Isaac Julien videos explore the sublime at MAM

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In a dark gallery at the Milwaukee Art Museum, three large screens glow with the projection of a video. A tall black woman swathed in heavy clothes makes her way across a vast icy, landscape of rocks, snow and sky. The screens show her near and far while a low, rumbling soundtrack accompanies her journey.

This is just one moment of an exploration and exposition of the sublime, a meditation on awesome beauty and ruggedness of physical land, a rumination on deep questions of identity within ourselves and the strands that connect us through history and culture.

The video is “True North,” by out London-based artist Isaac Julien. The 12-minute piece, shown on a continuous basis, is the first in a trilogy of Julien’s exploration videos to be on view in coming weeks at the Milwaukee Art Museum.

The exhibition of these three videos – “True North” (2004), “Fantôme Afrique” (2005), and “Western Union: Small Boats” (2007)) – is quite notable. Milwaukee will be the first institution to show all of these related works sequentially. They function powerfully on their own, but we will have the opportunity to explore them works over time. The third video is newly acquired by MAM.

Julien’s work has often focused on issues of identity, sexuality, gender, and politics. His award-winning 1988 film “Looking for Langston” delved into the life of Langston Hughes, a gay African-American poet associated with the Harlem Renaissance. “True North” takes inspiration from the journey of Matthew Henson, an African-American explorer who was part of Robert Peary’s party. Organized in 1909, Peary’s expedition was to be the first to reach the North Pole. Though Peary was formally declared in 1911 to have been the first man to reach this remote point, it is most probable that Henson was actually the first.

Narration from Henson’s biography is incorporated in the video soundtrack as we watch the journey of Julien’s protagonist, performed by Vanessa Myrie. She appears in various forms, as a figure of contemporary life, as a kitted-out explorer, and as an ethereal vision in flowing white garb on a cold, stony beach. Throughout, she is self-possessed, usually alone but without a sense of loneliness.

The notion of searching, of exploring the footsteps of history, truth and personal quest, underlie her poised demeanor, even in the most treacherous of landscapes. At times she is accompanied by Inuit explorers, a suggestive reminder that while record books may note events as unprecedented, indigenous cultures have traversed these wilds long before the appearance of outside explorers.

The film is not a single narrative per se, but rather a connected series of images and events meant to evoke elements of a journey. Some moments are like a dream sequence, while other segments present landscape as abstract beauty. In one scene, deeply crevassed terrain causes uncertainty, and it is though the camera falls down a deep abyss, plunged into darkness.

The filming of “True North” took place over 10 days in Iceland. The natural ruggedness of the landscape has a beauty all its own. In the framing and colors there is also a sense of the sublime, as investigated by Caspar David Friedrich, a 19th-century German Romantic painter. Friedrich was one of the first to explore alpine scenery as a locus of interest, a place that calls to mind solitude, quietness and grandeur. Some two hundred years later, the impact of this land still holds true.

As a work of contemporary art and technology, Julien directs our attention masterfully. It is a highly collaborative work, orchestrated by the artist and including the skills of composers, musicians, actors, film crew, and writers. The soundtrack accents the visuals with visceral bass, moments of stillness, percussive strikes, and evocative indigenous vocals. The narration of text, recounting the thoughts of Matthew Henson, highlights shifting questions. Where is true north, and where is true history? What are the identities of those who search, and why do we take on exploration?

It is not a question that Julian will answer for you, but rather opens this moment of time for you to consider it.

On view

Isaac Julien’s “True North” is on view through April 9, to be followed by screenings of “Fantôme Afrique” and “Western Union: Small Boats” this spring and summer.

– Photo: Courtesy of Isaac Julien, Metro Pictures, New York and Victoria Miro Gallery, London.