Isaac Julien is as acclaimed for his fluent, arresting films as for his vibrant and inventive gallery installations. One of the objectives of his work is to break down the barriers that exist between different artistic disciplines, drawing from and commenting on film, dance, photography, music, theatre, painting and sculpture, and uniting them to construct a powerfully visual narrative.
Julien came to prominence in the film world with his 1989 drama-documentary Looking for Langston, gaining a cult following with this poetic exploration of Langston Hughes and the Harlem Renaissance. During the past three decades he has made work largely, though not exclusively, for galleries and museums, using multi-screen installations to express fractured narratives exploring memory and desire. Julien's major film installations include the seven-screen PLAYTIME (2014), which explores the dramatic and nuanced subject of financial capital. Starring an international roster of actors including Maggie Cheung, Mercedes Cabral and James Franco, PLAYTIME comprises three chapters set across three cities defined by their relationship to capital: London, a city transformed by the deregulation of banks; Reykjavik, where the 2008 crisis began; and Dubai, one of the Middle East's burgeoning financial markets. Part documentary and part fiction, the work interconnects major figures in the world of art and finance with the real stories of those deeply affected by the crisis and the global flow of capital.
Julien's critically-acclaimed nine-screen film installation Ten Thousand Waves, 2010, explores China's ancient past and rapidly transforming present through a series of interlocking narratives. Starring, among others, Maggie Cheung, the legendary siren of Chinese cinema, and filmed on location in the ravishing and remote Guangxi province and at the famous Shanghai Film Studios and various sites around Shanghai, TEN THOUSAND WAVES combines fact, fiction and film essay genres against a background of Chinese history, legend and landscape to create a meditation on global human migrations. Through formal experimentation and a series of unique collaborations, Julien seeks to engage with Chinese culture through contemporary events, ancient myths and artistic practice. The original inspiration for TEN THOUSAND WAVES was the Morecambe Bay tragedy of 2004, in which 23 Chinese cockle-pickers died. In response to this event, Julien commissioned the poet Wang Ping to come to England and write Small Boats, a poem that is recited in the work. In the successive years, Julien has spent time in China slowly coming to understand the country and its people's perspectives and developing the relationships that have enabled him to undertake this rich and multifaceted work.
Earlier audio-visual installations range from Baltimore (2003), which, in part through the stylisations of black action movies from the 1970s, looks at the histories, divisions and intersections of black and white cultures, through to his trilogy comprising True North (2004), FantAfrique (2005) and Western Union: Small Boats (2007), all of which deal with themes of voyaging and cultural displacement on both a local and global scale.
In 2015 Julien directed a series of readings and performances as a pivotal component of the exhibition 'All the World's Futures', curated by Okwui Enwezor as Artistic Director of the 56th Venice Biennale; the cornerstone of this programme was a continuous live reading of all three volumes of Karl Marx's Das Kapital throughout the exhibition's seven month duration. Other significant projects by the artist include the devising and curation of a very personal selection of work by the late artist and filmmaker Derek Jarman (2008); he has also worked in collaboration with choreographer Russell Maliphant to create the multimedia dance event Cast No Shadow (2007).
In 2019, the world premiere of Julien's Lessons of the Hour - Frederick Douglass took place at Memorial Art Gallery, University of Rochester. The work is a meditation on the life, words, and actions of Frederick Douglass (1818-1895), the visionary African American abolitionist and freed slave, and on the issues of social justice that shaped his life's work.
The nine-screen installation Lina Bo Bardi - A Marvellous Entanglement premiered at Victoria Miro in 2019. Reflecting on the iconic work and on the legacy of the visionary modernist architect and designer (1914-1992), it traverses a collection of Lina Bo Bardi's most iconic buildings, featuring artists and personal acquaintances of Bo Bardi's, such as actor, director, playwright and co-founder of SPaulo's Teatro Oficina, José Celso Martinez Corrêa (known as Zé Celso). Starring the acclaimed Brazilian actresses Fernanda Montenegro and her daughter Fernanda Torres, A Marvellous Entanglement portrays Bo Bardi at different stages of her life, as Montenegro and Torres recite texts closely adapted from the architect's writings.
Born in 1960, Isaac Julien lives and works in London. He has been making films and producing film installations for over twenty years, including Lina Bo Bardi - A Marvellous Entanglement (2019), Lessons of the Hour - Frederick Douglass (2019), Stones Against Diamonds (2015), PLAYTIME (2014), Ten Thousand Waves (2010), Western Union: Small Boats (2007), FantAfrique (2005), True North (2004), Baltimore (2003), Paradise Omeros (2002), Vagabondia (2000), and Long Road to Mazatlan (1999).
Recent international solo and group exhibitions include: Isaac Julien: Western Union: Small Boats, Neuberger Museum, New York (2020); Masculinities: Liberation through Photography?, Barbican Art Gallery, London, travelling to Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin, among others (2020); Baltimore at the Baltimore Museum of Art (2019-2020); Isaac Julien: Frederick Douglass: Lessons of the Hour, ?SCAD Museum of Art, Savannah (2019; Looking for Langston at Tate Britain (2019); Playtime at LACMA (2019); Black Refractions: Highlights from the Studio Museum in Harlem at the Gibbes Museum (2019). Also in 2019, Julien's Playtime was featured as part of Ruby City's inaugural programme.
Previously, Julien has had solo exhibitions at venues including ARoS Aarhus Kunstmuseum, Denmark (2018); The Whitworth, Manchester (2018); The Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto (2017); MAC Niterói, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (2016), MUAC (Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo), Mexico City (2016); the De Pont Museum, Netherlands (2015); Museum of Modern Art, New York (2013), Art Institute of Chicago (2013), Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego (2012), Nasjonalmuseet, Oslo (2012), Bass Museum, Miami, Florida, USA (2010), Museum Brandhorst, Munich (2009), Museu Nacional de Arte Contempor- Museu do Chiado, Lisbon, Portugal (2008), Kestnergesellschaft Hanover (2006), Pompidou Centre Paris (2005), and MoCA Miami (2005).
Julien was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) for services to the Arts in the Queen's Birthday 2017 Honours List, and is the recipient of The Royal Academy of Arts Charles Wollaston Award 2017.
In 2019, Julien was appointed to the faculty of the University of California, Santa Cruz. Julien and independent curator and writer Mark Nash, the former head of contemporary art at the Royal College of Art in London, will work together on developing the Isaac Julien Lab at the UC Santa Cruz campus, which will provide students with the opportunity to assist Julien and Nash with project research and the production of moving-image and photographic works in California and London.