Not many artists get invited to speak at the World Leaders Forum hosted by Columbia University in NYC. I imagine few would put artists together with economists, scientists, academics, politicians and corporate bigwigs in the same “world leader” category. In 2011 British artist Isaac Julien, as the Mellon Visiting Fellow, was a key note speaker at this Forum. To an audience of fellow world movers and shakers, he talked about his work across film and art generally and then specifically, spoke about his major work from 2010, Ten Thousand Waves. As the ‘rare’ visual artist at such an event which aims to “advance lively, uninhibited dialogue on the large economic, political, and social questions of our time”, his voice was neither light relief nor out of place.
Isaac Julien is certainly internationally recognised and applauded for his thoughtful, evocative film/ art installations. His works speak clearly and loudly about what he sees as the significant global issues of our time – migration, globalisation, colonisation, cultural displacement, racial, economic and sexual politics. As an artist his choice of medium is the moving image, aka film. But he makes ‘art film’; film which extends the straightforward, typical cinema style set up; that breaks away from the norm of a passive audience which sits in front of a single screen. His films move beyond the simple moving image and narrative, into something more layered and dense, because of the camera angles he uses; the images he chooses; the editing approach of mixing up the chronology or thread of a singular story; with the format of the presentation on more than one screen and with an audio track that is not just music or narrative.
Julien draws on other disciplines – writing, music, choreography, sculpture and painting – to wrap an aesthetic beauty around the grit, devastation, indifferences and disappointments of contemporary life across cultures and continents. He is the artist activist. Instead of boycotting events or taking to the streets though, he speaks out via his camera and creativity to protest and provoke.
He has won awards, both film and art prizes – a major award at Cannes in 1991; a finalist in the 2001 Turner Prize – and has been included in many prestigious international art events as both solo artist and participant in group exhibitions. His CV is long and impressive….
It is a captivating and personal look at the fall-out from the GFC, from the perspectives of a handful of individuals. There is a flexibility in Julien’s approach to his work and an ability to switch directions in response to whatever is happening on a bigger scale around him: Ten Thousand Waves was conceived in 2004/05 but was postponed because of the GFC and the lack of available funding, whereas Playtime is rooted in it and wouldn’t have happened without it. As they say, “behind every cloud ….”
In the end Ten Thousand Waves was completed before Playtime and was premiered here in Sydney at the 2010 Biennale of Sydney, on Cockatoo Island, prior to its showing in China and London. So I might start with it …..
Ten Thousand Waves has at its core the theme of global migration and more specifically, China’s histories of migrations from a few hundred years ago, to today.
It came out of the tragedy of 23 Chinese people who lost their lives in Morecombe Bay (NW England), whilst cockle-picking against a rising tide. It was February, they were mostly farmers and fishermen – illegal immigrants – who were to be paid a pittance for collecting a certain amount of cockles. Night was approaching. Language was a barrier to understanding the timing of the tides and to the initial rescue efforts. Tragically, 23 people drowned.
Xu Yu Hua
Tossed on the Communist road
We chose Capitalism through great perils
All we want is a life like others
TVs, cars, a house bigger than our neighbors’
Now the tide is rising to our necks
Ice forming in our throats
No moon shining on our path
No exit from the wrath of the North Wales Sea
-excerpted from Wang Ping’s Small Boats cycle for Ten Thousand Waves
It’s hard to know how Ten Thousand Waves continued to evolve, but it became a major venture over a period of about 4 years with Julien at the centre, directing a 100 strong crew, working with musicians, poets, writers, actors, cinematographers, calligraphers, costumers on film sets in China, in Shanghai and Fujian province, from where many of the cockle-pickers came. The result is a multi-layered, textured and moving 9-screen epic film/art installation, layering Chinese folklore, ghostly dream like sequences, elements from 30s Shanghai cinema and documentary footage of the rescue efforts to link the stories of these doomed individuals to Fujian folklore and to China’s histories of earlier migration.
It is a deeply moving piece which the viewer is required to navigate around and through, to engage both physically and emotionally with it; to see it, hear it and feel it.
Ten Thousand Waves is a complex ode to the Chinese cockle-pickers, to their collective and cultural histories, to the movement of people across countries and continents and to the physical and spiritual displacement brought about by their unfinished journeys. More simply, it is about people searching for a better life elsewhere. Julien’s parents were immigrants to Britain, from the Caribbean. He knows first-hand what it takes to search for that better life.
