Isaac Julien Paying Tribute to Capitalism

Isaac Julien, PLAYTIME, 2014, Installation view, Seven screen ultra high definition video installation with 7.1 surround sound, 69'47'', Courtesy the artist and VIctoria Miro, London
Isaac Julien, PLAYTIME, 2014, Installation view, Seven screen ultra high definition video installation with 7.1 surround sound, 69’47”, Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro, London

Published in the Courtauldian, Issue 7, March 2014, London.

Can you see it? Can you touch it? Can you smell it? No. ‘But you know it is there,’ says the Marxist academic David Harvey. Capital is an intangible and speculative idea to establish a universally accepted measurement of value. Two video artworks KAPITAL (2013) and PLAYTIME (2014) by Isaac Julien are currently occupying the Wharf Road space of Victoria Miro. They both take the idea of capital to a new level. While the mainstream media mainly documents rising and falling market prices of commodities, including art, KAPITAL shows a deep engagement with the intellectual meaning of financial capital and its history.

While watching it, keep in mind that the one-hour video is not entirely based on an impromptu interview between Isaac Julien and David Harvey in front of an audience, but that it is a choreographed documentary. In 2012, the multifaceted artist invited well-known public figures – such as the recently deceased cultural theorist Stuart Hall (1932 – 2014), Paul Gilroy, Colin MacCabe and Irit Rogoff – to participate in his staged event in order to collect academic opinions of what capital is, and how we make use of it today. Not even a piece of video art lets you get away without referring to technical terms of economic theory to provide a truthful reflection of today’s capitalistic society; just to mention  some: the Animal Spirits by John Maynard Keynes, the Warenfetisch by Karl Marx, and the Invisible Hand by Adam Smith.

Julien’s version of KAPITAL raises awareness to the failure of our global financial system and slashes the workings of the art market. He himself however benefits financially from it, since he is a pioneer of commercialised video art. At the public event Vagabondia at Tate Modern at the beginning of February, Isaac Julien, wearing an orange Hermès scarf, said, that he would not restrict the subject matter of his work based on whether he represents it himself.

In KAPITAL, Harvey says to Julien that if you stop accumulating debt, you stop further creation of capital. A similar concept applies to the production of art: If you merely consider it a mechanical process without adding meaning to it, the art disappears, and only its capitalistic value remains in the form of a commoditised investment. Thus, consuming art would be no different to the reason for which we drink coffee today: because we want to take advantage of its subsequent effect. Like we get psychologically and physically addicted to coffee, we capitalise on our interest in art since it makes us appear more attractive for some. Our conspicuous consumption of it does not only show our devotion to a subject and reveals our financial position, but it also reflects some of the values of today’s society.

In comparison to the two-screen installation KAPITAL, Julien’s technically ambitious work PLAYTIME (2013) stretches out over seven screens at the upper exhibition space of the gallery. This installation is similarly arranged to the nine-screen installation of Ten Thousands Waves (2010), which has just closed at the MoMA in New York. PLAYTIME consists of four staged sequences filmed in Dubai, London and Reykjavík; each one lasting for 15 minutes. While the actors James Franco, Maggie Cheung, Ingvar Eggert Sigurğsson, Mercedes Cabral and Colin Salmon play fictive characters, Simon de Pury is playing himself. De Pury, at least, tries to hold on to some of his authenticity as an auctioneer when the interviewer, played by Maggie Cheung, asks him about the recent development and strategies of the art market.

Julien’s version of London, the city of his birth and current residence, perfectly depicts the comparative advantage of the UK’s economic engine: the flow of capital. Financial speculative capital based on the laws of trading floors and hedge funds, while at the same time referring to the human capital of Oxbridge graduates, who hope to make it to the very top. The incredible shots, overlooking Dubai, serve as the setting to tell the real-life story of Julien’s housecleaner, who he helped to get a permanent visa for the UK.

Now 30 years after his career has began, Isaac Julien dares to address the most pressing questions of our time in his latest work: How is global capitalism going to develop in the future? Will international video art play a role in its socioeconomic shift? Are museums and commercial galleries now appropriate spaces to propagate contemporary revolutionary rudiments? Even though KAPITAL and PLAYTIME succeed in opening up new questions about the main forces of the flow of capital, Isaac Julien’s personal approach to global capitalism remains a theoretical play with visual images. ‘When I make a new piece of art, it is like making a record. It has to be a hit.’


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