Born in London, Isaac Julien studied painting and fine art film at St Martin’s School of Art. Nominated for the Turner Prize in 2001, he has been awarded numerous prizes, including the Semaine de la Critique Prize at Cannes, the Performa Award, and the Frameline Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2003 he won the Grand Jury Prize at the Kunstfilm Biennale in Cologne for his single screen version of Baltimore; in 2008, he received a Special Teddy for Derek, at the Berlin International Film Festival. He is Chair of Global Art at UAL and faculty member at the Whitney Museum of American Arts.
Julien has had solo shows across the world including the Pompidou Centre, MOCA Miami, Kestnergesellschaft, the Museu Nacional de Arte Contemporânea do Chiado, and SESC Pompeia. His work is represented in public and private collections including those of MoMA, Tate Modern, the National Museum of Norway and the Louis Vuitton Art Foundation.
Who or what first inspired you to become an artist?
My introduction to art dates back to my early teens in London. It came about through a combination of events, people I met, and things I was seeking. What really started to change things for me was my O-level art class as there I had a set of extraordinary teachers—people whose conversations opened up a brand-new world. Growing up and living in the East End at that time also meant I came across so many different kinds of people that exposed me to oppositional and bohemian culture: artists, academics, activists, gays, punks, musicians, leftists, feminists, the list goes on.
I was already convinced I wanted to go to art school, so I did a pre-foundation course at City & East London College. That was when I made my first real video, called How Gays Are Stereotyped in the Media: where I cut out models and pages from Gay Left magazine, then added an analysis of the gay subtext in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope.
In all the uprisings and eruptions of the 1980s I saw that kind of powerful, dissident energy over and over. It was then that I made the choice to do Fine Art/Film at St. Martin’s School of Art. When I started there, I could count the other black students there on one hand. So the spring of ‘81 also marked my first encounters with experimental film, which I first saw as very exclusive and elitist. Nevertheless, its painterly aspects and its indexical relationship to the real fascinated me. I wanted to produce work that could potentially break down preconceptions of what “film” should traditionally be.
What are you working on at the moment?
Since 2012 I have been working on a project concerning the life, work and influence of Lina Bo Bardi: Italian born Brazilian modernist architect. The project will take form in a film and installation and looks closely at Bo Bardi’s practice as an interdisciplinary one, between art and architecture, rather than as a collection of disparate and discrete interests. The first iteration of the project was a poster for a film ‘The Ghost of Lina Bo Bardi’ and a performative-casting.
What are you most passionate about?
To put it simply: my family, my friends and my work.
Name a favourite book, song and film
In terms of literature, music or films that I love it would be near impossible to name one single work!
For each of my projects we begin by amassing a library of texts and publications that have resonated with me. For PLAYTIME, one of my most recent film installations, I read David Harvey, Stuart Hall (both of whom appear in KAPITAL, an accompanying work), Gaspar Tamas, Mark Fisher, John Lanchester, Sarah Thornon and Noah Horowitz.
So there are separate influences and touchstones for each project but also long term influences. I’m lucky that I’ve been able to work with many of them in some way, from Derek Walcott in Paradise Omeros to Stuart Hall in The Attendant.
Historic filmmakers include: Derek Jarman, Henri-George Clouzot, Jean-Luc Godard, Jean Genet and Jacques Tati amongst many, many others.
In terms of songs that mean something to me, I grew up with music as an important cultural expression. Early on, I identified myself as a ‘soulboy’. This meant you were interested in funk music and you collected records. It denoted something exciting to me about the advancement of black cultures and particularly of black America, something that was being represented through the music.
Also, I think my love of dance and movement actually comes from James Brown. Certainly it came from the idea that when you’re dancing, then you really mean something. You’re producing meaning, both in movement and in that core response to musicality—in all its tonal, atonal, and rhythmic aspects.
For me, rhythm is central to the creation of structure. After all, a central reconciliation of funk is the sense that there’s no conflict between beauty and politics. Funk manages to contain both things in one—and that’s where I think what I do relates to music. I feel my work is a translation of that same impulse into a different arena.
Do you think University of the Arts London has an important role to play in Britain’s cultural life?
Absolutely, I’ve mentioned to you already just how much my own time at St. Martin’s School of Art really impacted on who I am today as an artist and as an individual. Needless to say, one’s time as an art student can be incredibly formative; there is a real wealth and diversity of different resources around you from your fellow peers to your professors. Of course, it this then has it’s wider significance in British cultural life as it gives possibility and opens up new horizons to a next generation of artists, makers and thinkers centered in London.
