Interview with Isaac Julien*

Isaac Julien
Ten Thousand Waves, 2010
Nine-screen installation, 35mm film transferred to High Definition, 9.2 surround sound 49' 41"
Installation view, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2013
Photograph: Jonathan Muzikar
Courtesy of the artist, Victoria Miro, London,
Metro Pictures, New York and Galería Helga de Alvear, Madrid
CH: In Ten Thousand Waves, what strikes me is your poeticizing of an event that was essentially quite tragic given its political circumstances and the fatal outcome.  However, by ways of integrating ancient Chinese mythology, a fictional protagonist in a nostalgic old Shanghai backdrop and contrary to a sense of disruption, the juxtaposition of shots presenting busy high ways and tall sky scrapers in a modern city of China that is rapidly growing economically, everything works together seamlessly.  This piece reads to me like a romantically weaved dream longing for a better life, transitioning from the old to the new.  I find your usage of a certain style of film language unique in a way that the story is told from many different angles.  Can you tell me, how you had envisioned realizing this work visually in the beginning? And what might have taken you into another direction after you had done so much research on ancient and modern Chinese culture?

IJ: My work is always led by my research. When I first become interested in a subject and decide that I want to make a work about it, I never know how it is going to end up! The research process for Ten Thousand Waves began by tracing back the paths of the cocklepickers: from Morecambe Bay to the Fujian province of China and then into Chinese history and myth. During this research we read about a long tradition of migration in the Fujian province that goes back well before our current period of globalization. We also read about the goddess Mazu who is said to protect seafarers. This historic element (seen through scenes which recreate the classic golden age film The Goddess) and this mythic element went on to make up a crucial element of the work, so it’s difficult to imagine how the work might have looked without this research.

One thing that happens with projects like this is that one also finds plenty of leads that are interesting but that aren’t appropriate for the work one is making at the time. During my research in China, I spent time with curators and artists and had the opportunity to renew an acquaintance with contemporary Chinese art. There is perhaps a very different project to be made there!

Isaac Julien
Hotel (Ten Thousand Waves) | 2010
Endura Ultra photograph | 180 x 240 cm
Courtesy of the artist, Metro Pictures, New York and Victoria Miro, London
CH: As someone who was born and raised in Shanghai, I find your visualization of the more traditional Chinese landscapes such as in the scene of a lonesome fisherman rowing amid a calm emerald river surrounded by smoky mountains very touching.  In some ways, the imagery reminds me of works by a Northern Song landscape painter Guo Xi (c.1010-c.1090).  It is evocative of romantic nostalgia yet while interposed with imagery conveying rapid social changes and economic developments, the fast-paced contemporary life-style seems to be overwriting these moments of peacefulness that used to inspire wisdom and scholarly meditation.  Do you share this sentimentality that we are now living in a world of which what once were valued as the core of tradition and national identity is gradually being taken over by globalization? 

IJ: I always think it’s important to look back with criticality as much as nostalgia. A critical nostalgia, if you like. That’s not to invalidate nostalgia as a response to the past, but we also need to take a step further and to analyse that response as far as possible. On the one hand, yes: Ten Thousand Waves does depict traditions that are rapidly eroding, but also shows how the impetus to migrate – to leave one’s home in search of a better life–, which ultimately led to the cockle pickers finding themselves in Lancashire, is itself a tradition in that region. As well as the peaceful scenes you describe, we also see the bodies of Fujian fishermen in traditional dress. These causes and effects have always been there; the difference is that now they’re sped up. Of course Ten Thousand Waves is itself a product of these rapid changes. As a work of art it uses cutting edge technology and takes full advantage of a global perspective, so there’s an ambiguity there.

