Isaac Julien: Capturing the Sublime - Art Collector

Issue 78, October - December 2016

Language is not static. In fact, it is so prone to mutation through use and abuse that the Oxford English Dictionary publishes a monthly newsletter documenting semantic changes. A word that has been teetering on the brink of re-definition for a while now is sublime: just one more food-blogger describing a chocolate mousse as ‘sublime’ may be enough to push it over the edge.

When most people say sublime they mean luxuriously yummy, or even just quite nice. Dictionaries will soon be forced to align the meaning of the word with rampant public misuse. Which will be a shame. The sublime is actually a heady combination of beauty and terror. It is the overwhelming thrill of staring into the abyss: an intoxicating cocktail, equal parts fear and awe. It is a wonderfully complex descriptive term that few people (most of them artists) really understand. London based filmmaker Isaac Julien is one of those select few.

Julien shot his latest multi-screen epic,
Stones Against Diamonds (Ice Cave), 2015, in glacial Icelandic caves. When he describes them as sublime he understands the precise nuances of the word. “They are incredibly beautiful, but you know that they are being made through global warming,” he says. “They are imploding: they are both fragile and dangerous.”

Stones Against Diamonds (Ice Cave) is the prelude to Julien’s projected three-part tribute to Italian-Brazilian architect Lina Bo Bardi (1914-1992). “The ice caves are also a metaphor for her love of organic shapes and how she incorporates those into her architectural style,” Julien explains. For his film project, the artist recreated one of Bo Bardi’s iconic spiral staircases in the ice caves. This arresting, surreal image is part fact, part fiction: a perfect example of Julien’s own idiosyncratic style, which he describes as “poetic documentary.”

In fact, Julien is such a master of this unique cross-disciplinary genre that it’s hard to imagine he ever considered working in any other medium. But back in the early 1980s, during his art school days at Central Saint Martins School of Art in London, he actually thought he might be a painter. The young artist was also interested in sculpture, drawing and performance, but as he explains, “there is so much to learn in filmmaking that it kind of took over.” With hindsight it seems like film was always going to be Julien’s visual language. While still a teenager, he was exposed to its potential through an eclectic group of community based filmmakers. “It was really quite an interesting mixture then in London’s East End,” he recalls. And in film Julien found an art form that allowed him to combine several of his interests. In addition to time and performance, he says, “there is a real painterly approach to my work.”

Another of Julien’s key interests is history and he was first recognised for his documentary films, such as
Young Soul Rebels which won an award at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival. These days Julien is known for his immersive, multi-screen installation works, such as Ten Thousand Waves, which premiered at the Biennale of Sydney in 2010.

While Julien enjoys the exciting possibilities of working with multi-screen installations, he also still creates films for the traditional cinema screen. Two key elements link the different streams of his practice. The first is his interest in what he calls “lyrical narrative.” Julien tells stories and there is a factual kernel in even the most abstract of his poetic documentaries, whether it be the drowning of some 20 Chinese immigrants at Morecambe Bay, the real-life tragedy that infuses
Ten Thousand Waves, or the implied presence of Lina Bo Bardi in Stones Against Diamonds. Secondly, all of Julien’s films and still photographs demonstrate his unerring eye. His is a singular vision, capable of capturing even the sublime.

Tracey Clement

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