December 19, 2013  |  Collection & Exhibitions, Publications
Portrait of an Artist: Isaac Julien: RIOT

Riot cover

Cover of the publication Isaac Julien: RIOT, published by The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Isaac Julien: RIOT is not your typical exhibition catalogue. With most of the writing done by artist and filmmaker Isaac Julien himself, it is more like an illustrated intellectual biography. Essays are organized around important periods in Julien’s life, exploring the people, places, and events that have influenced his career, with sections titled FIRE, MIRROR, NEW YORK, CONSERVE, and CAPITAL. The book’s illustrations include film stills, Polaroids and snapshots, film posters, installation shots, and newspaper clippings. Julien’s essay is written with Cynthia Rose and punctuated with texts by his colleagues and mentors, including Paul Gilroy, Kobena Mercer, B. Ruby Rich, bell hooks, Mark Nash, Giuliana Bruno, Christine Van Assche, Laura Mulvey, and Stuart Hall. Rarely do we get such an intimate look at an artist’s development. Here, Julien shares the most formative influences on his life and his work, relating anecdotes and memories, and allowing others to do the same in order to paint a rounded portrait of himself and his oeuvre.

The publication of RIOT accompanies the exhibition of Julien’s multiscreen video installation Ten Thousand Waves, in MoMA’s Donald B. and Catherine C. Marron Atrium. On display now, Ten Thousand Waves is a poetic retelling of the events at Morecambe Bay in 2004 in which more than twenty Chinese cockle pickers drowned on a flooded sandbank off the coast of England. (Martin Hartung, co-organizer of the exhibition, wrote a post last month about installing the show, which includes several installation photos.)


Isaac Julien. Hotel (Ten Thousand Waves). 2010. Endura Ultra Photograph, 180 x 240 cm. Courtesy of the artist, Metro Pictures, New York and Victoria Miro Gallery, London

Film critic Laura Mulvey reflects on the work at length in the catalogue. An excerpt:

“First, a kaleidoscope: the Ten Thousand Waves installation is made up of an arrangement of nine large screens, each one shifting and changing as the film’s images move from screen to screen, enhancing the movement of film itself. The spectator looks around bewildered, uncertain which way to turn or how to follow the fleeting succession of images. The sensation is one of kaleidoscopic beauty and excess: colors, textures, perspectives, and sounds interact with each other. In time, recurring figures and  scenes begin to form into patterns, and sounds guide the eye from screen to screen, so that the installation’s meanings and emotions begin to take shape.”

In a way, Mulvey’s description of the work echoes Julien’s artistic vision. His approach is often anti-historical and uses disparate imagery and fragmented narratives to tell stories through film. By consistently challenging the limits of filmmaking and art, Julien is able to unite the two disciplines and offer a fresh perspective on the social issues that concern him, ranging from race and gender to globalization and the art world.


Isaac Julien. Cast No Shadow (Western Union Series No.1). 2007. Duratran Image in lightbox, 120 x 120 cm. Courtesy of the artist, Metro Pictures, New York and Victoria Miro Gallery, London.

Isaac Julien: Ten Thousand Waves is on view through February 17, 2014 in the Donald B. and Catherine C. Marron Atrium on the Museum’s second floor. A preview of the catalogue can be downloaded here.