Nick Moss reviews this exhibition, at Tate Britain till 20 August. Image above: Isaac Julien, What Freedom is to me - Homage, 2022, © Isaac Julien, courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro
This exhibition represents the most comprehensive show of Isaac Julien’s work in the UK to date. Its focus is a large-scale set of multi-screen installations, designed in conjunction with the architect David Adjaye.
The first thing to be said, unfortunately, is that this form fails on a simple, basic level. Adjaye has turned the exhibition space into a multiplex, with screens in a series of rooms set off from the centre of the space. This doesn’t work because the sound from one room bleeds into the next. Given that Julien’s work is based around the juxtaposition of images and the narration of text, the fact that you struggle to hear the words spoken is a fault that could easily have been avoided, had the participation of the viewer been placed above the determination to play with the space. In some of the rooms, the sound is muffled and there are basic issues around audibility.
Isaac Julien is unquestionably an important artist. He is the obvious successor to Derek Jarman as innovating a queer cinema which tries to fuse the political with the poetic. As he states:
Radically and aesthetically, I want to aim for an experience that can offer a novel way to see moving images, in its choice of subject, in how it’s displayed, in how it’s been shot.
The exhibition of these works, though, with later works juxtaposed with his earliest films, suggests that the radical has become detached from the aesthetic, such that the later works have fallen into a vapid theatricality which renders banal any attempt at the “political lyricism” he references as a key influence from Jarman.
The earliest work here, a film made while still at St Martins School of Art, is Who Killed Colin Roach? (Colin Roach was a 21-year-old British man who died on 12 January 1983 from a gunshot wound inside Stoke Newington police station). It has a rough energy and anger which is the key to the best of Julien’s work. It is, though, shown on a small screen outside the main exhibition, as is This is Not an AIDS Advertisement. They are diminished as a result, when they should be seen as keystones in the development of his work. What they make clear is that Julien is at his best when directly engaged with a political movement, using his sense of “rupture and sublimity” to articulate the demands of a struggle within which he is a participant. The cinema he set out to develop with the Sankofa Film and Video Collective, one which would, as Stuart Hall (an abiding influence) put it, create a language which would “allow people to “speak about where they are and what other possible futures are available to them” is best realised here, and in his most successful, genuinely flawless work, Looking for Langston.
Installation view, Looking for Langston, Tate Britain, 2023. Photo: Jack Hems, © Isaac Julien, courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro
It is Looking for Langston which is the over-arching joy here, the realisation of a black, queer cinematic expression able to meet the challenge Julien set himself; to answer the question “what did Black artists actually want to say? What would their art look like if its internal dialogues were made accessible to a wider audience?”
Julien has always used the fantastic as a core element of his work, and in Looking for Langston the fantastic works to articulate black gay desire in wonderful, surprising ways. A cruising leatherman, a speakeasy where black and white gay men dance together to a soundtrack which switches from 20s jazz to Todd Terry’s Can You Party?, the poetry of Essex Hemphill and Toni Morrison’s eulogy to Langston Hughes fuse to make explicit the inseparability of Hughes’s communism, his anti-imperialism and his sexuality. Like Julien’s big screen Young Soul Rebels (absent from any substantial reference here) Looking for Langston succeeds because it is brash and fierce and defiant, a brashness that appears to have been drained from Julien’s later works.
The best of what follows, Western Union: Small Boats, a work made with choreographer Russell Maliphant, which focuses on small boat crossings in the Mediterranean, and Lina Bo Bardi-A Marvellous Entanglement, a celebration of the work of the Brazilian modernist architect, made with the dance company Bale Folclorico de Bahia, continue Julien’s incorporation of dance as a core element of his work, using bodies in movement as a way of disrupting any conventional narrative, while still showing how borders and barriers impact on people seeking to build new lives or work out other ways of living-together.