The precursor to Ten Thousand Waves is Western Union Small Boats which poignantly illustrates the (also) tragic plights of North African people leaving in makeshift boats to find their way across the Mediterranean to Europe. This was shown in Brisbane at QAG GOMA in 2010.
If you saw Ten Thousand Waves in Sydney you won’t have forgotten it. Perhaps had there been an artistic reflection, that is, a deeper, more considered reflection, rather than just a political or journalistic response to the tragedy off Christmas Island in Dec 2010, Australia’s shameful and inhumane slogan of ‘Stop the Boats’ would not exist – we might have a stronger understanding of what it is and why it is people take such risks, to seek out this better life. We might have a more humanitarian response.
Ten Thousand Waves was recently exhibited in MoMA in New York. It has been shown in Shanghai and London.
Playtime is as provocative Ten Thousand Waves though perhaps not as poetic or soulful. It too offers a platform for individuals to be heard, for questions to be asked and for discussions to be had about the humanity of our global political, economic and cultural structures.
The stories are real, of people Julien knows, (played out by actors some famous, James Franco and Maggie Cheung, who features as goddess Mazu in Ten Thousand Waves), whose lives were affected by the global financial crash. There are several individual stories which don’t necessarily intertwine, but certainly have a central theme. A bit like the Central Bank – it is finance, capital, money… Not really the cold hard cash kind, but the kind that is moved around invisibly – transactions online, on paper, in theory – but that eventually touches the individual.
The first story comes from London, the centre of the financial world. The next, takes us to Reykjavik, Iceland where the crash spiralled out of control, then to Dubai which is fast becoming the leading financial, art and property market in the Middle East. A London banker dreams big. The frustrations and anger of a man in Iceland build as he realises he has lost everything in the crash of the Icelandic banking system. A domestic worker in Dubai lives in an isolated high rise world of wealth and endless wiping. Simon de Pury as himself, the auctioneer and the gallerist (played by James Franco) whose theories on art and money are bullish and scary.
The landscape backdrops in each story are used as strong stylistic elements to heighten the emotional tensions of each character and situation: urban, architectural, desert and volcanic. Colour is paramount, intense and rich, used as a strong emotional metaphor.
Isaac Julien’s Playtime is captivating. I lingered and lounged in the plush blue room for the duration of the work and then wandered into the (sort) ante-room, only to be fixated again by the addendum, Kapital. This is a film of a discussion panel, presented again for an art space as a 2-screen film interspersed with archival footage, silent film, video art, performances and Hollywood films. My understanding of things ‘economic” is limited at best, and I found this engaging.
Julien was invited to create something – anything – for exhibition in Hayward Gallery, London. He devised what is a performance – Choreographing Capital – with himself as interviewer, in conversation with David Harvey, the well regarded radical sociologist, and a few key audience members (curators, critics and theorists).
Harvey’s book The Enigma of Capital is the thesis from which the discussion of art and capital ensues. Harvey takes a long view of the current economic crisis and in his book, talks about how capitalism came to dominate the world and why it resulted in the current financial crisis. He describes that the essence of capitalism is its amorality and lawlessness and to talk of a regulated, ethical capitalism is to make a fundamental error. Harvey maintains capital keeps moving, it cannot remain still and that crises are not resolved but just moved from one country to the next. There is a parallel with Julien’s visual conversations of human migration. Both see a continual flow of people and money which neither improves nor resolves the underlying universal problem of inequity.
This ‘performance’ opens with questions about how to visualize, make tangible, this nebulous thing called capital? How does it relate to the art market and art making? Julien is only too aware of the relationship between art and money. He is the first to admit it takes a large injection of funds to enable him to create his work and then, to whom does it sell? As fabulous as they are, I imagine rarely does a 9-screen architectural art/ film installation find its way into a domestic setting – and public funds are tightly controlled.
As Julien puts it: “I wanted to do something about capital that was emotional …. Because you have all these theories but not empathy.”
I maintain that the best artworks today are those which speak to us of our time and place: which hold our attention and which thrill us with their beauty, clarity and technique. The greatest artists are those who can consistently achieve this. I’d put Isaac Julien up there as a great artist of our time.
On at Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery in Sydney until 12 April.