Transcend the boundaries of time and place

Isaac Julien / Helen Fuller
Samstag Art Museum

Isaac Julien, born in East London, is a British multidisciplinary artist and filmmaker whose 30+ year practice honors his subjects with meticulous research and multi-layered poetic contextualization that transcends the boundaries of time and place.

The larger of Julien’s two works in Samstag’s ground floor gallery is Ten thousand waves, a nine-screen audio-visual installation created in response to the tragic deaths in 2004 of 21 Chinese migrant workers in the North East of England. Illegally trafficked by criminals, they had been sent to gather cockles at low tide on the mudflats of Morecambe Bay on a cold February night.

Working for a pittance and unable to understand the locals’ warnings about the treacherous speed of the tides, they had stayed too far from shore for too long and were trapped in the dark by the rising, freezing tide. One of the workers eventually managed to communicate their perilous situation to the emergency services, but by the time a rescue helicopter arrived all but one had been lost in the sea.

It was a widely reported incident that sparked sadness across the country at the time, as well as pressing questions about the exploitation of illegal migrant workers, but Julien’s layered and fragmented narrative, filmed primarily on place in China, adds humanistic depth and context through poetry. beauty of his cinematic exploration of this tragedy and global human migration.

Through years of research in China, Julien’s broader contextualization of drownings is informed by conversations with scholars, curators and artists in China and the UK and collaborations with prominent Chinese figures in the arts. . He commissioned poet Wang Ping to create the words spoken by the film’s ghostly protagonist; the role of the white-robed goddess Mazu is played by famous actress Maggie Cheung, and master calligrapher Gong Fagen inscribes characters on the screen with brush and black ink.

Most of the workers who lost their lives were from Fujian province, where the legend of the goddess Mazu is well known; he recounts how she guided fishermen lost at sea to safety. In Julien’s film, Mazu drifts through the air, Crouching dragon-style, through the dramatic mountainous landscapes of Guanxi province, watching the traditionally dressed young men go on a journey. Film footage shot on a Shanghai stage of pre-revolutionary life in the city, as well as modern footage of the city as it is today, are intertwined with myth; the goddess makes an appearance in each, the actor’s contrivance suspended against a bare green backdrop in the transitions between the film’s sets, stripping away any attempt at romanticism.

Isaac Julian, Green Screen Goddess (Ten Thousand Waves), 2010, photograph Endure Ultra. Courtesy of the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney.

In the face of ancient myth, metaphor and history, the Morecambe Bay incident is blessed with the layered complexity that is lacking in news reporting. The combined effect of archival footage from pre-revolutionary China and the early days of Mao’s revolution, along with footage shot from a rescue helicopter and cinematic scenes shot on set in Shanghai, provides a beautiful and fascinating 50 minute immersion into the nuanced depths that lie behind the tragedy.

Upstairs, three screens present a completely different world. At Julien’s A marvelous tangle presents the vision of modernist architect Lina Bo Bardi (1914-1992) through images shot in and around her most iconic buildings in São Paulo and Salvador de Bahia in Brazil. His visionary statements on the social, economic and cultural context of urban architecture are delivered by award-winning actors Fernanda Montenegro and her daughter Fernanda Torres, who represent the architect in his youth and later years.

In a letter, Bardi writes: “Linear time is a Western invention; time is not linear, it is a marvelous entanglement, where at any moment points can be chosen and solutions invented without beginning or end. His statement is repeated throughout A marvelous tangleaccurately reflecting the time-transcending beauty of the film, which also addresses the painful and dark horrors of slavery.

Installation view: Isaac Julien, Lina Bo Bardi – A Wonderful Entanglement2019. Samstag Museum of Art for Adelaide Festival 2022. Photo: Grant Hancock

The dark second gallery on the top floor of Samstag is densely populated with terracotta pieces created by Adelaide artist Helen Fuller. This exhibition space was designed by Khai Liew, the walls lined in black with an intricate pattern of fine lines, squiggles and buttons that give an air of endless, timeless space against which the pieces are placed. Printed with leaves and seeds, etched and scratched with feather or fur markings and in colors that include a dark semi-matte glaze that half shimmers in low light, an ocher reminiscent of Aboriginal artifacts and a white slip provided by Kirsten Coelho’s studio, each of these biomorphic pieces feel like individual entities.

Some pieces have twigs tied with twisted wire, as if they were handles; others resemble stalagmites or ancient coral formations, some with contemporary geometric markings, others resembling ancient artifacts mined from the earth. All require special and prolonged attention.

Installation view: Helen Fuller, pans2021. Samstag Museum of Art for Adelaide Festival 2022. Photo: Grant Hancock

In our age of diminishing nuance and hasty guesswork, the works currently on display at the Samstag Museum warrant a longer visit, giving a sense of transcended time and place, a welcome escape from the restricted movements of our times.

Isaac Julien’s epic works are worth watching from start to finish, and the small space in which Helen Fuller’s prolific output is displayed belies the time needed to unfold the full impact of her work. Works by Julien and Fuller contribute to an excellent exhibition befitting the Samstag Museum’s status as one of Australia’s leading contemporary art galleries.

the the work of Isaac Julien and Helen Fuller is on display at the Samstag Museum until May 27. Both are presented as part of the Adelaide Festival 2022, while Julien’s exhibition is also a collaboration with the Perth Festival and John Curtin Gallery at Curtin University.

Click here for more coverage of Adelaide Festival 2022.

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This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.

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