In their German Ideology (1845), Marx and Engels mused that ‘philosophy is to studying the real world as masturbation is to sexual love.’ Decades later, Marx published the first part of his unfinished magnum opus Das Kapital (1867–94), perhaps hoping it would become the foundation of a total revolution. Little did he know that, a century or so later, his work would be prised from the hands of the proletariat, placed on the theoretical top shelf and lifted into that rarified world of contemplation over action: academia. Like a dispatch from the most cloistered reaches of that universe came Isaac Julien’s ‘PLAYTIME’, a slick, confused and surreally ponderous show spread between Victoria Miro’s two London spaces.
‘PLAYTIME’ was essentially an exhibition of two lengthy video works, Kapital (2013) and Playtime (2014), at 70 and 31 minutes respectively. The subject matter of each loosely explores such themes as the current usefulness of orthodox Marxist ideas, the buoyancy of the contemporary art market and the effects of neoliberal policy and corporate practice on the lives of businessmen, artists and the precariat. This is new territory for Julien, who is best known for pioneering contributions to radical black British film in the 1980s and New Queer Cinema in the ’90s. However, no definitive or visionary statements about such states of affairs are made. Instead, simplistic formulations – businessmen are greedy, cleaners are alienated and the pursuit of capital produces evangelical reverence in those involved – are presented with a high-production gloss, at times reminiscent of car commercials keen to push the spiritual dimension of consumerism.
Of the two works, Kapital is the most problematic. The story behind the unnecessary double flat-screen installation – one would have sufficed – is this: the renowned Marxist academic David Harvey is interviewed by Julien on the subject of capital at the Hayward Gallery, in front of an audience who paid £10 for entry and were simultaneously filmed with multiple cameras. Aside from the morally suspect practice of charging people to sign away their image, Julien, on the basis of Kapital, seems to be spectacularly unaware of his own status as an artist who is fully embroiled in a capitalist system furiously turning on neoliberal principles. This is a curious syndrome affecting professionals in the upper echelons of the art world, who necessarily have to keep, as Julien writes in the exhibition catalogue, ‘proximity to patronage’. Funnily enough, he also states that, as an artist in such circumstances, ‘the position you occupy becomes highly ambivalent and demands constant negotiation’. Frustratingly, no real sense of that ambivalence finds its way into what, on paper, should have been an exceptional exhibition; rather, what remains is a kind of ostentatious hypocrisy.
Playtime, on the other hand, is a lush, seven-screen, big-budget production featuring an international bevy of actors. According to the exhibition’s press release, it is essentially about ‘what drives people to cross continents in search of a “better life”’. When handled well, this subject matter can yield fantastic results, as with the French filmmaker Mati Diop’s Atlantiques (2009), but in Playtime it manifests as a series of stylized monologues to camera, in which characters articulate banal observations about the market. In one sequence, James Franco puts his peerless ability to depict smug self-satisfaction to use as an art dealer. There is a bizarre, parodic turn by the auctioneer Simon de Pury, while the Icelandic actor Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson projects existential angst in a modernist interior, oddly redolent of the quasi-intellectual ambience in the 1990s Holsten Pils ads that starred Jeff Goldblum. Out of the five different views represented in Playtime, Filipino actress Mercedes Cabral’s compelling turn as the ‘house worker’ locked in domestic peonage in Dubai is the most successful. Her isolation amidst neon, skyscrapers and sanitized glass-and-steel interiors perfectly captures the plight of the immigrant worker alone in a cold world of affluence. It is an extremely affecting piece, though undermined by the casual orientalism of Arabs seen only as stockbrokers in thawbs and agals, and the cod-surrealism of Cabral standing alone on perfume-promo sand dunes.
Across town, at Victoria Miro’s Mayfair space, hung an entirely superfluous, but crucially collectible, selection of photographic stills from Playtime and a window installation of Enigma (2014), a short time-lapse film of Dubai’s cityscape. For me, these works were a remiss end to an unsatisfying display that ironically featured art which is expensive to produce, expensive to stage and expensive to buy. Julien’s canonical importance as an artist working with film and video cannot be understated, but, in ‘PLAYTIME’, he is seemingly oblivious to his compromised position as a product of the very system he critiques.