Playtime is a rather misleading name for a rather serious exhibition; this is one of those times where it may take a few viewings for its meaning to fully sink in. Although not at all lacking in visual wonder, Isaac Julien: Playtime (Playtime) is best suited for the intellectually inclined and socially aware—and is perhaps not for the faint of heart. Those who fit the bill, however, are sure to walk away stocked with food for thought.
n order to understand what this exhibition is about, one should first know about the artist. Born in London in 1960, Julien is a filmmaker and installation artist whose work often addresses the problems of society. The United States’ (U.S.) Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) describes Julien’s style as employing “documentary archival material with poetic fictionalizations.” This quote can also be used to describe the three sections in Playtime—“Playtime,” “Kapital,” and “The Leopard.”
Connected by Capital
The venue for the exhibition is Platform-L, a contemporary art center situated in Gangnam-gu whose sleek exterior and two separated buildings seems quite fitting for the overall theme of Julien’s work. A stroll across the center’s courtyard and a brief elevator ride will take the visitor to a room with seven screens, each providing a different viewpoint of whatever is shown on the largest screen. All of the displays have a distinct flavor, though many of them share the same themes, such as commoditization and the debilitating effect money can have on things that have personal significance, such as art or even memory.
An interesting method Julien uses in “Playtime,” the first section, is to look at the problem from a relatively objective point of view; the staged interview involving Swiss art auctioneer Simon de Pury is an example of this. Viewers will find themselves nodding along with de Pury’s anecdotes until the brief flashes of red light and static-noise fills the screens. This, as well as the discussion of art markets and the 2008 financial crisis, alerts the viewers that there is a message behind this interview that needs to be decoded. Julien wishes to direct attention to the very real and practical force called capital; here, he does so subtly, with the questions he chooses to have de Pury answer and the bits of commentary that speak of the darker sides of capital.
Das Kapital in the 21st Century
Climbing up a flight of stairs in the other building, a much more well-lit space greets the viewer—this time with only two screens to draw in the eye. The sudden increase in light clearly marks a stylistic change. “Kapital,” the second section, is not fictional like “Playtime;” it is a philosophical debate captured on camera. Sociologist David Harvey takes center stage along with Isaac Julien himself to discuss Marx’s theories.
In Playtime, art is mostly a vessel to alert viewers to reality’s imperfections and this is especially true for “Kapital.” No fault is to be found with the quality of the footage, nor with its representation; the kinetic typography that acts as a subheading for the discussion is appropriately minimalist and fits the predominantly intellectual atmosphere of the video. Beyond this, however, the presence and influence of art is rather scarce in this section. Aesthetic appeal here is a passive presence, one not easily noticeable and mostly existing to complement something more important—such as a better understanding of the discussion going on within those dual screens.
A Tormenting Trail
The third-floor stairwell, the one viewers will encounter on their way to see the final section— “The Leopard”— lacks the brightness of the previous set of gallery stairs. The straightforwardness seen in the previous section fades with the lighting and two screens are reduced to one, but the audience will not need dual screens to fully appreciate the 18-minute film. The silhouette of a lone migrant is shown along with a song, perhaps North African, in the background. The voice singing it is full of vitality, yet the underlying melancholy leads one to wonder how the migrants might feel as they make their fateful journey across the Mediterranean.
The song is soon replaced by oddly metallic sounds that conjure images of a room whose walls are constantly closing in. Contrasting images are repeatedly used throughout the film. Corpses of unlucky migrants lie forgotten on the beach, not too far from families basking in the sun, and a breathtaking palace is soon replaced by a vital yet desperate dance filmed underwater, one which compellingly depicts the peril oversea migration creates for the poor. All of this is employed in order to emphasize the dissonance between hope and reality, and the lack of plot in the film makes this contrast all the starker.
As long as artists remain aware of the world around them, what they produce cannot help but be a mirror of reality, though the degree of reflection varies from artist to artist. In Playtime at least, Julien chooses to be clear about his message, though the more abstract aspects of art are definitely present and none of the sections are lacking in visual pleasures. Nonetheless, viewers should not expect levity or simple enjoyment from Playtime, for this exhibition is ultimately meant for serious minds and socially-concerned eyes.
Artist: Isaac Julien
Period: February 22 to April 30, 2017
Gallery Hours: 2:00 P.M. to 10:00 P.M. (Tuesdays to Sundays). Day off on Mondays