A conversation between Isaac Julien and
Kaplan 2005. All rights reserved. Courtesy Cheryl Kaplan
Isaac Julien is in New York from London during one
of the heaviest snowstorms all winter. As I make my way to meet him, I
feel like I’ve just been recast as one of his characters in
True North, his 2004 film installation based on the story of
Matthew Henson, the first explorer to reach the North Pole with
Robert E. Peary in 1909. The two met while Henson, an African American,
was a U.S. Navy civil engineer and then Peary signed Henson on, realizing
his knowledge of the
Inuit language and culture were key to the expedition’s success. However,
damaging disregard from Peary, along with societal prejudice, left
Henson’s achievements in doubt; his success was virtually obscured until
recently. In 1988 Henson’s body was moved to
Arlington National Cemetery and buried next to Peary’s. Julien is
represented in the Deutsche
Bank Collection with a work from the new corpus of photographs titled
True North (2004) that reanimate heroic polar explorations through the
lens of mythology and fiction, rooted in a distinctly imperialist history.
Julien uses beauty as a way to identify cultural fault lines. He sets up his
films, not so much as a political act, though they often feel that way,
but as a method of re-interviewing a misunderstood past. He is, after all,
an interlocutor, a presenter who stands in the middle, maintaining a
diligent watch. In 2001, director and artist Isaac Julien was nominated
Turner Prize. He is noted for his complex films including
The Long Road to Mazatlán, 1999,
Paradise Omeros, 2002 as well as the feature-length documentary
BaadAsssss Cinema, 2002, that (investigates the commercial Black
independent filmmaking in the early 1970s which became known as
"blaxploitation"). Julien’s short film
Baltimore, 2003 also stars
Melvin Van Peebles. Earlier works include the Cannes prize-winning
Young Soul Rebels,1991 and the acclaimed documentary
Looking for Langston, 1989.
TUntitled (True North Series), Fotoarbeit, 2004
Deutsche Bank Collection, ©Courtesy of the Artist
Cheryl Kaplan: In "True North", the pacing is
very pared down. The narrative is slowly let out under the weight of a
stark and overwhelming landscape and could suddenly go silent. Why is the
relationship between narrative and landscape compiled as a trigger point
where each element is played against the other?
Julien: I was interested in making a work that was the opposite of the
pieces I made before. In my 1986 film,
The Passion of Remembrance, there are two speakers: a black woman and
a black man standing against an anonymous landscape having an argument
about the plight of black politics. The black woman critiques the
phallo-centricity of the
Black Power Movement of the 60s and 70s in front of a barren landscape.
True North continues that. The sublime enters into it strongly. We can
think of people like
Caspar David Friedrich, the painter I’m interested in, the materiality of
the land itself, and the Arctic, where True North is meant to be
based, though it was actually shot in Northern Sweden and Iceland. These
are not empty landscapes, emptied of people or history or meaning. They’re
inhabited by a people. This is looked upon as a space for possible
colonization; the Inuit folks and culture were there. In True North
, I’m trying to link that history with an actual landscape and the
unwritten historical legacy of the first person to actually reach the
North Pole, who was indeed not Peary, but Matthew Henson. There’s beauty
to ice and a deathly attraction we have towards that space. The narrative
is elliptical and poetic.
Untitled (True North Series), 2004,
Filmstill, ©Courtesy of the Artist and Metro Pictures Gallery
As soon as the film starts, the landscape becomes a character with a history.
Like in some of my earlier works too, made for the gallery context, such as
The Long Road to Mazatlan, which has an idea of the
Wild West and the figure in the landscape. Landscape has often figured in
the work; it gets linked to questions of identity and bodies and notions
of popular and high culture. True North is much more rigorous and
austere. There’s a toughness to the landscape beyond the literal toughness
of the ice. There’s a hardness, but also a vulnerability that’s revealed.
I’m interested in the idea of a contaminated landscape. It’s a white
landscape linked to the sublime, but actually it’s not a sublime, ideal
landscape at all. It’s "raced," it belongs to a culture, but in a
post-colonial sense – it’s the embodiment of ideals people have about
themselves in relation to fixed notions of identity and national belonging
as well as a European idea about landscape. I want to break this open.
It’s a radical positioning in terms of a black subject reclaiming a space
and history that has been "raced."
Untitled (True North Series), 2004, Filmstill, ©Courtesy of the Artist and
Metro Pictures Gallery
When the actual
narration begins in "True North", it’s spoken just above a whisper, and
yet it’s a public statement. I’m interested in this tension between
something held in confidence, that is secretive, and something on "public
record." How are you using Henson’s voyage to play that out?
That comes from an interview an illustrated geographic journal made with
Henson in 1966 that repositioned Henson, conducted thirty years after
Peary’s death. Henson confessed he’d had an argument with Peary about the
actual moment Peary thought he’d reached the Pole. This gets declared
thirty years after Peary’s death. It’s not described in the official
discourse, but it’s registered. It was important to relay that information
under the circumstance of its exhibition. It was done with great anxiety
on Henson’s part. The question of whispering and the way in which the
narration is orchestrated around a secret being publicized is very much
about private knowledge made public. Also, a certain intimacy is being
relayed about how the relationship between Henson and Peary must have
developed. We’re talking here about the possible idea of murder. The
possible idea of being scared for one’s life. Henson knew he had to take
the ammunition out of the guns since he was the only person who actually
had a rifle. Peary was absolutely hopping mad regarding the suggestion.
It’s a master/slave dialectic taking place in that moment. Peary had a
dependent relationship with Henson as a guide. There’s a reliance and
dependency on Henson’s part as well, a history embedded in that landscape
that we can’t see. There’s a delicacy that’s hopefully transmitted, as the
voice is a whisper; it’s a shared knowledge that’s slightly apprehensive.
A woman re-tells the story, and there’s a doubling of voices, made up of
my voice and her voice.
Untitled (True North Series), 2004, Filmstill
©Courtesy of the Artist and Metro Pictures Gallery
You’ve spoken of "re-memorizing" in reference to "True North" and to Matthew
Henson. To what extent does this "re-memorizing" give memory a second
chance at "getting it right?"
The idea of "re-memorizing" is different from the official discourses of
History with a capital "H." A lower-case investigation into the historical
material is at work in True North. Memory is not chronological.