between ’81 and ’85. I am talking about a whole series of reactions against the way in which Thatcherism was orchestrated, and the emergence of a strong sense of subculture. That all sounds very technical, but I think that it made ground for a sort of different aspiration within moving image which was very exciting and in a way an attempt to make and to bring into view things that we felt had been sidelined.

You speak here of popular culture being one of the key influences on your early work. In the more recent films it seems that place has become increasingly important.
In a work like Ten Thousand Waves the research phase continued over three to four years, a time during which I was working closely with poet Wang Ping. Filmed on location in Guangxi province and in Shanghai, the process was very much a specific response to the locale, and developed in close collaboration with the artistic team that included actress Maggie Cheung, artist Yang Fudong and cinematographer Zhao Xiaoshi.

When working with Maggie Cheung I was interested in the whole legacy of her performance; we shot her during one day and we did not work from a script; rather, everything happened in an improvised way. In some ways this way of working with actors, with minimal or no dialogue, is lurking back to silent cinema and a way of expressing oneself through body language and through gesture, and these things become accentuated by costumery; the way in which the actors or models are clothed is an essential part of communicating with the audience.

by Fatima Hellberg

Taken from the Glass Archive – Issue Three – Promise

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