Installation view, Lessons of the Hour, Tate Britain, 2023 Photo: Jack Hems, © Isaac Julien, courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro
There is, though, a sense of Julien adrift from the political grounding which gave impetus to the earlier works. Lessons of the Hour, “a poetic journey into the life and times of Frederick Douglass”, is framed around Douglass’s Lecture on Pictures, a discourse on photography and identity which fits well with Julien’s own themes. The problem is that Julien does little with the material, beyond turn it into a costume drama, with mise-en-scene prioritised over all else. The film features an actor cast as Douglass in encounters with various characters intended as “representatives of the ideal of equality” – including Anna Murray and Helen Pitts, who were respectively Douglass' first and second wives.
Anna Murray Douglass was responsible for helping Douglass' achieve freedom, and supported him throughout his life and managed their home during his long absences. Anna and Ellen Richardson were two English Quakeresses who enabled Douglass to return to America as a free man. Susan B. Anthony was one of the most important American suffragists as well as Douglass' long-time friend. The intention is to link Douglass as abolitionist with Douglass as supporter of women’s suffrage. All well and good, but the film -making here is conservative and dull, when it ought to be full of fury.
The struggle against the violence of capitalism
Douglass was purportedly the most-photographed man of his time. That being the case, why resort to a mannered restaging of his life? There is a further intention to link Douglass’s Lecture on Pictures with Walter Benjamin’s arguments on the reproducibility of the image, but this ultimately goes nowhere. What’s missing is precisely what Douglass and Benjamin had in common, a recognition of violence as inherent both to capitalism and to the battle for freedom from capitalism’s rule.
The Douglass who said that the struggle for emancipation “may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle” is not captured here and it is that spirit, which was so exhilaratingly present in Julien’s earlier films, and which is missing entirely in the later works. Julien talks of the “gradual increase in scale” of his works “from one screen to two, to three, to five and so on” as always being in service to “film as sculpture, film and architecture.” And the later films are indeed sculptural, but almost to the point of numbing stasis.
Mazu, Silence (Ten Thousand Waves) 2010, Endura Ultra photograph, © Isaac Julien, courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro
Ten Thousand Waves, ostensibly a response to the death of the 23 cockle pickers who drowned at Morecambe Bay in 2004, fails entirely, regardless of good intentions. It is little more than an exercise in Orientalist cliches filmed in the style of Zhang Yimou. The only time we feel any real sense of the dread and despair of what occurred is when the film cuts to helicopter footage of the rescue of one of the survivors. The insertion of the real at this point only renders the rest of the film redundant, with the goddess Wazu floating around in a white or hanging around on atmospheric cobbled streets like a character in an outtake from Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love.
The most recent work, Once Again, centres on a conversation between Alain Locke (cultural theorist of the Harlem Renaissance) and Albert C. Barnes (an early US collector of African art.) It incorporates footage from Looking for Langston and also from Ghislain Cloquet, Chris Marker and Alain Resnais’s Statues Also Die and from Nii Kwate Owoo’s You Hide Me. Unfortunately, Julien’s film comes off second best to these, offering up a stagey, contrived dialogue between Locke and Barnes that just rings false against Owoo’s icepick of anger and the method used in Statues Also Die of brutal cuts between African arts and craft forms and footage of battles between cops and demonstrators.
The vibrancy of Julien as a film-maker at the start has become by the time of Once Again a series of predictable, overly theatrical and hackneyed tropes. What’s lacking from the later films, and what is so essential in the earlier works, is exactly what Walter Benjamin called the “chaos of memories”. Julien has stated elsewhere that:
I am interested in the spaces and poetics of representation and the lives which need to be pictured so that the previously invisible subjects can reclaim those spaces.
The problem is that what he has arrived at as a poetics of representation is now so rigidly artificial that there is no room for the invisible subjects to inhabit his films in the way they did in Looking for Langston. He needs to allow the chaos back in.
Nick Moss is an ex-prisoner, published poet, reviewer and playwright. His book "Swear Down" is published by Smokestack Books, see here.