Another thing that I think is incredibly special about the University of Arts London is that it works to preserve and make available significant periods of contemporary and historical culture through a wide range of archives and special collections held across its the six colleges. The collections include work relating to fashion, publications, printing, film, performance, typography… and so the list goes on. Research, archives and access to historical material are greatly important to the production of new and progressive work and ideas, and something evidently that my practice could not have done without.
University of Arts London is the largest postgraduate arts and design community in Europe, its alumni list is truly extraordinary and I think that says an unprecedented amount about how it’s shaped cultural life in Britain.
Tell us more about your vision as Chair of Global Art
A role in an academic institution is something that I cherish and take very seriously. Having held professorial positions at Harvard University and Staatliche Hoscschule fur Gestaltung Karlsruhe, Germany, being able to connect to students and invest in their academic experience is something I see as truly an honour.
My vision is to use my research and practice as an independent filmmaker and visual artist to encourage conversation and questions around the institutional and ideological landscape of contemporary art and culture in a global context. In the last decades, the increasing complexity of political, economic, and social relationships worldwide continues to shape art and culture. As art markets take on different roles in different places, while they themselves become the subject matter of a steadily diversifying range of academic disciplines, what I wish to share with students is an engagement of how images can play a critical role in shaping our understanding of the world.
I would like to work closely with students on studio visits and gallery tours to discuss completed work and works in progress. In addition, I plan to arrange higher profile talks with some of the most interesting minds in art, critical theory and film.
My studio is home to a significant archive of material related not just to my career but everything from the beginnings of cultural studies in the UK, the workshops of the 80s, gay issues, the emergence of moving image work in the gallery and so on. I would be happy to invite dedicated students researching these areas to view and make use of my archive.
UAL recently visited South Korea, could you share your insights about the creative scene there?
As ‘Chair of Global Art’ at University of Arts, London I wholeheartedly encourage and support the relationship between the University and cultural, artistic and academic centers in South Korea.
In 2012, Tate held an important conference on contemporary research in to East Asian visual culture; giving a platform to current critical discourse around the increasingly prominent South Korean cultural landscape against the social, economic and political shifts that have taken place as a result of globalisation. This important step in our growing understanding in Britain of East Asian visual culture is inseparable to the fact that over the past 20 years a robust art scene has come to the fore in South Korea. There are outstanding museum spaces, major corporate and private collections, prominent commercial galleries and experimental artist-run spaces. The development of institutions such as the four sites that make up the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA) is just one iteration of the scale of the South Korea’s extraordinary investment in to collecting, preserving and exhibiting.
The country also plays host to two of the worlds most significant and influential Biennials in the cities of Gwangju and Busan. Having shown my works Baltimore at the Busan Biennale 2004 (Tae-Man Choi and Manu Park) and Western Union: Small Boats at the Gwangju Biennale 2008 (Okwui Enwezor) my own experience as an artist of South Korea’s cultural landscape is that above all it is sophisticated, very aware, and largely committed to defying leveling effects of mass culture. With the support of Fondation d’entreprise Hermès, in 2011 the Atelier Hermès in Seoul displayed a solo exhibition of my work, Ten Thousand Waves. The experience of spending some time in South Korea and working with an organisation such as that was one that I really value.
Indeed, the vibrancy and energy that defines the South Korean cultural scene is truly exceptional. As the country grows to be an epicenter for research and innovation in new technologies, contemporary artistic practice largely embraces this but does not necessarily forgo a diligent understanding of national and cultural historicism, and questions around where to place traditional values in the present day. It is a scene that grew from and is embedded in shifting terrains: it is therefore as progressive as it is diverse. Whilst artistic practices traverse multiple traditions and aesthetics, South Korean artists demonstrate a dexterity of material and distinctive approaches to the fluidity of collective and individual identity: its interactions and permutations.
As an individual whose artistic practice is concerned with film and video, my personal tie to South Korea is the inspiration I took from artists such as Nam June Paik, born in Seoul. To me he was an artist, frantic and dissonant, who dared to imagine a future where today’s technologies exist. His influence on contemporary South Korean artists is incontestable and indeed many choose to work with film, video and new media. It is exciting and it is important for those in the artistic sector in Britain to look outside themselves, to form connections and to truly engage with their contemporaries in countries such as South Korea.
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