Reviews/Visual Art

Isaac Julien – double feature makes a singular splash

10 March 2022

Multiple screens and a poetic visual style lift Isaac Julien’s film works well above the ordinary in this Perth Festival installation, writes Craig McKeough.

One constant in human history is the propensity of people to exploit and mistreat others for their own gain, whether on the massive scale of slavery in 18th and 19th century America, or at the more targeted level of the modern scourge of human trafficking.

British filmmaker and multimedia artist Isaac Julien tackles this weighty subject in an innovative twin-pronged exhibition at John Curtin Gallery for Perth Festival with his two film installations Lessons of the Hour and Ten Thousand Waves, which are being shown for the first time in Australia.

In Lessons of the Hour, Julien examines slavery in the US from the viewpoint of freed slave and noted abolitionist Frederick Douglass. Douglass was a prolific writer who recognised the possibilities that came with the emergence of photography to further the push for emancipation.

Julien cleverly adopts this point as a keystone of his narrative. Using his protagonist’s interest in photography as a way of ensuring his life will be recorded, he weaves Douglass’s story into the wider abolitionist movement and its echoes through time.

Lessons of the Hour is delivered with a punch; it is projected on 10 screens, each showing a variation or different angle on a scene. This immerses the viewer in the action and enables the use of some powerful devices, such as the sudden juxtaposition of scenes of serene beauty and sinister violence.

This approach elevates the work from a movie to a multifaceted piece that explores the possibilities of film as a medium. It is beautifully staged, with fine attention to detail in costumes and art design as Julien recreates Douglass’s 19th century world, from domestic interiors, photography studios and lecture halls to the Scottish countryside. It is pieced together with such precision that it is like we are seeing these events unfold in front of us.  

The companion piece Ten Thousand Waves takes the slavery theme from almost 200 years ago right into the present, using as its basis the 2004 Morecambe Bay tragedy, in England, where 23 Chinese migrants died as they hunted for cockles and were caught by a rapidly changing tide. The reality of the exploitation of these workers emerged in the wake of their deaths as did the activities of the evil gangs who facilitated their illegal migration from rural China with the promise of a better life in the West.

Ten Thousand Waves premiered at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2010 where it was shown on nine double-sided screens scattered around the exhibition space. At John Curtin Gallery the presentation is more modest – just three big screens side by side – but the effect remains powerful.

The film uses actual vision from emergency services, at the time of the tragedy, combined with poignant images of a lone woman in a Chinese city seemingly waiting for word on a missing loved one. Threaded through is the appearance of an ethereal angel-like figure in a billowing gown who may be watching over the lost souls and providing consolation for those left behind.
It is an affecting piece of art that employs poetic imagery and abstract storytelling to deliver a searing denunciation of the inhumanity of the human trafficking industry. 

Julien’s multiscreen approach is not a gimmick. It emphasises every turn in the narrative and drives the power of both of these works. It also effectively mimics reality, in which we are aware of the multiple events that happen around us simultaneously, and sense things happening in our peripheral vision. 

A few words of advice – don’t bank on breezing through Julien’s installations quickly. Lessons of the Hour runs for more than 30 minutes and Ten Thousand Waves for more than 40 minutes, and it is worth taking the time to sit and absorb the works in their entirety to appreciate the beauty of the imagery and their intricate rhythms.

A shorter visit will provide the gist of Julien’s style – and his work is very stylish – but an investment of extended attention will reward with a real appreciation of his innovative approach to the medium of film, his strong aesthetic sense and the mastery of his storytelling.

Ten Thousand Waves and Lessons of the Hour continue until 8 May 2022.

Pictured top is Isaac Julien’s ‘Lessons of the Hour’. Photo: Brad Coleman

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Author —
Craig McKeough

Craig McKeough is a writer and visual artist, with a lifetime’s experience in journalism, covering everything from the arts to horse racing, politics and agriculture. Craig has always been drawn to the swing; an egalitarian, grounding piece of equipment where you can go as high and wild as you want, but you’ll always return to where you started.

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