this issue contains
>> Immaculate White: Art and Winter
>> True North: Isaac Julien
>> Frozen Sculptures: Marc Quinn
>> Felt and Fat: Joseph Beuys

>> archive

True North:
A conversation between Isaac Julien and Cheryl Kaplan

Isaac Julien
©copyright Cheryl 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 for the Turner Prize. He is noted for his complex films including The Long Road to Mazatlán, 1999, Vagabondia, 2000, 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?

Isaac 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.

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