ISAAC JULIEN

Known for his pioneering multichannel videography, Julien transports audiences into extravagant dreamscapes, from remote Icelandic caves, to baroque Italian Palazzos and the pristine Sicilian coastline, weaving through convergent themes of displacement, migration and climate change and creating a rich tapestry which oozes visual luxury and sensuality.

After representing Britain at the 56th Venice Biennale of Art in 2015, Isaac brought his exhibition Isaac Julien: Refuge, to Australian shores. The piece de resistance, Stones Against Diamonds, was filmed inside Europe’s largest glacier and based on a letter by the famous Italian architect Lina Bo Bardi. The work reveals the rapid acceleration of climate change and questions our value of material possessions over natural resources.

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our work Stones Against Diamonds, is based on a letter that Lina Bo Bardi penned to her husband, in which she states her preference for rough cut stones over diamonds. How did you come across this letter and why were you so fascinated by it?

 In 2012 I was invited to exhibit in Rio by a curator called Solange Farkas. I came across this amazing institution which Lina Bo Bardi designed called SESC Pompeia – it’s a little bit like a tropical Haywood Gallery with very brutalist architecture and organic shapes. The more I researched Lina Bo Bardi the more I became more fascinated by her life and her work, her buildings, her sonographies for theatre, her exhibition, jewellery and furniture design, the list goes on. She’s a woman architect who wasn’t really recognised the way that she should’ve been. I’m a real fan of hers and I’m interested in exposing her work to a younger generation. Stones Against Diamonds is sort of like an unconscious dream reverie; a meditation of Lina Bo Bardi’s works juxtaposed with the issue of global warming and the fact that the most fragile of objects can be the most beautiful. These caves exist because of global warming and the ice is literally melting around you, you can hear the cracks. So it’s literally a representation of the effects of global warming and what’s happening to our planet.

 

You went on a quite a journey to the Icelandic cave which your 50 strong crew to film Stones Against Diamonds. Did you have a fair idea of what you wanted to artwork to be beforehand or did it evolve with the journey? What were some of the challenges you faced?

Well I think there’s a certain artistic licence that I was taking with Lina Bo Bardi’s letter and when you are making work of such a large scale, it is a work that evolves as you go along. There were some things which were quite technically complicated like installing the Lina Bo Bardi’s famous staircase in the ice cave and then of course having the glass easels inserted into the ice cave. As I’m sure you can imagine, some of the crew looked at me rather oddly when I was suggesting these things. When I first told the executive producer I wanted to film in an ice cave, she said to me ‘you are crazy’ and I must admit that half way through the shoot I thought to myself that I probably was. It was impossible to get the crew insured. Also the weather in Iceland is really affected by climate change. It was consistently stormy and the cave was at least 400 miles away from Reykjavík. It took about 10 days in all. It was only supposed to take five but it got extended because of the difficult weather.

The thing that was the most shocking was that of course I’d been to film in that area in 2004, and when I went ten years later in 2015 which is ten years later, the volcanic beach was completely covered with glacier formations. I thought there was something so disturbing about seeing this kind of complete occupation of the ice on the beach. The glaciers have receded dramatically.

“Climate change, the movement of people, they are all the questions that are very pertinent. People call it the ‘Anthropocene’ actually. In some ways, I guess I wanted to do it so I could show people that these spaces are really changing.”

From left: Western Union, Small Boats, 2007. Stones Against Diamonds, 2015.

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s that why you wanted to create this work, to show people the dramatic effects of climate change?

Well it is, but I guess what I’m trying to do is use these different themes which are in the work – there’s references in a more metaphoric way to Lina Bo Bardi but then there is a question of nature and the environment and in these works, whether it’s the cave with Lina Bo Bardi’s footsteps or the ice cave in Iceland or people in their boats – these environmental questions are there resonating with us.

Climate change, the movement of people, they are all the questions that are very pertinent. People call it the ‘Anthropocene’ actually. In some ways, I guess I wanted to do it so I could show people that these spaces are really changing.

 

Western Union, Small Boats, a video work exploring the gruelling passage made by African people to southern Italy via boat, was made almost a decade before the refugee crisis really came into the eye of the world media. Were you trying to issue a warning?

 At the time the work was really looking at the fact that these were not large vessels that were crossing – its nothing like the kind of thing which is happening today. I was trying to look at the infiltration of northern African culture in Sicily and how that was starting to shift the sense of traditional Italian identity. When I shot the work, a very young camera assistant had a t-shirt of Sicily and it had north Africa on as opposed to southern Italy. It was very ironic. So, the Sicilians had this very interesting view of what was happening to their culture. They were really at the forefront of the refugee crisis, and in a way, the world ignored it.

“I like using choreography as a language that can articulate a different message around these questions, which we otherwise might be quite bored by if we read in a newspaper. I’m interested in finding new ways of identifying with facts and figures. It’s quite difficult because I think we have become quite numb to them.”

Stones Against Diamonds, 2015

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hy the fascination with Italy?

In the history of art and culture, Italy is so important. It’s a liminal space between the south and west, north and south. Also my mother comes from the Caribbean so we used to go to Italy for vacation and so I witnessed these changes. All of these things were really present for me. I only discovered later that Lina Bo Bardi was Italian despite living in Brazil for many years, so that’s another thread that ties in.

 

Why are you interested in using so much choreography and performance?

Would you use choreography as a way of describing migration patterns? Probably not. I’ve always been interested in choreography, even before the art world was. I like using choreography as a language that can articulate a different message around these questions, which we otherwise might be quite bored by if we read in a newspaper. I’m interested in finding new ways of identifying with facts and figures. It’s quite difficult because I think we have become quite numb to them. It’s really a different way of connecting with people, in a more unconscious fashion.