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ART REVIEW

Imagery to swoon over, all but devoid of meaning

By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / November 27, 2011
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Isaac Julien’s films are instructive examples of gorgeously bad art. Although for me, their failure is dependably clear-cut, their gorgeousness is undeniable: Visitors to Julien’s “Ten Thousand Waves,’’ a film projected onto nine screens arrayed around a large gallery at the Institute of Contemporary Art, will find the seductions of his imagery hard to resist.

They may even find the mystery triggered by not having the first idea of what the work is about briefly detaining. But in the end, Julien’s whole approach to his personal brand of experimental filmmaking feels flawed.

He tries to substitute for storytelling what are, in fact, the byproducts of storytelling: mood, emotion, concern, a sense of involvement. Because the story itself is never there in Julien’s films (except when offered, desultorily, in a wall text or catalog essay), these effects are never satisfyingly achieved. What one is left with are loose ends, false portentousness, and a sumptuous visual poetry that is all but evacuated of meaning.

Over the course of roughly three-quarters of an hour, one’s eyes pop and swoon before images of an actress playing a hovering goddess in fluttering robes seen against the Chinese landscape; crisply composed footage of modern-day Shanghai; and lushly lighted scenes from a story set in 1930s Shanghai.

Interspersed among these fragments are police helicopter footage of a 2004 search for Chinese immigrant laborers off Morecambe Bay in the United Kingdom; archival footage of marching workers from the communist revolutionary period; screens filled with slowly morphing digital lines suggesting the swell of heavy seas; and images of Chinese characters being brushed onto a transparent screen in front of the camera, or written with a mop onto a pristine white floor.

It’s all more than diverting: It’s frequently captivating. But to what avail?

Julien, born in 1960, came of age as an experimental filmmaker in London in the 1990s, when the field of cultural studies was enjoying a heyday in universities. Post-colonial, psychoanalytic, and post-structuralist theory were all the rage in humanities departments.

He obtained a bachelor’s degree in art and film at London’s Central St. Martin’s School of Art in 1984 and pursued postdoctoral studies in Brussels from 1987-89. He embraced a way of thinking about art that owed everything to what was most hip in cultural studies: competing “discourses,’’ contested theories, queerness, and - in the words of one contributor to the catalog accompanying this show - “ongoing efforts to refuse a hegemonic discourse of an othering that naturalizes the vantage-point of the west.’’

The results, alas, are as dreadfully passé and pretentious as you fear. Julien has never shown any sign either of outgrowing theory or of wanting to grow out of it. As the years go by, his films, which are favorites on the Biennial art show circuit, become more and more expensive looking even as they become more preposterous.

The cliches he habitually employs - moody music, cinematic lighting, even the arch ’60s underground cliche of filming the film set (presumably to point up a movie’s artifice) - don’t take us anywhere interesting because they are not stitched together into a meaningful whole, one that might actually take on an existence independent from theory.

I sat through “Ten Thousand Waves’’ having forgotten what I had read about it in the press release several weeks earlier, and I honestly had no idea what Julien was trying to say or do. I knew that there was an ambitious intelligence at work beneath it all, but to sense this is, finally, not enough.

Julien is so popular with curators and biennial directors, I believe, because his pointedly exquisite imagery functions as a relief-giving antidote to the graininess and lo-tech longueurs of so much video art.

But to say that his film installations fail to rise above the level of illustrating academic theory is really to dishonor the tradition of illustration. In truth, they don’t even manage that.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.

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ISAAC JULIEN: Ten Thousand Waves

At: Institute of Contemporary Art. Through March 4. 617-478-3100, www.icaboston.org