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Exhibition Review: Isaac Julien's What Freedom Is To Me

Published onOct 12, 2023
Exhibition Review: Isaac Julien's What Freedom Is To Me

Presented at the Tate Britain in 2023, Isaac Julien’s largest retrospective to date, What Freedom Is to Me, comprises his seven large film installations—featuring themes such as institutional critiques targeting archives and museums, black queer desire, and labor migration. Four of his 1980s videos, which are screened at the entrance, introduce the audience to his early films addressing the AIDS crisis and the black civil rights campaigns. What Freedom Is to Me seeks to delineate a comprehensive picture of Julien’s forty-year career pursuits while reflecting his concerns about thorny political issues on migrant workers and civil rights with his critical approaches.

In collaboration with architect David Adjaye, Julien has partitioned the rectangular exhibition space into six polygonal regions, all of which connect to a central atrium. This beehive-like design invites the audiences to browse the multi-screen installations in an order of their choosing, creating various trajectories as they maneuver the image and video spectacles. Among these seven film installations, three—Looking for Langston (1989), Lessons of the Hour (2019), and Lina Bo Bardi (2019)—epitomize Julien’s critical approach toward historical figures such as Langston Hughes and Alain Locke, which resists limiting them to a stable image. Once Again... (Statues Never Die) (2022) raises trenchant questions of racism, homophobia, and primitivism through fictional conversations and an archival revisit. It is worth mentioning that, although based on different contexts, Vagabondia, Lina Bo Bardi, and Once Again... reflect Julien’s multidirectional institutional critiques toward museums and art history as racist and exclusionary systems. Western Union: Small Boat (2007) and Ten Thousand Waves (2010)—the only two films screened alternatively in the same room—examine the imminent danger and tragedies of migrant laborers who traverse oceans for higher salary works.

Isaac Julien, What Freedom Is to Me? The exhibition floor plan is reproduced from Tate Britain’s pamphlet.

Walking through a slate-carpeted path, the audience first encounters Once Again…, a black-and-white film projected across five double-sided, larger-than-life screens. The semi-reflective metal walls mirror the bright lights and sharp contrasts from the film, which visually extends the space. Three elongated black statues—each embedded in a transparent resin block—are placed in between the four side screens. Made by Matthew Angelo Harrison (b. 1989, Detroit, MI) with industrial technology, these statues mimic African sculptures. Harrison’s sculptural reproduction alludes to colonial invasion and looting. Once Again stages a fictional conversation among several figures of the Harlem Renaissance and around that period, including Alain Locke (played by André Holland), Richmond Barthé (played by Devon Terrell), and Albert C. Barnes (played by Danny Huston). Barnes, an American collector who is obsessed with African art, introduces his collections to Locke, a leading philosopher and writer. Fetishizing African art, Barnes claims that Africanism informed painters and sculptors of European art, such as Picasso, Modigliani, and Lipchitz. Intercutting Barnes’ absurd claims, an encounter between Locke and African American sculptor Barthé reveals an under-appreciated dimension in art history—black queer desire. A scene of Locke standing in the snow—which drifts up against gravity—poetically embodies bell hook’s idea of artistic freedom as “unsullied as falling snow.”1 Towards the end of the film, Alice Smith performs an ode on a grandiose staircase, honoring the legacy of black art in sensuous sublimation.

Isaac Julien, Once Again…(Statues Never Die) (2022). Multi-screen installation. Installation view. Tate Britain, 2023. Images by the author.

Paired in the same gallery space with Western Union, Ten Thousand Waves is arguably the film that surprises audiences the most with its peculiar Chinese context. While Western Union enacts the death of African migrant workers through choreography, Ten Thousand Waves dramatizes the entanglement among Chinese labor migrations, booming capitalist cities in China, and the nostalgic homesickness of a Chinese prostitute. Inspired by the death of twenty-three Chinese cockle pickers at Morecambe Bay in Northwest England, Waves interweaves five main scenes from different historical moments and spaces—(1) the monitor recording the rescue of Chinese cockle pickers; (2) the Chinese prostitute (played by Zhao Tao) wandering in 1930s Shanghai; (3) the attachment between the Chinese prostitute and her male lover (played by Chinese artist Yang Fu Dong) and the cityscapes in modern Shanghai; (4) the tale of Chinese marine goddess Mazu (played by Maggie Cheung) in Southern China; (5) the scene of filming the flying goddess in a studio. Connecting these fragmented plots, Waves is haunted by multiple ghosts that cannot be recovered from the tragedy. Cheung’s incarnation of the goddess Mazu looks at the suffering lives (or sentient beings in Buddhism) from the ether compassionately, intensifying the hand-wringing of the victims and their families. The lamentations and summons for the dead Chinese workers hover over throughout the film: “O soul, come home!” (魂兮歸來 無遠遊兮)2 The montage shifts among the search for drowning laborers, workers in Shenzhen (China), and the cityscape of Shanghai, implicating the precariousness of overworked and low-waged workers within the global production system.

Isaac Julien, Ten Thousand Waves (2010). Multi-screen installation. Installation view. Tate Britain, 2023. Images by the author.

