Isaac Julien: PLAYTIME
Metro Pictures, New York
7 November - 14 December 2013
Review by Michael Pepi
When viewing PLAYTIME, Isaac Julien’s two monitor flat-screen film installation at Metro Pictures, one is gripped by the way in which the subjects of the narrative represent open secrets of capitalism. Using the clean, attractive cinematography of an exercise in corporate branding, Julien peers into formulas and arrangements that we always knew to exist. They seem to operate all around us, but just exactly how they proceed has often felt alien.
Julien tracks the global flow of capital across London, Dubai, and Iceland, three locations implicated in the new age of high-velocity finance. The core of the film is the interplay of the collector, artist, houseworker, auctioneer, and the reporter, though their stories are only tenuously strung together. We find ‘the collector’ as he ascends a staircase with Simon de Pury holding an art auction off site; an itinerant housemaid has landed in Dubai to tend for the lavishly appointed apartment of a multi-millionaire; and in Iceland, a sorrowful artist paces around an abandoned compound. Dogged by the post-2008 awareness of disembodied forms of capital, Julien uses art and its markets to make manifest the ensemble’s implication in networks beyond our view.
PLAYTIME mimics the visual grammar of sensationalist, immersive advertising, a style that delivers its message in its very presentation. ‘Baltimore’ - Julien’s 16mm three-channel film installation from 2003 - also operated in complicity with a genre that he meant to critique, this time Blaxploitation. But the brooding soundtrack throughout PLAYTIME makes the viewer wary of each scene as it unfolds. Where ‘Baltimore’ was direct in its fantasy, PLAYTIME is not so clear. The film features vaguely futuristic iconography of Dubai and the use of well-known actors such as James Franco, who plays the collector. Your perception of fiction, non-fiction, and documentary film are on shaky ground. The narrative, like capital, must create a crisis to move forward.
The film departs from the ominous droll images of post-human techno-capitalism for a several minute monologue by Franco. Facing the camera and in almost a single take, Franco delivers a dead-pan sales pitch on contemporary art as a high-growth asset - the one we’ve heard two thousand times, but which seemingly few act upon. In a familiar gallery setting, Franco points out a recent Glenn Ligon work which sold for a handsome sum. When the speech is finished, the scene breaks and we see Franco, now in his role as actor, disengage from character as the crew cleans up.
Several minutes are spent gazing down into the trading floor of the Dubai Financial Market. The male inhabitants, all dressed in traditional white robes, move in slow motion. Julien focuses on the flurry of digital trading activity humming beneath the surprisingly serene, almost museum-like space. Even as billions are traded, the environment shares the placid, desolate mood of the housemaid’s apartment, the artist’s arctic compound, and the collector’s hush within the white walls of the gallery.
In Iceland, a nation that experienced catastrophic decline after amassing debt in excess of three times their national GDP, Julien depicts the forlorn artist in the bleak natural landscape. Half-constructed homes lay abandoned. Here Julien’s ominous soundtrack does the most to fix the viewer’s gaze as the artist moves among the bare, barren scene. In every situation, Julien uses the characters to illustrate the consequences of the activity that presses along beneath the quiet surface. In the moments of sparse visual stimulation, Julien asks us to contemplate the networks required to connect these far flung locations to a web of global capital. When the houseworker retreats to the desert’s dunes is perhaps the only truly tranquil moment.