Rearranging with Isaac Julien


No sooner had the British filmmaker and installation artist Isaac Julien entered New York’s Museum of Modern Art one morning last week than he was single-handedly heaving a hulking ottoman across the atrium floor. “This is a much better place to watch the film, don’t you think? But really you should walk around to see it. That’s the best way.” Despite protests from museum staff, Julien continued to rearrange the furniture to his satisfaction, and then traveled up two floors to consider the installation from yet another angle, where he spoke with A.i.A. about this exhibition of his 2010 work Ten Thousand Waves (through Feb. 17).

Movement is an important part of the experience of the ambitious installation. Nine massive, double-sided screens hang at various heights and angles for an immersive experience that overtakes the museum’s 6-story-high atrium. The 50-minute film tells several parallel stories about Chinese culture, history and mythology, paying tribute to a 2004 industrial accident that took the lives of a group of Chinese migrant workers picking cockles in Northern England. Police footage from the event is woven with a retelling of the myth of Mazu, the ancient Chinese goddess of lost fishermen, contemporary reenactments of scenes from the 1930s Chinese film The Goddess and works of poetry, music and calligraphy written for the film.

More recent works by Julien can also be seen in “Playtime” at Metro Pictures (through Dec. 14).  Three works in this exhibition explore links between and effects of modern capital and the art market, as conveyed by a series of characters including an art dealer. The characters are played by figures like actor James Franco and auctioneer Simon de Pury. A public installation of the film Playtime will appear in Times Square, showing a three-minute version of the film on 17 screens nightly at 11:57 P.M. (Dec. 1-30). A seven-channel version will premiere Jan. 24 at Victoria Miro, London.

EMILY LEISZ CARR  This installation of Ten Thousand Waves asks the viewer to move around the room and through the museum, looking between screens and images, but it is also a narrative-driven story. Do you ever worry that viewers might miss some part of the work because their attention is divided, as opposed to the more traditional movie theater experience?

ISAAC JULIEN  Moving-image works contest the paradigm of viewing, create a challenge to the audience to engage in a work. There can be a laissez-faire relationship to film and video work because people haven’t paid to just sit there with one thing. In a museum we are kind of en passage. But I find that people do tend to sit with my work, by choice.

This is a problem with cinema, for any artist. In a cinema setting, the most important aspect is bums in seats. The museum can be utilized for a different way of looking. 

CARR Over the past few years you have installed Ten Thousand Waves multiple times internationally, while also conceiving and producing the new work Playtime. How are the two projects connected?

JULIEN Playtime absolutely grew out of Ten Thousand Waves. The question of why people move is connected to capital. Playtime goes to the source of the questions. Rather than being a work about people, an analysis, it asks what is capital’s effect on people? There are five characters all based on real people that relate to capital and art capital differently. It’s a mix of documentary and fiction. It’s a reflection back onto this complex capital discussion I’m working on.

In the final scene of Ten Thousand Waves, three youths wipe the calligrapher’s writing away. It’s really an image of workers. Workers help you make the images. The actors in the film really did work on the set and help create the film. Without workers you wouldn’t see anything.