NRC – Isaac Julien

NRC | Sandra Smets | 1 december 2016

Nude men in bed, stroking chests, legs and bottoms 
Isaac Julien made a velvety smooth film on homosexuality, in which he posthumously pulls civil-rights activist and poet Langston Hughes out of the closet.

Black and gay, that was a step too far. Human rights discussions during the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920’s concerned racism, and did not also include homosexuality. This Harlem Renaissance celebrated African-American culture, but anti-racist poets such as Langston Hughes were unable to come out of the closet.

This was astounding to British artist Isaac Julien, who devoted a film to this theme in 1989: Looking for Langston. Within this film, his camera descends into a world of dancing without daylight, but with beautiful dark men in evening clothes, sipping on champagne. Blues and Jazz resound, invitations for ‘Negro Art’ appear on screen. The camera swivels from close-up to close-up, to nude men in bed, stroking chests, legs and bottoms. Words by Hughes resound, who is pulled out of the closet posthumously, while he translates the homosexual taboo to a film filled with unspoken desire.

Covered in sensuality, the film is a pleasure to watch. Julien combines archival material of New York traffic with his own scenes that contain the same graininess, all of it velvety smooth. The then young Julien created a film classic that became curriculum material in academic circles. In the meantime, the film is clearly visual art: everything concerns texture, touch, skin and the ‘gaze’, the homo-erotic glance. Cigarette smoke from the dancing mixes with the fumes of the metro and the incense of a church where a wake takes place, inspired by the death of Julien’s friend. When he made the film, the homo-scene was struck by aids, and Julien was constantly at funerals.

Archival material, photo’s, film and some less convincing newer work is seen at Ron Mandos. A book by Langston Hughes lies in the vitrine: ‘Let America be America again’. But what kind of America? Since Trump’s election, criticism ensued that minorities and the LGBTQ movement chased the great white masses to Trump with their identity politics. The subtext was to be a little quieter. But silence hurts, the film makes that very clear. That can’t be the answer. Although it does deliver beautiful art.

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ABOUT Isaac Julien

Filmmaker and installation artist, Isaac Julien CBE RA, was born in 1960 in London, where he currently lives and works. His multi-screen film installations and photographs incorporate different artistic disciplines to create a poetic and unique visual language. His 1989 documentary-drama exploring author Langston Hughes and the Harlem Renaissance titled Looking for Langston garnered Julien a cult following while his 1991 debut feature Young Soul Rebels won the Semaine de la Critique prize at the Cannes Film Festival.

Having recently worked on conserving and restoring Looking for Langston images from his extensive archive, he exhibited of photographic works at Victoria Miro Gallery, London (2017), Jessica Silverman Gallery, San Francisco (2016) and Ron Mandos Gallery, Amsterdam (2016) with a screening of the film in its original 16mm print at Tate Britain.

Julien’s solo exhibitions and presentations include Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (Zeitz MOCAA), Cape Town (2017); Platform-L Contemporary Art Centre, Seoul (2017); The Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto (2017); Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris (2016); MAC Niterói, Rio de Janeiro (2016); Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo (MUAC), Mexico City (2016); De Pont Museum, Netherlands (2015); Museum of Modern Art, New York (2013); Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago (2013); The Bass Museum, Miami (2010); Museum Brandhorst, Munich (2009); Museum of Modern Art, Dublin (2005); Centre Pompidou, Paris (2005) and Moderna Museet, Stockholm (2005). His latest work, Stones Against Diamonds, was shown in 2015 as part of the Rolls-Royce Art Programme at the Venice Biennale, at Art Basel and Art Basel Miami Beach.

Julien participated in the Venice Biennale at the inaugural Diaspora Pavilion at the 57th edition in 2017 with Western Union: Small Boats. Previously, he presented Kapital and directed Das Kapital Oratorio in the 56th edition of the Venice Biennale, curated by Okwui Enwezor, in 2015. His work has also been exhibited in the 7th Gwangju Biennial, South Korea (2008); Prospect 1, New Orleans (2008); Performa 07, New York (2007) and in documenta 11, Kassel (2002).

Julien’s work is held in collections that include: Tate, London; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; Centre Pompidou, Paris; the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington DC; the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York; Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris; the LUMA Foundation, Arles; the Kramlich Collection; the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art (Zeitz MOCAA), Cape Town. In 2016 the Towner Art Gallery Collection (Eastbourne, UK) acquired Ten Thousand Waves (2010) as part of a Moving Image Fund program. Ten Thousand Waves, a globally acclaimed multiple screen installation work, premiered at the 2010 Sydney Biennale and has gone on to be exhibited extensively – recently at Platform-L in Seoul (2017) and Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris (2016) as well as the Museum of Modern Art, New York in 2013, with whom he also published a comprehensive monographic survey of his life and work, titled ‘Riot’.

Julien has taught extensively, holding posts such as Chair of Global Art at University of Arts London (2014-2016) and Professor of Media Art at Staatliche Hoscschule fur Gestaltung, Karlsruhe, Germany (2008 – 2016). He is the recipient of the James Robert Brudner ‘83 Memorial Prize and Lectures at Yale University (2016). Most recently he received the Charles Wollaston Award (2017), for most distinguished work at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition and in 2018, he was made a Royal Academician. Julien was awarded the title Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE) in the Queen’s birthday honours, 2017.