Julien’s influential cinematic work Looking for Langston suggests a way of approaching unnamable black queer desire—that is, excavating the absent subjects and the ghosts in history, not by documenting them, but by displaying the shadows of unspoken experiences. Looking portrays gay men’s love in graveyards and shadows, their infatuation with black gay male bodies, and their clandestine carnivals. The film ends abruptly when a macho mob and policemen attempt to disrupt the celebration, but find the gay men have disappeared. As José Muñoz states, although Looking revolves around Langston Hughes and the Harlem Renaissance, Julien does not present static and fixed imagery of the “queer, black, and male,” but rather, a sort of “ambivalence” and “disidentification” that refuses to objectify the black male body. Muñoz further argues that “… Julien makes use of call-and-response to historicize black gay male history and contextualize recent queer African-American cultural production.”3 This “antiphonal” cinematic montage weaves together “transhistorical and transnational” artistic forms and musical genres from African American culture to disturb Western modernism and normative paradigms.4

Isaac Julien, Lessons of the Hour (2019). Multi-screen installation. Installation views. Tate Britain, 2023. Images by the author.

Examining Looking vis-à-vis Once Again and Lessons of the Hour, one finds that Julien’s critical approach is not meant to realistically “recover” the historical figures but to present uncertainty and disjunction that allow us to reconsider contemporary conundrums. A ten-screen film installation simulating a nineteenth-century salon hang, Lessons of the Hour, collects moments from Frederick Douglass’s abolitionist lectures, his journeys in Scotland and Ireland, July 4th national celebrations, and contemporary racial justice protests. Instead of solely providing the political scenes, Lessons revamps Douglass’s critical contemplation of how photography can serve as a tool for social justice. At the same time, Julien discusses how the important figures in Douglass’s life influenced his political pursuits. Douglass’s first wife, Anna Murray Douglass, wears a lake blue dress in front of a camera at the studio. This photograph captures Anna Murray’s dignity and composure, resonating with a paired scene of her sewing at home. Sewing and “suturing” not only bring together various technologies and apparatus representing modernity—train, photography, the montage of different moments and spaces—but also “the desire of liberation,” as Julien argues.5 Towards the end of the film, Frederick Douglass’s figure standing on the top of a Scottish hill is reminiscent of Caspar David Frederick’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (1818), a painting known for its sublimity and profound contemplation. The sharp contrasts—between the firework celebration on July 4th and the racial justice protests, between the velocity of trains and the tranquility of Anna Murray’s time-consuming sewing, between Douglass’s red hue coat and Anna Murray’s Lake blue dress, and between the spectacle of the cotton fields and bashing sounds—represent the fractured and non-linear historical moments, betraying their seemingly harmonic appearance.

Isaac Julien, The Lady of the Lake (Lessons of the Hour) (2019). Photo from Tate Britain.

Together, the seven films that constitute What Freedom Is to Me epitomize Julien’s approach to film, which places contradictory ideas in conversations among historical figures. His idiosyncratic aesthetics provoke several questions for me: What are the effects generated through Julien’s use of spectacle? The sumptuous use of colors and the grandiose scenes evoke sensational sublimity as well as turn a suffering subject-position into an active agent, transforming the passive setting into subjective enactments. Another question ties back to the title: What is freedom to Julien here? Or, put in a different way, what kind of “political freedom” is Julien trying to articulate through his eloquent cinematic language and aesthetics? I suggest that Julien complicates historical narratives, either hidden or unhidden, by tearing them up into fragmented and ambivalent scraps. Instead of stitching them back together, Julien shows his audience a kaleidoscopic prism that refracts synthetic lights combining tones of tragedies, the uncanny, and the unjust. The refracted image is always equivocal and ever-changing. His transhistorical and cross-regional matrix of narratives renders aesthetic freedom to the unnamable subjects and desires.

“What Freedom Is To Me” is on view at Tate Britain, London from 2023.4.26 to 2023.8.20.

Exhibited works

Film installations:
1. Once Again… (Statues Never Die) (2022) – 32min 32sec
2. Western Union: Small Boats (2007) – 18min 22sec
3. Ten Thousand Waves (2010) – 49min 51sec
4. Looking for Langston (1989) – 46min 29 sec
5. Lessons of the Hour (2019) – 28min 46 sec
6. Lina Bo Bardi – A Marvellous Entanglement (2019) – 39min 18sec
7. Vagabondia (2000) – 13min 17sec

Four early films at the entrance:
1. Who Killed Colin Roach? (1983) – 34 min
2. Territories (1984) – 25 min
3. Lost Boundaries (1986) – footage
4. This is not an AIDS Advertisement (1987) – 10 min


Hsin-Yun Cheng is a PhD student in Visual and Cultural Studies at the University of Rochester. She holds an MFA in Art Theory from the National Taiwan Normal University. Her research interests are postcolonial theory, poststructuralism, performance studies, labor, and conceptual art. Her dissertation investigates the intersection of Asian American art and the discourses of identity politics and multiculturalism since the late 1960s. Her writings have appeared in the Journal of Taipei Fine Arts MuseumForum (University of Edinburgh), and InVisible Culture.

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Stephanie Billa:

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