'Looking for Langston' was made in 1989 when Julien was a member of the Sankofa Film and Video Collective. Written and directed by Julien, the 16mm film is subtitled ‘a meditation on’, rather than a documentary about, the poet Langston Hughes. A literary icon and leading figure in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, Hughes championed black culture through his poems, critical commentary, novels and plays. But despite his acknowledged achievements and his fame, and his tributes to working people and the oppressed, he was unable openly to fight for the gay community; his sexuality remains ambiguous.
Both the film and the series of still images featured in the exhibition, present a world of uncontested beauty. Julien’s emphasis on lush visuality is embedded in his practice, and central to his examination of histories and communities that are socially, politically and geographically outside of the dominant ideological structures. For Julien, making work is always about challenging and rewriting the rules of representation. Langston Hughes shared a similar drive to rework prevailing notions of racial and social identity. According to critic Donald B. Gibson, “During the twenties when most American poets were turning inward, writing obscure and esoteric poetry to an ever decreasing audience of readers, Hughes was turning outward, using language and themes, attitudes and ideas familiar to anyone who had the ability simply to read . . . Until the time of his death, he spread his message humorously—though always seriously—to audiences throughout the country, having read his poetry to more people (possibly) than any other American poet.”
As the narrative unfolds, the camera fluidly moves across different spaces, venturing through different historical eras, blending past and present, splicing historical document with imagination. In its poetic structure, the film also incorporates music, voice-over, poetry, and dramatic tableaux. The film begins with Hughes’ fictionalised funeral: mourners cluster around an open coffin as a woman’s voice (the artist recorded Toni Morrison speaking at James Baldwin’s memorial) eulogises the deceased. The man in the coffin (Hughes) is none other than Julien, which underlines the film’s personal nature and suggests the theme of historical identification.
In this work of radiant imagery and complex interweavings, the story journeys beyond death, beyond the funerary images reminiscent of Van Der Zee’s Harlem Book of the Dead, arriving in its principal setting, a nightclub - a glisteningly rich world of textured contrasts and silver tones. An otherworldly Cotton Club, perhaps, where angelic creatures preside, beautiful black-skinned young men in evening suits. Smoking. Dancing. Exchanging glances. A game of giving and receiving looks where the gaze of the film’s sole white protagonist carries a layered dynamic – desire, the eroticised look directed at the fetishized ‘other’. And yet the ‘looking’ of the title is about more than simply the eroticized look directed at the object of desire, it also implies the artist’s search to connect with the past – with a moment in history – a psychic, social space – with a particular figure.
The sequence of stills exists independently of the film. The compositions are staged pictures related to the film, rather than taken from it. Like the moving images, the stills are laden with associations; their smoky sculpturality, tonality and composition hint at film noire. Touches of The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari. Jean Cocteau. Robert Mapplethorpe. There is an almost palpable sense of joy and love lost; a sense that these images may be an ode to forbidden beauty, to lives and times past. And yet beneath the sumptuous pictorial surface lurks the spectre of AIDS, at its height in the late eighties, adding a terrible poignancy and yet another complex thread to images that, for Julien, act as ‘memorial sites’: at times offering glimpses of the creative process while at others exploring moments of a questionable history. Surrounded by these images, the viewer becomes drawn into the dreamscape, an onlooker caught between histories and narratives.
TEXT BY LISA HOLDEN
©picture Isaac Julien, Film Noir Staircase, Ilford classic silver gelatin fine art paper, mounted on aluminum and framed Framed size 74.5 x 58.1 cm, Edition of 4 plus 2 APs, 1989-2016, courtesy Galerie Ron Mandos, Amsterdam
About the artist
Isaac Julien is a Turner prize nominated artist and filmmaker. Julien has pioneered a form of multi-screen installations, including light-boxes and photographic works. Julien is currently producing a new work that is a poetic meditation on aspects of the life and architecture of Lina Bo Bardi. The first chapter of this work, ''Stones Against Diamonds'', was shown during 2015's La Biennale di Venezia, Art Basel, Art Basel Miami Beach, and is now also on view alongside Looking for Langston at Galerie Ron Mandos, Amsterdam. After teaching at Harvard University (1998-2002), Julien was Professor of Media Art at the Staatliche Hochschule für Gestaltung in Karlsruhe (2009-2015) and Chair of Global Art at University of Arts London (2014-2016).
LOOKING FOR LANGSTON
Galerie Ron Mandos, Amsterdam
25.11.2016 - 07.01.2017