Isaac Julien’s video installation Fantôme Créol (Creole Phantom, 2005) was shown on four very large adjacent screens: two on either side of the gallery; Baltimore (2003) had three equally large screens, but placed in an arc so that they could be viewed as a whole. The visual quality was fine, the carpeted gallery provided excellent acoustics, and comfortable seating encouraged spectators to watch the full cycle of each work – sadly a rare experience with film and video installations.
One quality underlying Julien’s work is his exceptional command of the aesthetics of cinema. His images are often sumptuous, and the film construction shows a great control of visual rhythm. These qualities, evident in his single-screen films such as Frantz Fanon: Black Skin, White Mask (1996), take on another, spectacular dimension when two or more screens are edited to harmonize or counterpoint image content, colour and movement. At the Pompidou the mastery of the visual editing was matched by superbly recorded and mixed sound, adding a further and integral choreography to the work. This control is not just a technical matter: Julien provides an immersive cinematic experience, in a tradition extending from Abel Gance’s Napoleon (1927) to the expanded cinema of London in the 1970s and 1980s. His work makes its communication with the audience through response to image, taking us way beyond bland concept and through a physical kinetic experience very evident in the dance sequences of Steven Galloway. Although the subject matter is clear, the meaning is not closed by an insistent narrative, nor are ideological points underlined for the audience. In a real sense Julien’s commitment to his subject does not allow him to veer away from using the language of cinema directly as a way of thinking, rather than illustrating pre-formed concepts.
Julien is also particularly aware that, in the gallery, the audience may enter or leave at any time. Few will see his installations from the beginning through to the end; they will see them from some mid-point and, it is hoped, watch the entire cycle. Julien builds this element into the works. Although there is a definable development from the beginning of each piece, the experience does not depend on viewing them in this way. The looped presentation allows continuity between the end of one cycle and the start of the next. The flow of images has the quality of symbolic clusters that embed themselves ‘three-dimensionally’ in memory rather than being an unbroken narrative. This is particularly true of Fantôme Créol, where the spectator stores these moments and builds a meaning gradually. The work explores a metaphorical space between the empty cold of northern Scandinavia and the parched landscape of Burkina Faso in West Africa. Incorporating early archival footage from Africa, black identity and history are inevitably central to any interpretation. But Julien makes it clear this is not a simple matter of geographical identity or a search for roots but an identity formed in the disruption of any settled place. It is, as the title indicates, a Creole identity – the displaced but global construction of an adapted and eclectic multiculture. Although the archival footage reminds us of historical links in the chain of this identity, its condition as cinematic representation is stressed by sequences of an African cinema projection booth. The work then becomes less about black identity itself than about its representation, and about ‘correcting’ our history of this representation.
Crucial to this, creating a contemporary ethos, is the role of Vanessa Myrie. As actress and represented persona she is central to both Fantôme Créol and Baltimore. Julien describes her as the 'Afro-Cyborg', which I interpret to mean beyond the issue of identity. By taking on plural identities, the character is not bound by any of them – lack of identity even becomes a positive quality. However, Myrie’s cinematic role is more complex than this. In both pieces she is a stunning presence – tall, elegant, slim – an ultimate ‘cool’ black model. In Fantôme Créol she does not intervene or engage in the action of the film – she is a distanced observer representing uncertainty. She looks, but what does she think? Cinematically she also represents the film’s spectator – she is our point of identification with the film, and in the same way she represents Julien. Her role is critical to maintaining an openness of meaning in the film, not allowing any easy closure.
Baltimore is a simpler work. It is about the politics, power, presence and value of black identity in culture. It centres on two prominent figures: Melvin Van Peebles, playing himself, and Angela Davis, played by Myrie. Much of the material for the film was shot in the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum, where along with Billie Holiday and Martin Luther King, Van Peebles also encounters his own wax representation. In Baltimore, Myrie, the Cyborg, is a more ‘active’ presence, including an extraordinary, playful and filmically virtuoso ‘Super-Afro-Cyborg’ flying sequence. Even so, she continues to represent a sense of distance, both from proscribed emotion and from unequivocal meaning. For Julien a cinematic experience still takes precedence over narrow political issues or concept.
Julien’s installations remind me – white, middle-class, securely English – that his culture is also my culture and that the issues of identity he takes on in the global context apply equally to me. But the quality of the artistic experience he offers also tells me that these ideas belong in the field of pleasure, delight and play.