In Conversation with Isaac Julien

Renowned British artist and Turner Prize nominee, Isaac Julien presented his new video installation during Art Basel as part of the Rolls-Royce Art Programme. Entitled Stones Against Diamonds, the work has been showcased across 10 screens, filling the stunning interior space of a Neo-Gothic church in the center of Basel. In this occasion, we had the privilege to seat down with Isaac and find out more about his latest project. 

 Isaac, how did the project “Stones Against Diamonds” come about?

 In 1996, while I was on holidays in Bahia, Brazil, I saw Lina Bo Bardi’s work for the first time. I was at the Museum of Modern Art in Bahia and had the opportunity to see her powerful architecture, including the emblematic staircase in Solar do Unhão. Then, in 2012, I was invited to have a solo exhibition at SESC Pompéia, one of Lina’s most meaningful projects in what concerns her democratic and inclusive practices. For me this was a dream come true.

It was also at that time that I collaborated with Hans Ulrich Obrist. I created an imaginary poster, The Ghost of Lina Bo Bardi, for an exhibition he curated at Lina’s former residence, the Glass House. Three years later I finally felt the research on her intricate and prolific character had reached a point that enabled me to make public the poetic editation I have been contemplating since I first met her work almost twenty years ago.

What are the conceptual and aesthetic reasons that made you connect the semi-precious stones with the ice caves? What is the relationship between Bo Bardi’s emblematic architecture and Icelandic natural elements?

Stones Against Diamonds was shot in Breidamerkurjokull, which is part of Vatnajokull Glacier, the biggest glacier in Europe, and in Jökulsárlón beach. The ice cave can be read as a metaphor of the unconscious, a place of rich beauty but difficult to access, except through the processes of psychoanalysis and artistic reflection. By inserting some of Lina Bo Bardi’s emblematic architectural elements into the cave, such as the iconic staircase and glass easels, I intended to make a connection between the simplicity of forms that was one of Bo Bardi’s signatures and the organic forms of rocks and carved glacial ice. Besides, the character played by Vanessa Myrie wanders around the ice cave inviting us on a journey through a symbolic landscape of glaciers, rocks and black volcanic sand, all glistening like diamonds. This reminds us not only of the earth’s fragility – the melting of the glacier that carves out these caves – but also that some of the most beautiful objects are the least precious in a conventional sense. Lina Bo Bardi made these aspects of fragility and preciousness visible both through her architecture as well as her deep interest in Brazilian indigenous and popular cultures. 

How did you develop the collaboration with Rolls-Royce? Can craft become art at a certain level?

 On my first visit to Rolls Royce at Goodwood I was astounded by the care, detail and artistic mastery of design and beauty, on how every car was made through careful mechanisation of old and new technologies. I went to the plant during Frieze Art Fair last year, with another video artist friend, Yang Fudong. There, we were both reminded of how the highly organised population of craft workers and automated machinery was just like filming – we could still see clearly that without workers nothing would happen. I have personally been in unique conversation with curator Ellen Andrea for over 2 years on the possibility of Rolls Royce creating a commissioning platform for contemporary moving image art.

But it was only once I entered into the plant itself that I realised the real connection between making a Rolls Royce car and an artwork – I understood that there was a convergence between the carefully crafted Rolls Royces and the making of moving image art works. Both call for highly developed technology and techniques, for extreme attention to detail, design and, of course, concept. Accordingly, both are essentially team work, which in film involves large crews: director, actors, special effect artists, production designers, camera operators, producers, the list is endless. My work too, unfolds as a sort of craftsmanship, in the sense I am concerned with reaching a level of skilfulness that approximates it to the century long traditions of handicraft expertise. Yet, moving image artworks do not have an industrial function, nor a utilitarian aspect to it, as architecture does – in contemporary art, concept comes as the most essential aspect of an artwork.

Many artistic genres as video art, moving image, photography and film have to strive for an autonomy implied by the very nature of their condition as artworks, needing a different creational timeframe in order to construct an artistic aura. Even though this differs from the making of cars or buildings, which demand a different set of necessities, technological excellence in what concerns quality and mastery is actually something that bounds these diverse creative contexts. I believe this is where the parallel sits, and I deeply respect Rolls Royce’s commitment to the fostering and dissemination of contemporary art.

How does the suggestive venue of the Neo-Gothic church Kirche Elisabethen in Basel interact with the installation? 

When I first visited this stunning Gothic church I decided I should rethink the installation as it was shown in Venice. Instead of five screens, I used ten screens for Basel, so that the space was occupied in a way that its specificities were respected. I installed them in the main nave of the church, where it dialogued with the church’s architectonic project. I believe installing this work in a church also empowers the feeling of contemplation and meditation I want to bring in with Stones Against Diamonds. In a way, the installation in Kirche Elisabethen allowed the spectator to fully grasp the sense of space I intended to explore as I revisited Bo Bardi’s iconic easels. I also think that a very interesting conceptual transposition happened when the gothic architecture was permeated by elements of modern, brutalist design. One of the enticing characteristics of Lina’s practice was that she had a great sensibility to develop her ideas in syncretic way. I also see this syncretism taking place at Kirche Elisabethen. Finally, there is the light aspect. This happens through three main devices: the church vitrals, the illuminated flat screens and the reflections of light inside the ice cave. With each coming from a different context as distinct signifiers, in the event of being part of the same whole, they complement each other. Transparency is enhanced by light and vice-versa, in a continuous play and in different levels. We can even trace a path, coming from the external light, that permeates the colourful gothic motives of the vitrals, reaching the flat screens, which are sources of light themselves. And in the screens we see the natural light again. But there, at the same time pure natural light invades and is reflected on the ice cave walls, glistering through the thinner layers of ice, what we see is actually its representation, as we can only access this light through the filmic representation of Stones Against Diamonds. This then completes the cycle, from the outside to the inside, from the natural to the manmade, from reality to its representation.  



  • In Conversation with Isaac Julien

    Article by
    Cecilia Musmeci



    Isaac Julien

    Stones Against Diamonds, 2015

    Courtesy the artist, Victoria Miro, London and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney 

    © Isaac Julien

    Special Thanks

    Isaac Julien

    Olivia Cerio – Sutton PR