New York

Isaac Julien

Metro Pictures/Brooklyn Academy of Music

Isaac Julien’s multiscreen film installation WESTERN UNION: Small Boats, 2007, advances his already refined fusion of politics, history, and stunningly lush aesthetics. Julien is utterly sensual in his approach to imagemaking; his films take physical pleasure in both the human body and its natural and created environment. At the same time, this Londoner of Caribbean descent has both shaped and been shaped by the postcolonial thought of recent decades—the exploration of culture and identity, migration and diaspora, that has become so important a legacy of an intellectual generation. Those who lived through the culture wars of the ’80s and ’90s will remember how art with any kind of social address risked being tarred as “didactic,” as failing in art’s duty to be beautiful. Working out of both temperament and intelligence, Julien has answered that attack, making gorgeous art alive to its time.

WESTERN UNION was shot in Sicily, a point, like southern Spain, where Europe and Africa come close. And like southern Spain—or, in the United States, like Florida in its relation to Cuba and Haiti—Sicily has become a crossing point, a destination for African emigrants traveling by boat. The journey is dangerous and sometimes fatal. One part of Julien’s film is a tracking shot over the antiquated craft in which some of the migrants flee, now beached in Agrigento by the Italian authorities in a kind of marine graveyard of broken wood, corroded paint, and tattered tarpaulins. The shot goes on and on—there are a lot of boats. Like the endless, similarly constructed scene of the traffic jam in Godard’s Weekend (1967), the sequence is overwhelming as visual experience and devastating as politics.

Much else here works the same way, as the viewer gradually comes to understand Julien’s story. Views of fishing boats silhouetted against the sparkling ocean might be touristic but for the burden we realize the boats carry—they are often the first discoverers of African craft in trouble, or of their traces. The extraordinary interior of Palermo’s Palazzo Gangi, where Luchino Visconti shot The Leopard (1963), rises and falls as if the camera were at sea, and a man walks through it carrying a body; we also see the same man, and the same body, on a rock formation by the sea, and the movements of men swimming or drowning in the water are echoed by those of dancers—Julien collaborated on the film with the choreographer Russell Maliphant—on the palazzo’s floor and stairs. We are being told that everything we see—the sunbathing tourists, the rich past, the centers of wealth, the dead boats, the lost T-shirts in the surf—is related and part of one system. In the end, the film is as chilling as it is seductive.

Julien’s gallery show coincided with Cast No Shadow, another collaboration with Maliphant—this one live, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, as part of the Performa dance and performance series, a New York biennial directed by critic and curator RoseLee Goldberg. This too was extraordinarily successful, a formally and technically ingenious combination of cinema and dance. Incorporating three of Julien’s films—True North (2004) and Fantôme Afrique (2005), as well as WESTERN UNIONCast No Shadow combined Julien’s trademark multiple screens with the movements of dancers onstage. What was innovative here was the layering of action and image, using transparent scrims and a series of wipes, dissolves, and other cinematic effects to make the two interrelate. While we were always aware of the difference between two- and three-dimensional space, each informed the other, with dancers far back on the stage, for example, sometimes seeming to appear higher vertically, as if on a flat plane, than closer images. Given the presence of live dancers and the concentration on staging their movements in tandem with moving images, the weight in Cast No Shadow lay most on the visual, physical, sensual side of Julien’s work; he was focusing more on the formal, problem-solving element of artmaking, I think, than on the social history of the present with which WESTERN UNION is equally concerned. But both are basic to his sensibility, and Cast No Shadow opened up terrific possibilities for him and others to explore.

David Frankel