His earliest pieces have a handheld, home-made feel to them but he quickly transitioned to his signature slick production values that make his films feel dream-like – they are beautifully made with heavy subject matter layered through them.
Take for example the multi-screen black and white film ‘once again … (statues never die)’ that greets those who enter the exhibition. There is music, sumptuous shots of Western art museums, and sculptures in the space. The work is about cultural restitution but in Julien’s style he doesn’t hit the viewer head-on, rather he plants seeds in our minds for us to water over time before they germinate into thoughts.
Seeing a single work by Julien can make an impact if we have the time to sit down and mull it over. But with multiple works, this exhibition is suited to being consumed over the course of an entire day or through several visits – a luxury we all wish we had, but most Tate Britain visitors won’t.
To its credit the exhibition design is well suited to a leisurely approach, as all rooms with films branch off from a central atrium with comfy sofas and tablets at each entrance informing us how long a film has left to run. However, it does limit the audience as it’s a lot to take in from a single visit – only the art equivalent of those who love a movie marathon will be able to manage it in one go.
His abstract narratives can sometimes fall flat as a dancer moving around the Sir John Soane's Museum is more style over substance and a film based on Chinese culture and myths is not his strong point, and an odd choice for an artist whose work is primarily about the black experience.
Contrastingly brilliant is a 10-screen installation on the life of abolitionist Frederick Douglass, where an actor playing Douglass delivers his powerful speeches and shows his whip-scarred back. It’s a weighty work that will linger in viewers’ minds long after visiting the Tate.
Isaac Julien’s films can be beautiful, poetic and powerful, and they can also be frustrating and hard to follow. There are important ideas and concepts in this exhibition, though you may have to filter through the works to find them.
Second and third images - Photo: Jack Hems. © Isaac Julien. Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro
|What||Isaac Julien: What Freedom is to Me, Tate Britain, review|
|Where||Tate Britain, Millbank, London, SW1P 4RG | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Pimlico (underground)|
26 Apr 23 – 20 Aug 23, 10:00 AM – 6:00 PM
|Website||Click here for more information and to book|