Isaac Julien | Baltimore. Paradise Omeros.
by Eugen Radescu
The word "image" refers to an infinite number of categorizations/ occurrences/ manifestations/ contexts. References to image have long been under the visual domination of the eye. But the image goes beyond the immediate experience of the eye; it is a mixed and disconcerting category, situated half way between concrete and abstract, between the sensitive and the intellectual. The image is built from sensorial contents (beyond the visual experience though), and is imbued of significations which emanate from the intellectual activities. It thus presupposes a concept. The theories of the image change and other elements of the human body interfere, delimitating its characteristic features. In a wider context, the image is nowadays the effect of the psyche (the family of the mental images), or an object of the external physical reality. It is the sum of three terms (all belonging to ancient Greek): eikon (representation), eidolon (form) and phantasma (vision), and is thus an objectivation of a sensible content on a material support; it needs perception, the empirical, the representation, nuances and, last but not least, justification.
The "civilization of the image", beginning at the end of the 60's, assumes the part of delimitating and understanding the effect of the images, inseparable of the metaphysical, epistemological, aesthetic and ethical considerations. Judging an image cannot be realistic if it does not calculate the place taken by it in the intellectual, affective and social life of the individual.
The image of Isaac Julien captures a different set of nuances, and goes beyond representation/ form/ vision. It is self-exposed. The British artist manages to shatter all the barriers between the various media (film, photography, music, theatre, painting etc.) and to unify them in a personal vision, building very strong images with disjunctive stories. His video-installations are spectacular explorations of the popular mythologies, of history, racism and cultural differentiation.
His most recent installations, Baltimore and Paradise Omeros (the latter presented also at Documenta XI) discuss these explorations. Each of them, filmed in different locations (Baltimore at the Walter Art Museum, the Peabody Institute and the Wax Museum, and Paradise Omeros in St. Lucia and London), with different characters and opposing situations, brings forth a mutually shared concept: the racial differences, the racially polarized societies, the meaning of being white or black.
Baltimore discusses one of Isaac Julien's favorite themes: breaking the intercultural differences, especially the racial ones. Inspired from his recent documentary, Baadasssss Cinema, Baltimore lends the style, language and iconography of the movies which discuss the African-American exploitation and reinterprets it, questioning the definition of artwork itself.
The series opens up with the presentation of the periphery streets from the American city of Baltimore. On three video screens, one can see the main characters, Melvin Van Peebles (the famous actor) and Vanessa Myrie, who walk in the streets. The focus moves from the characters to the objects they see: the Renaissance painting at the Walter Museum, the architecture of the Peabody Institute building and the celebrity portraits from the Great Blacks exhibition at the Wax Museum. Julien's camera follows the progress of the characters, the places the visit, with the obvious purpose to break the walls of the buildings, to discover the archetypes and the social codes of the city. The movement of the characters evokes the symbolic passage beyond space and time, in a real urban environment. By means of extraordinary special effects, Isaac Julien creates a cyclic narrative, in which his characters are followed by the camera, and end up following themselves.
The narrative switches then to a museum, where past, present and future are condensed in an identical temporal dimension. Time does not mean anything anymore. The museum becomes a concept, a place of selective memories, a space of culture with no limits dictated by race, social class, religion or sex. The entrance in the wax museum transforms the female character in a cyborg that starts following Van Peebles. Immediately, the focus changes on the wax figures (Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and Billie Holiday), lining against the Renaissance paintings of the Walters Art Gallery, as if studying the artwork. The strong images emphasize the dichotomy black vs. white.
Baltimore is a surrealist allegory which discusses race, social class, history, the "blaxploitation". A composed, absurd movie which creates a temporal nearness between two cultural traditions: the reverent, sacred, museum-like one, and the realistic, urban one.
Paradise Omeros. A sensuous movie, containing a lot of antagonism, and talking about loss of identity, globalization, racism, homosexuality, the condition of the immigrant. It is the luxuriant evocation of the experience of a black man forced to leave St. Lucia to go to London, a narrative on three video-projectors, a sum of allusions to the presence of this man in a world of blacks and whites.
Achille, the main character (inspired from the poem Omeros by Derek Walcott), undergoes a set of transformations, the passage in different worlds, oscillations: the image of the child (which opens the film) is suddenly replaced by his image as an adult, on the St. Lucia beach. During the movie, there is a permanent shift between these two worlds, his childhood in St. Lucia and his adulthood in London. The worlds of the character materialize and become real geographic spaces: he goes from a luxuriant and lively St. Lucia dimension to the sad, gray London of the sixties, imbued with the hope for a better life. Achille is black and gay. He is an aborigine, but also an immigrant. Taking recourse to memory, the main character deconstructs and reconstructs himself during the projection.
Paradise Omeros is the story of Kirkegaard's "being". It is the refusal of the individual to live, to pay attention to personal emotions, fear, guilt, anxiety. By a specific procedure reminding Plato's anamnesis, the main character takes recourse to memory as a justification of his existence, and his (black) body as a prison: he has no other option but to live within it, hoping for a better life. But London is not that better life. One of the strongest and most emotional scenes is the party at his parents' place, when the father hits Acchile because the refuses to speak English. Does he turn down assimilation? Forgetting? Or maybe he loves that sublime mixture of French, English and local dialect, that sublime combination of white and black? The party scene overlaps in the character's memories with violence. Aggression is replaced by dance. Suddenly, the scene breaks and we see St. Lucia again, with its luxurious vegetation, while a voice says: "I was a lost soul", with a strong emotional load.
The end? An explosion of feelings, a game of ambiguity. A wall which separates the two boys, the two worlds and cultures. On one hand, the black Acchile, on the other hand, another white character, are felt by Isaac Julien to confront each other, violently and erotically.
Isaac Julien takes the movie out of the cinematographical world and moves it to art galleries, appealing to the resources of cinematography and ultimately adjusting its rules. "The difference between a movie and video installation seems irrelevant to me" states the artist. Classical cinematography prefers to divide the screen instead of multiplying it, while Isaac Julien (like Abel Gance in Napoleon, 1927) multiplies the screen in order to put together a number of points of view, in a poetic and not a didactical manner.
Text first published in artphoto no. 5/2004.