I MEET ISAAC JULIEN in the UBS lounge at Art Basel in Hong Kong, where he’s enjoying a momentary respite from the frenzied event unfolding around us. It’s the fourth day of the fair, and this may be Julien’s first quiet afternoon, though the genial British artist is far too polite to admit how tired he is. Over the past few days he’s mingled with the champagne swilling crowd on the fair’s opening night, hosted a panel discussion with Simon de Pury and Hans Ulrich Obrist, overseen the opening of an exhibition of his work at Cattle Depot Artist Village and given a talk to an audience of curators, critics and collectors.
But the long days have been worth it, because Julien has emerged as one of the undisputed stars of this year’s art week. There are certainly few other artists who have received quite so much attention.
He first gained international recognition in 1989 with his black-and-white film Looking for Langston, a non-narrative, impressionistic tribute to the Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes that combines archival footage with a stylishly shot love story between two gay black men. These themes of racial and sexual identity have since become key ideas in Julien’s work. They were central to his next film, Young Soul Rebels, which won the critic’s prize at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival, and to later films such as The Attendant, The Darker Side of Black and Frantz Fanon: Black Skin, White Mask.
Alongside those works, which were generally shown in cinemas, Julien was busy making video installations for art galleries. One of the most famous of these is Ten Thousand Waves, an expansive, nine-screen piece that loosely weaves together the story of the 2004 Morecambe Bay tragedy, in which 21 Chinese migrant workers died while cockle picking on the British coast, and the ancient Chinese myth of the sea goddess Mazu, played in the film by actress Maggie Cheung.
To coincide with Julien’s multiple appearances at the art fair, Hong Kong’s M+ museum temporarily installed a three-screen version of Ten Thousand Waves at Cattle Depot Artist Village. Hong Kong was only the latest stop for the work, which premiered at the Biennale of Sydney in 2010 before going on a 15-city tour of institutions including Shanghai’s ShanghART Gallery, the National Museum in Norway and the Museum of Modern Art (Moma) in New York. Moma’s installation of the piece was particularly striking, with the nine double-sided screens hanging at varying heights in the museum’s soaring atrium, so that the onscreen airborne goddess Mazu appeared to be flying above gallery-goers.
“It’s more fun making multiple-screen works than it is making a single-screen work,” Julien explains. “I enjoy the bricolage effect, the montage effect and the excitement it produces in the spectator, to be able to view all these different images at the same time. In a work like Ten Thousand Waves, a nine-screen work, you literally move around, you enjoy being able to have the different vistas on the work.
“But I never really try to prioritise one over the other,” he continues. “I always [also] make single-screen versions of my work and three-screen versions of my work. That’s because they can be shown on different platforms. In a way it’s also about flexibility as well. So for example, when it came to installing the work for M+, they didn’t have the space to show the nine-screen, so I can show the three-screen work. I don’t think one is necessarily better than the other. But I do think one is more fun than the other.”
The imposing scale of Ten Thousand Waves and the international reach of its story have both influenced Playtime, Julien’s latest film. A study of the movement of money and the impact of capitalism, Playtime is a seven-screen piece that follows a series of storylines through the cities of London, Reykjavik and Dubai. The eclectic cast of characters includes a wheeler-dealing art adviser, a Filipina maid working in the United Arab Emirates and an Icelandic artist who loses his home in the 2008 financial crash. Just downstairs from where we’re meeting, London’s Victoria Miro Gallery is exhibiting a series of large, circular photographic portraits of the characters from Playtime that Julien took to accompany the film.
“Ten Thousand Waves is very much looking at this very long view of the search for a better life,” Julien says. “So thinking about the relationship as to why people move around the world, it’s normally in search of capital. So that’s really why Playtime came about. You could say the difference between Playtime and Ten Thousand Waves is that Ten Thousand Waves is in a way more lyrical and poetic. I would say Playtime is kind of ironic and sometimes factual. I don’t think it’s factual in a way that a news report is, but it’s quite strongly based on characters in real life and people that I know. So it has a kind of more grounded aspect to it.”
At first glance, both Ten Thousand Waves and Playtime seem broader in scope than Julien’s earlier works, which were often pigeonholed as “black, gay” films. But Julien sees them as part of a natural progression. “Talking about a work like Looking for Langston, it’s a work about Langston Hughes and questions of homoeroticism, so in that sense has these black gay themes. But it was a film ostensibly based in Harlem in New York and I’m from London. A lot of people think it was shot in America and it [fits into] a certain American canon, especially in black literary studies, so I think it transcends some of these questions around race and sexuality because it’s a work about art, it’s about painting, it’s about the role of artists.
“Looking for Langston was one of my first works that got reviewed in Artforum, so I think the themes have always had this sort of international aspect to them. The response to it has always been quite international. So in a way I can link it very strongly in my mind to works like Ten Thousand Waves, although of course the content is different.” Julien’s next project is Stones Against Diamonds, a meditation on the work of Brazilian architect Lina Bo Bardi, a prelude of which will be unveiled this month at the Venice Biennale.
These adventurous, multilayered films have been made with the help of an impressive roster of collaborators, including Maggie Cheung and Tilda Swinton, the late cultural theorist Stuart Hall, poet Derek Walcott and actor James Franco, who plays the art adviser in Playtime. Julien also briefly taught Steve McQueen, who has gone on to direct the critically acclaimed Shame and win an Oscar for 12 Years a Slave.
Because they’re both black British film-makers, comparisons are sometimes made between Julien and McQueen. But their careers have actually moved in almost opposite directions: McQueen started as a video artist before becoming a more mainstream director, whereas Julien started as a director and has moved into video art. Yet seeing as Julien regularly collaborates with writers, actors and artists of all descriptions, does he think the boundary between film directors and video artists is even a useful division any more?
“Steve is the perfect example of those categories blurring,” he says. “I think he’s always seen himself as an artist. I think he would say that when he does a film he’s engaged in a novel, and when he’s doing films in the art context they’re poems. That’s quite a good analogy, actually.
“The categories to a certain extent are breaking down, but I do think there’s a stubborn resistance in that Hollywood or mainstream cinema is very resistant to lyricism and experimentation. But there are always breakouts, interventions. So I think in that sense I would like to keep it open. But for me, in a personal sense, I value the freedom that I have of showing my works in an art context very much.”