Isaac Julien
ECLIPSE (Playtime), 2013
Endura Ultra Photograph
160 x 240 cm
Courtesy the artist, Victoria Miro, London, Metro Pictures, New York, Galería Helga de
Alvear, Madrid and Roslyn Oxley9, Sydney
CH: Now let’s talk about your more recent work PLAYTIME.  My initial fascination with this work is a little subjective, because I love watching films by Jaques Tati for his humorous but spot-on commentary on modernity. His works are satirical yet done with such clever humors that almost never fails to make people laugh- for instance, in Playtime (1967) there is the scene of which he tours a trade show of the latest modern inventions, as he goes up to test the products their sheer silliness, and rather unnecessarily modern features raise the question of whether we are indeed advancing with technology or just inventing for the sake of "new inventions".  Like you had mentioned in a talk at MoMA, technological advancements do not necessarily equate progress per se.  Then, there is also the idea of stock exchange and market fluctuation that turns the concept of value into an abstract idea.  What inspired you to attempt at materializing or visualizing on film such an abstract and non-tangible notion of capital?

IJ: PLAYTIME followed on from my recent works Ten Thousand Waves and Western Union: small boats. In these works that looked at migration, I was trying to find out what drove people to cross borders, seas and continents in search of a better life. The same answer kept coming up: capital! I am fascinated by this force.  It influences all our lives, whether we are domestic workers, hedge fund managers or art dealers. At the same time, it’s invisible and abstract, so poses a fascinating challenge to someone who works in images, such as myself.

Isaac Julien
PLAYTIME, 2014
Installation view, Victoria Miro Gallery, Wharf Road, 2014
Seven screen ultra high definition video installation with 7.1 surround sound 66'57"
Courtesy the artist, Victoria Miro, London, Metro Pictures, New York, Galería Helga de
Alvear, Madrid and Roslyn Oxley9, Sydney
Photograph: Stephen White
CH: The sub-title you have chosen “Kapital” when pronounced without visual reference to the spelling of the word sounds like “capital”.  For example, when I think of a country, an image of its capital city tends to pop into my mind.  For it is where most of its wealth and development are more centralized and manifested through architecture and infrastructure.  Why did you choose “Kapital” rather than “Capital”?

IJ: Because of Marx’s ‘Das Kapital’. With ‘capital’, you are right there is an ambiguity: capital cities, capital assets or capital as a social relation. All these forms of capital make an appearance in PLAYTIME, but with Kapital I wanted to make an engagement with Marx more explicit. Of course, part of the work critiques Marx as much as other parts make use of his tools. 

CH: Like the flying Goddess in Ten Thousand Waves, the idea of capital is also kind of like a myth.  Both are invisible and we assume they exist by the effects they have on our lives and at other times these ideas are reinforced by an existing social construct.  Then again, one thing that they do not share is what generates their movements; the flying movements of the Goddess is propelled by the labor of your production crew, while “movement” is necessary for the maintenance of capital value, since it must always be circulating through multiple transactions on the market. For example, when the market fluctuates and crashes it sets the whole world in motion along comes with gains and losses.  What kind of visual or theoretical method(s) did you use in order to visualize such a capital phenomenon in modern societies?

IJ: As you say, there are the effects of capital, which PLAYTIME attempts to show: a displacement of people, a gleaming skyscraper, a man’s life in ruins. Then there’s a sense of scale or pervasiveness: capital is everywhere, from an art gallery to a catholic church in Dubai. Finally, as you rightly imply, there’s an anxiety about motion. Capital must always be in motion, or rather, in a state of acceleration. Just as characters like the art dealer or the hedge fund manager are benefiting from its movements, they are desperately trying to keep it moving. The case of the artist, who lost his house in Reykjavik, is an example of what happens when it stops moving.

Isaac Julien
HORIZON/ELSEWHERE (Playtime), 2014
Endura Ultra Photograph
160 x 240 cm
Courtesy the artist, Victoria Miro, London, Metro Pictures, New York, Galería Helga de
Alvear, Madrid and Roslyn Oxley9, Sydney
*Many thanks to Isaac Julien for agreeing to do this interview with me.  Also, I would like to thank John Bloomfield (Isaac's studio researcher) and Dr. Mel Francis (Issac's studio archivist) for their time and patience in helping me put this together. 

Prior to this interview, in 2011, I wrote two separate reviews of Isaac Julien's exhibition at Metro Pictures.  Click here for the March review and here for the November review.


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