Isaac Julien: MAK Center for Art and Architecture
Miles, Christopher, Artforum International
Isaac Julien's recent exhibition at MAK Center for Art and Architecture consisted of a group of photographs, some of them triptychs, which are stills from a fourteen-minute film (not shown here) shot in Iceland and northern Sweden in 2004. Collectively titled "True North," these works offer a loose retelling and interpretation--what Julien has called a "re-memorizing"--of the story of Matthew Henson. This underacknowledged African American was the right-hand man upon whom Robert E. Peary depended for the success of his 1909 expedition to the North Pole, and was likely the first man to reach the point of true north.
The film, designed to be shown on three screens, juxtaposes intermittent sequences that deliver a nonlinear narrative. A figure of African descent, so bundled up in fur and wool that it's impossible to tell whether it's male or female, is shown striding across icy terrain alongside two Inuit men. A voice-over describes the tension that stemmed from Peary's simultaneous dependence upon, admiration of, and contempt for Henson, whose words are here borrowed from a 1966 interview and delivered in hushed, female tones. The switch of gender in the narration is fleshed out in another sequence, in which a statuesque black woman with closely shorn hair and clad in a long, sheer white shift, strolls along a rocky coastline amid chunks of glistening polar ice. The explorer one might have assumed to be masculine is now clearly one and the same as this boldly feminine diva on the beach.
Watching the action, one finds oneself endlessly cross-referencing the separate fragments. And it's difficult to avoid doing the same here with the photographs, which, in spite of their gentle loveliness, remain uncanny. …