Lessons of the Hour: Artist Talks with Isaac Julien
“When one is thinking about characters, it’s really about the legacy of unfinished conversations.” — Isaac Julien
During the senior year of my undergraduate career, I once gave a presentation on the work of Isaac Julien. Instructed to select someone who was changing the game in the art world and, by extension, the world as a whole, I selected Julien for his innovations in film, his thorough, archive-based studio practice, and his poetic presentations of timely historical subject matter.
Last month, I had the privilege of not only viewing the artist’s work in person, but also hearing him on speak twice at the SCAD Museum of Art. Julien was commissioned by the museum to create a 5-screen iteration of his originally 10-screen work Lessons of the Hour for the current exhibition Frederick Douglass: Embers of Freedom. The work, inspired by Douglass’ life and writings, uses Julien’s signature multi-screen format to dynamic and poetic effect.
As pointed out by Julien in both his works and words, the messages delivered by Frederick Douglass are still strikingly relevant today. This is especially evident in this excerpt from Douglass’ 1894 speech Lessons of the Hour, after which Julien’s work is named:
“Strange things have happened of late and are still happening. Some of these tend to dim the lustre of the American name, and chill the hopes once entertained for the cause of American liberty. He is a wiser man than I am, who can tell how low the moral sentiment of this republic may yet fall….But could I be heard by this great nation, I would call to mind the sublime and glorious truths with which, at its birth, it saluted a listening world…Its mission was the redemption of the world from the bondage of ages. Apply these sublime and glorious truths to the situation now before you. Put away your race prejudice. Banish the idea that one class must rule over another. Recognize the fact that the rights of the humblest citizen are as worthy of protection as are those of the highest, and your problem will be solved; and, whatever may be in store for it in the future, whether prosperity, or adversity; whether it shall have foes without, or foes within, whether there shall be peace, or war; based upon the eternal principles of truth, justice and humanity, and with no class having any cause of complaint or grievance, your Republic will stand and flourish forever.”
Douglass does not pretend guarantee American prosperity; in fact, as scholar and biographer David W. Blight — author of Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom — points out, Douglass was often blunt about the country’s state of affairs, delivering the messages that were hardest to hear. But his words went beyond mere condemnation to offer not only candid insight, but inspiration. As an African American who rose from the shackles of slavery to the pulpit of freedom in the face of extreme conflict, Douglass was a living example of the possibility of freedom in a cruel world.
Julien was inspired to create a work about Douglass after coming across several fascinating, little-known details about his life while in Rochester, New York, where Douglass is buried. Rochester is the home of Kodak film and boasts one of the most important museums of photography and archive work — media of particular interest to Julien — and it was here that he learned that Frederick Douglass was the most photographed man in the 19th century. In addition, Douglass himself wrote extensively on photography — 70 years before philosopher, cultural critic, and essayist Walter Benjamin — was a lover of Shakespeare and philosophy, and had lived in Scotland for 2 years.
These details shed Douglass’ life as a writer and thinker in a completely new light, and Julien incorporated them all into his Lessons of the Hour. Reconstructing the 19th century with the help of painters, art directors, photographers, archives, and more, Julien shot footage in Washington, D.C., Scotland, and England, using multiple camera angles to create the separate vantage points for his multi-screen work. The original 10-screen iteration was a massive undertaking in and of itself, of course, but the artist also noted the challenges of converting it for a new setting, first to a 3-screen version and then to the final 5-screen format now on view in the SCAD Museum of Art. The result is a stunning immersive experience of visual and auditory narrative, in which the juxtaposition of sights and sounds produces a multitude of metaphors at once.
Julien has now become the master of his multi-screen exhibition format, but the origins of his film practice were not geared toward the gallery space. In fact, in his talks, Julien reflected that upon graduation from Central Saint Martin’s, he didn’t intend to show his work to art audiences in galleries, but in cinematic film spaces. “The film world, not the art world, was my primary audience,” he said. But a specific encounter with a work by Douglas Gordon triggered a turning point in his practice.
In 1999, Julien witnessed Gordon’s Through a Looking Glass (1999), a video installation appropriating Robert DeNiro’s famous “You talkin’ to me?” scene from the 1976 Scorsese film Taxi Driver. In Gordon’s work, two screens project the scene from opposite ends of the gallery, with the footage mirrored on one screen and right-facing on the other, catching the viewer in the crossfire between the character’s encounter with himself. Julien took note of Gordon’s consideration of “the existential question around mirroring” in this piece, and said of the experience: “I looked at that piece and thought, ‘OK, he’s having fun in the gallery — more fun than I was having — and I started to re-think film.” Since then, Julien has spring-boarded off of developments in both the art and traditional film worlds, responding to our “culture of screens” in ways that keep people engaged in looking. Maintaining his interests in the historical, archival, and poetic, he continually looks to the past to understand the present.
When I approached Julien after the talk to hear more about his relationship to traditional film, he responded with the decisive remark: “I’m of the opinion that cinema is dead at the moment.” This was not so much a critique of traditional film itself, he noted, as of contemporary art — and his own continued engagement with film suggests that there are no such things as “dead” media: only media which invite evolution and innovation. In this and other ways, as I have come to find in my own practice, art defies the finality of death by renewing and re-inventing cycles of life: whether for revitalization of a medium, or for the legacy of those who came before.
To conclude, I’d like to return to the quotation I included at the beginning of this post:
“When one is thinking about characters [like Douglass] it’s really about the legacy of unfinished conversations.” — Isaac Julien
Much like myself, Julien is interested in the powerful and poetic potential of the past. His admiration for those who came before him is evident throughout his practice, and he continually calls attention to the value of their words. There are many conversations we will never be able to finish — questions we may yearn to ask a figure like Frederick Douglass, or even those from our own past — but it is still worthwhile to reflect on them, and to engage in our end of the conversation.