“I dream a world” Looking for Langston / Reviewed by Eva Eicker / 20.07.17
Entering the current exhibition of Isaac Julien’s work Looking for Langston, one encounters the written word: ‘O, sweep of stars over Harlem streets, O, little breath of oblivion that is night. A City building to a mother’s song. A city dreaming to a lullaby. Reach up your hand, dark boy, and take a star. Out of the little breath of oblivion that is night, take just one star.” This extract from James Mercer Langston Hughes’ poem Stars (1921) sets the tone for a multi-layered exhibition.
In the show, presented on the top floor of Victoria Miro’s Wharf Road space, Julien combines images from his film Looking for Langston (1989) set in the 1920s Harlem Renaissance and newer photographic work. Both are portraying the life of poet and activist Langston Hughes (1902 – 1967) who, together with his artist friends, initiated the Harlem Renaissance during the 1920s. Depicting scenes from his film and restaging them, he also adds behind-the-scene imagery including technical elements such as lighting or rehearsal of the actor’s posing. As in the film, here in the photographic works Julien continues to combine archival footage with scripted scenes.
The ‘older’ material is presented in non-linear scattered groupings of framed silver gelatine prints running along the walls of the large and bright space, interspersed with large format diasecs of the newer work. Those consist of what almost seems to be video stills – somewhat timeless and beautifully shot. Again, here fictional and scripted scenes are immersed. As with the amalgamation of staging in-front-of and behind-the-camera material, Julien uses both analogue and digital material. The result is a cinematic and immersive experience with the large-format diasec resembling a cinematic screen. While combining analogue and digital material, Julien is also mixing film epochs – with an evident strong fashion sense with smart James-Bond like scenes next to the smoke and costumes resembling 1940s film noir. At the end of the space, archival material is presented in vitrines – Polaroids, sketches, storyboards, personal letters and ephemera of the production and also historic background on the epoch.
In the images, multi-layered narratives of memory and desire, expression and repression are evident, with scenes evoking closeness and longing, as well as sexual tension. One dominant element is the gaze of the subjects; a man in an angel costume on an elevated stair looks down at men dancing – representing a direct relation to the AIDS crisis. Julien shot Looking for Langston in the 1980s in London but set the film in the 1920s Harlem during the jazz world. In the 1980s the AIDS crisis was at its peak in the gay and queer scene (some actors died after making the film).
A double layer of perspectives is evident: the immersive cinematic experience and behind-the-scenes result in the ‘disillusion’ opposite the beautifully composed shots, with images appearing as stills from the film. This contradiction is intended: the disillusion of what we are looking at in the images is one other important element in this show. Underneath the ‘composed’ beauty one senses a lost relationship, longed-for opportunity or lost life, oppression of gay black men and the negotiation of the distance between acceptance and hiding.
Coming around the corner one sees the last image in the show of a man walking up a spiral stair – following his friend into the uncertain. Interspersed with text phrases by Hughes the poem reads: “I loved my friend. He went away from me. There is nothing more to say. The poem ends. Soft as it began – I loved my friend.” There is nothing to add to this last scene – and The End.
– reviewed for Photomonitor by Eva Eicker
Isaac Julien : “I dream a world” Looking for Langston continues at Victoria Miro to 29 July, 2017
Isaac Julien, Looking for Langston (1989) installation image at the Isaac Julien Studio by photographer Stephen White, London, UK. November 2016. Courtesy the Artist and Victoria Miro, London © Isaac Julien
Victoria Miro Gallery, 16 Wharf Road, London N1 7RW