Artists in lockdown Q&A: Isaac Julien

Over the past year we have learned to organize our daily life in a different way. A lot has changed for artists too: there were no – or fewer – opportunities to exhibit work, while a lot of time was spent in the studio. How do artists shape the changing world? In the Artist in lockdown-series, we’ll talk to our artists about their experiences during the pandemic. Today’s Q&A with: Isaac Julien.

“Now we are also less prone to take things for granted and, hopefully, a bit more inclined to deal with complexity.”

How has life been during lockdown? Has it been a time of solitude or has it brought you and your family closer together?
Needless to say, life under lockdown has been very strange. I am partly based in the West Coast of the USA since I was offered the position of Distinguished Professor of the Arts at University of California Santa Cruz. In normal times, that would involve me and my partner living in California for a few months each year, but the pandemic forced us to stay for the whole year and it’s been hard to be away from London for such a long period of time, so many miles away from my family, many of my friends, my main studio. So I try to focus on the positives: I believe I have been relatively fortunate for not yet being affected by the pandemic in any tragic way and for being able to keep myself busy with a number of exciting projects, such as my solo exhibition Lina Bo Bardi: A Marvellous Entanglement at MAXXI in Rome and Lessons of the Hour at the McEvoy Foundation for the Arts in San Francisco. In this period I have also curated two galleries of the Royal Academy Summer/Winter Exhibition as tribute to late curator Okwui Enwezor.

Did the lockdown alter your vision of the world?
I believe lockdowns, and even some less restrictive forms of response to this pandemic, have changed everybody’s worldview. Of course, different groups are affected in different ways, but lockdowns have changed the way we do things, reshaped the way we communicate, the manners we express ourselves, the means to carry out projects… This happening in tandem with other major historical events has forced some form of global reckoning. Now we are also less prone to take things for granted and, hopefully, a bit more inclined to deal with complexity.

How did the lockdown affect your art practice?
Filming would be impossible at this time. Maybe the gods were looking down on me in 2019, because I had the kind of mad intention of making these two gigantic projects — “A Marvellous Entanglement,” on the architect Lina Bo Bardi, and “Lessons of the Hour,” on Frederick Douglass — and I did. That has meant that 2020 has been the kind of year with more exhibitions and my making single-screen versions of work, so a time when it’s more postproduction. If I had not done that, this would be very disruptive. There really are some things you can continue doing while social distancing, and there are some things that you cannot. For instance, I had to oversee the production of the two aforementioned solo exhibitions in Rome and San Francisco (not to mention installations in a few other group shows), in a completely remote way. I had teams, from my studio and my AV specialists from Finland, working closely with me while collaborating with the institutions’ teams. Still, it was big change in the way I normally do things, since I am very keen on the detail and make several fine adjustments as we install. That wasn’t possible at this time, so it involved an additional degree of anxiety – but also the joy of seeing our teamwork excel! Also, since research and theory are part of my practice as well, online activities had an effect: my teaching at University of California Santa Cruz has moved online, as also did the public talks and conversations I would normally have at museums, galleries, universities.


Could you tell me more about one specific work you created during lockdown?
MAXXI, in Rome, has an amazing building designed by Zaha Hadid. It is, however, very challenging in terms of how the exhibitions dialogue with the various spaces. To respond to that challenge, I developed a series of new photo collages especially for that venue. The area available was huge, so it was the first time that I explored large-dimension collages, of around 5 x 6 meters, installed as wallpapers. Of course, I could only see them installed via mobile cameras and photos, but I was very happy with the result. My photo collages are created by playing with forms from my photographic works and different colours, materials and textures. As a result in Rome, there was this very interesting dialogue created between the architecture of Zaha Hadid and Lina Bo Bardi (who’s, so to speak, the theme of the series I was showing) through my own visual poetics. As you can see, there were some silver linings to this terrible period.

What do you think about the surge of online activities during lockdown? Besides negative experiences, like being unable to see art in real life, were there any positive experiences? Is there a specific initiative that inspired you?
I confess that the amount of online events I’m involved in is overwhelming. I had around thirty online events since the first lockdown (!), in addition to my two weekly classes at UCSC and the several sessions related to my other projects and the many boards I am a member of. Despite the fact that it is really hard to keep up with demand, I’m happy that the dense programme of webinars and e-talks seem to indicate that people are more engaged than ever in discussing and reflecting. Also, it’s great to be able to redistribute moving image art on social media platforms and to introduce works to new audiences. Video art and media works gained quite a momentum on social-media platforms. I realized that a lot of the video artworks that one makes — they become, in a way, connected to the time when they were made. People have the memory and social media captures the moment. Viewers were really excited, and this made me think about the possibility of how those works could live in a different capacity. When we have an exhibition of work showing in a museum, maybe we can have a single-screen version on social media simultaneously and think about both platforms as exhibition spaces.

What will 2021 bring us?
One of my upcoming projects to excite me the most is to finally show my film installation and photographic series Lessons of the Hour – Frederick Douglass in the United Kingdom. We are also producing a large publication dedicated to the piece and Douglass, and a new project with various institutions, to premiere at Sharjah Biennale in 2022. Also, the Guggenheim Bilbao will be showing Lina Bo Bardi – A Marvellous Entanglement later this year, which is also a wonderful prospect. There are a few other major projects which I’m enormously excited about and will announce soon.


ABOUT Isaac Julien

Sir Isaac Julien KBE RA (GB, 1960), a London-born filmmaker and installation artist, is celebrated for his groundbreaking approach to art, seamlessly merging film, dance, photography, music, theater, painting, and sculpture to craft compelling visual narratives through multi-screen film installations. Notably, his 1989 documentary-drama “Looking for Langston” and the Cannes Film Festival Semaine de la Critique prize-winning debut feature, “Young Soul Rebels” (1991), garnered critical acclaim on a global scale.

Julien’s international acclaim extends to prestigious solo exhibitions at prominent venues, including the Barnes Foundation, Smith College Museum of Art, and Bechtler Museum of Modern Art. His works have graced the walls of renowned institutions such as the Museum of Modern Art and the Art Institute of Chicago.

In addition to his artistic pursuits, Julien has made significant contributions to academia, holding key positions at institutions like the University of Arts London and Staatliche Hoscschule fur Gestaltung, Karlsruhe. His educational efforts were further recognized when he was awarded the James Robert Brudner ’83 Memorial Prize and delivered lectures at Yale University in 2016.

Isaac Julien’s dedication to the arts has earned him distinguished accolades, including The Royal Academy of Arts Charles Wollaston Award in 2017 and a knighthood as part of Queen Elizabeth II’s Honours List in 2022. Furthermore, he was honored with the esteemed Kaiserring Goslar Award in 2022.

In April 2023, Tate Britain hosted a comprehensive survey show, presenting Isaac Julien’s illustrious career. This exhibition featured works spanning four decades, encompassing early films and expansive multi-screen installations that delve into the themes of global movement and history. It marked the first-ever presentation of Isaac Julien’s extensive body of work in the United Kingdom. Following its showcase at Tate Britain, the exhibition traveled to K21 in Düsseldorf, with its next destination set to be Bonnefanten in Maastricht, where it will be open for viewing from March 9 onwards.