Portrait

Money talks for a prominent British contemporary artist. By Martin Edmond.

Fifteen minutes with Isaac Julien

Isaac Julien comes out of the room in Sydney’s Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery where his film installation Playtime is showing and greets me with opaque eyes, a wary smile and a classic, limp, art-world handshake. 

He is wearing a rumpled charcoal suit, a thin, iridescent orange tie and blue suede shoes and has been checking the colour registration of the projection on the white wall within. “The purples,” he says, “are not quite right.”

He’s in the midst of a busy schedule: there’s a phone interview due, there’s a photographer coming and after that a car trip across town. We decide to wait 10 minutes and then have our talk.

I go in to look at the film. In a crumbling concrete interior in Reykjavik an artist, played by Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson, is agonising over the imminent loss of his house – due to the global financial crisis, which began
in Iceland. 

In an adjoining room, the second component of the piece, Kapital, plays on split screens: video footage of an event in London at which Julien appeared in conversation with curators, critics and theorists, including Englishman David Harvey, the author of The Enigma of Capital

Harvey is talking but you have to wear headphones to hear what he is saying. Something about credit as a perpetually open Pandora’s box; about “animal spirits”. The words jump from screen to screen, along with images of Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times.

Isaac comes back in to check the purples again and I ask him if he’s ever worked as his own cinematographer. 

“No,” he says, looking faintly alarmed, “not ever. I hire people. I had three on this,” pointing towards the huge image on the wall, where art auctioneer Simon de Pury, playing himself, is preparing for a sale. 

We have our 15 minutes, sitting side by side, two boys, in reception. The conversation is punctuated at intervals by crashing hammer blows, as de Pury’s gavel comes down like the crack of doom next door. 

“I was in London in 1979,” I say. “What were you doing then?” Isaac’s face crinkles up. “1979? Clubbing, mostly. At the Embassy on Bond Street. I used to see Andy Warhol there, people like that. It was the year I realised that if I wanted to be an artist I had to get serious about it. Putting a portfolio together, drawing and painting.” 

But he doesn’t draw anymore. “I had a painting in the Royal Academy show in 1980. Then I realised painting was not the way to go; not because I didn’t like my work, but because the audience … wasn’t there. So I went into cinema.” He gestures to the gallery. “Expanded cinema.” 

We go back, to the mid-1970s, when the chronology in his latest book Riot begins. In those years he was living with his parents, recent migrants from St Lucia, in the East End, and some curious meetings took place. 

One was with Astrid Proll, a member of the Red Army Faction, better known as the Baader-Meinhof gang. She was on the run and living under an assumed name, Anna Puttick. 

Another was with a New Zealander, an artist named Susan Shearer, who worked alongside his father at the Ford factory, and had a darkroom, which she allowed Isaac to use. 

A third, perhaps the most significant, was with Jenny Fortune, a community activist.

“I was curious,” he says. “And they tolerated, even fed, my curiosity. They gave me a model – they were very politically engaged. They showed me it was possible to be something other than the lawyer or the banker that my father wanted me to be.” 

The desperate idealism of those days, when people thought they could change the world, has gone; and with it all that crazy optimism. Hasn’t it? 

“You have to be pragmatic,” he says, “about your idealism as much as anything else. Pragmatic scepticism is the only way to operate these days.

“It’s binary. We live within capitalist structures, they are pervasive, ubiquitous. Not equitable, and not of our own choosing – so we have no choice but to try to remake them from within.

“There is at least a chance that, in one of its many reinventions, capitalism may invert itself. Look at Germany, the new ecological capitalism emerging there.” 

“What are animal spirits?” I ask and he tells me how attractive it is to compete and how seductive the things that we compete for; how competition can be constructive or destructive. Or deconstructive.

What about the alchemical transformation of labour into capital, the way the bodies of slaves are turned literally into money? 

“Yes,” he agrees, “they are still with us, the disposable people, who are used then eliminated, after which others are brought in to do the work. 

“My Filipino maid is one of those,” he says and indicates the photo on the wall before us, of a woman with a mop or a broom, looking out the window of a high rise in Dubai. 

“This is the price of those things we find so desirable.” 

And suddenly, too soon, our time is up. “It is a pleasure to meet you,” I say. He smiles, very sweetly. Yet there is still something remote and inaccessible as Kapital behind his eyes. 

On my way out I see a fellow in the loading bay, on his knees before an open camera bag. “Are you the photographer?” I ask. “I think so,” he says. 

“It’s like meeting Louis Armstrong,” I offer. “Without the trumpet.”

In Playtime, it is the hedge fund manager who plays the trumpet.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 26, 2014 as "Animal spirits". Subscribe here.

Martin Edmond
is an author and screenwriter. His books include Dark Night: Walking with McCahon.