Los Angeles

Isaac Julien

Isaac Julien’s recent exhibition at MAK Center for Art and Architecture consisted of a group of photographs, some of them triptychs, which are stills from a fourteen-minute film (not shown here) shot in Iceland and northern Sweden in 2004. Collectively titled “True North,” these works offer a loose retelling and interpretation—what Julien has called a “re-memorizing”—of the story of Matthew Henson. This underacknowledged African American was the right-hand man upon whom Robert E. Peary depended for the success of his 1909 expedition to the North Pole, and was likely the first man to reach the point of true north.

The film, designed to be shown on three screens, juxtaposes intermittent sequences that deliver a nonlinear narrative. A figure of African descent, so bundled up in fur and wool that it’s impossible to tell whether it’s male or female, is shown striding across icy terrain alongside two Inuit men. A voice-over describes the tension that stemmed from Peary’s simultaneous dependence upon, admiration of, and contempt for Henson, whose words are here borrowed from a 1966 interview and delivered in hushed, female tones. The switch of gender in the narration is fleshed out in another sequence, in which a statuesque black woman with closely shorn hair and clad in a long, sheer white shift, strolls along a rocky coastline amid chunks of glistening polar ice. The explorer one might have assumed to be masculine is now clearly one and the same as this boldly feminine diva on the beach.

Watching the action, one finds oneself endlessly cross-referencing the separate fragments. And it’s difficult to avoid doing the same here with the photographs, which, in spite of their gentle loveliness, remain uncanny. Julien plays up the simultaneity of visual ease and psychological discomfort through a selection of images that commingle to suggest a story but also collude against the possibility of resolution. He also employs clever pairings in which formal pleasure is the flip side of a perceptual or interpretive conundrum (one triptych, for example, initially appears to be a view of three figures crossing a massive ice field but turns out to be three views of the same individual). The winding, decentralized floor plan of MAK’s Schindler House location only heightened the strangeness, as viewing the handful of images, sparsely hung throughout, became a process of trekking and retracing one’s steps.

What sets these works apart from the crowd is their drop-dead gorgeous combination of glamour, exoticism, and romance. Julien is well aware of the critical complications of these particular attributes but doesn’t mind indulging in them—albeit with a knowing smile. His scenes would hold up just fine on an IMAX screen or next to a Caspar David Friedrich painting, and they could be used to sell anything from fur coats to manifest destiny. A brilliant student of how ideas, ideals, and identities are packaged and consumed, and of the problems of what he calls “raced” landscape, Julien lures us into pondering relationships between people, stories, and places via everything from the pleasing chromatic contrast of brown skin and white snow to the seeming discontinuity of elegant femininity and rugged landscape. The more one explores the subtleties of this work, the more jarring questions one encounters. It is to his credit that Julien guides us through them not via didacticism but rather through a kind of poetry.

Christopher Miles