Feature story March/April edition 2022

Isaac Julien: Master of beauty

With a movie-scale budget, considered filming and subjects based firmly on reality, works by acclaimed British filmmaker Isaac Julien at John Curtin Gallery are also a masterclass in beauty.

Red Chamber Dream (Ten Thousand Waves), 2010, Endura Ultra photograph, diptych by Isaac Julien. Image courtesy of artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney.

In a unique, landmark exhibition across two states, John Curtin Gallery presents two powerful film installations by acclaimed British filmmaker Isaac Julien CBE RA. Works by Julien are presented simultaneously in Western Australia for the Perth Festival, and in South Australia for the Adelaide Festival at SAMSTAG Museum of Art at the University of South Australia.


Born in London in 1960, Julien has exhibited around the world. His solo exhibitions and presentations include the Museum of Modern Art, New York; Centre Pompidou, Paris; Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris; the Venice Biennale and Art Basel. In 2017, he was awarded the title Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire in the Queen’s Birthday honours list, and in 2018, for his distinguished Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy, he was made a Royal Academician.


Renowned for his stunning multi-screen installations, John Curtin Gallery presents two of Julien’s most ambitious works: Ten Thousand Waves, which premiered at the 2010 Sydney Biennale, and Lessons of the Hour (2019), shown for the first time in Australia. Produced on movie-scale budgets, with multi-location film shoots and performance sequences, Julien’s work is highly sought after internationally. John Curtin Gallery Director and exhibition curator Chris Malcolm says it’s a privilege to bring these two seminal works to the Gallery for Perth audiences. “Both are deeply moving works reflecting on the tragedy of human trafficking across the ages and are fine examples of Julien’s work, which has long been celebrated for its sumptuous and exquisitely crafted vision, deftly choreographed across multiple screens,” he says.


Ten Thousand Waves, filmed on location in China, is a sweeping journey through its history from the modern back to the 15th century. The work was inspired by a tragedy at Morecambe Bay on the Lancashire coast, in England’s north west in 2004, when 23 Chinese immigrant cockle pickers, forced into slavery, drowned on a flooded sandbank, the force of the waves tearing the clothes from their bodies. Only one person survived. Julien says he felt very moved by the tragedy. “They had come from such a far distance to meet this kind of horrid end, and I thought it would be interesting to view this tragedy, not from a European point of view, but from a Chinese point of view,” he says. “It took us about three years to discover the Mazu fables. Mazu is the sea goddess from the Fujian province where the Chinese cockle shell pickers originated from. I thought it would be interesting to view this from Mazu’s point of view, and in bringing the lost souls back to China so to speak, through Mazu’s journey.”


Lessons of the Hour also references slavery, through the extraordinary life of pioneering human rights activist, abolitionist and freed slave and orator, Frederick Douglass. The ten screen installation is a poetic meditation of his life centred on three profound speeches, including the powerful ‘What to the Slave is the 4th of July,’ given in 1852 at an Independence Day celebration in Rochester, New York. Considered one of the world’s most influential historical speeches, Douglass took aim at the hypocrisy of American notions of freedom, shining a light on the horrors of slavery and the exclusion of African-Americans from a dominant white society.
Julien says in Lessons of the Hour he wanted to review what America is today. “You can see a continuation of Civil War in America, from the 19th century to now. We all know about George Floyd and all the other things that have happened in America since then, and continue to happen, so I wanted to go back to the 19th century, and found this fantastic orator. He was really at the forefront of really pushing certain questions which America is still dealing with today, and hasn’t answered them properly yet.”
Douglass was also keenly interested in the power of photography, becoming the most photographed person in America in his lifetime. Ditching the romantic backdrops popular in photographs at the time, he insisted on plain backgrounds which would give full force, and attention, to his striking appearance and gaze. Douglass said, “Pictures, like songs, should be left to make their own way in the world. All they can reasonably ask of us is that we place them on the wall in the best possible light, and the rest – allow them to speak for themselves.”


There’s no doubt he would have approved of Julien’s interpretation of his life – the attention to historic detail, the elegant and considered filming, and the nod to 19th century Salon hanging in its installation in this masterclass in beauty.


Isaac Julien is on show at John Curtin Gallery until 8 May.

Green Screen Goddess (Ten Thousand Waves), 2010, Endura Ultra photograph by Isaac Julien. Image courtesy the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney.

The North Star (Lessons of the Hour), 2019, framed pho- tograph on gloss inkjet paper mounted on aluminium, 160 x 213.29 cm, by Isaac Julien. Image courtesy the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney.


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