Baltimore, a three-screen DVD projection by British artist and filmmaker Isaac Julien closes at ArtPace this month. Utilizing an icon of the blaxploitation genre and diverse cultural institutions in Mobtown, Julien up-ends media-driven cultural stereotypes. (courtesy photo)

Filmmaker Isaac Julien's desire transcends identity

Paradise Omeros and Baltimore, two recent films directed by preeminent British artist, filmmaker, and scholar Isaac Julien, have been showing back-to-back in the Hudson Show Room at ArtPace this winter. Paradise Omeros closed in mid-December; Baltimore is on view through January 25. Both works are 35mm films presented as synchronized, three-channel DVD projections. Julien first explored this format during his 1999 ArtPace residency, resulting in a stunning three-screen film installation, The Long Road to Mazatlan, an extravagant queer cowboy saga that earned him a Turner Prize nomination in 2001.

Like The Long Road to Mazatlan, Paradise Omeros, completed in 2002, and Baltimore, which premiered in 2003, straddle distinctions between fine art and straightforward filmmaking. Both are gorgeous triptychs tinged with an overarching obsession with identity and the myriad ways it is formed and expressed. Despite this fixation, Julien's work exists in counterpoint to so-called ethnographic filmmaking. He obviously investigates the roles that hybridity, emergence, perception, and individual potency play in the development of cultural identity, but he also emphasizes the lush, the exotic, and the other in a way that would make any self-respecting cultural anthropologist blush with academic ire. Julien's objectives are overtly cinematic and unapologetically subjective.

Paradise Omeros, which draws its name and narrative from a poem by Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott, elegantly probes the creative possibilities of multiscreen filmmaking. Julien fuses Walcott's updated Homeric epic with an allegorical drama shot in exotic St. Lucia and inner-city London of the early '60s, set to a musical score by Paul Gladstone Reid. The underlying drama is hallucinatory and fluid, allowing the viewer to intermittently embrace either a narrative or visual path at will. At times, the narrative disappears altogether, dissipated by the overwhelming sculptural presence of the installation. The experience is surreal and transformative.

Baltimore is a different beast indeed, visually and conceptually. The lush Paradise Omeros effectively redresses issues of racial, sexual, and cultural identity, but Baltimore, with its cool blue hue, state-of-the-art special effects, and slightly cynical air of post-postmodern detachment, pushes any lingering identity issues over the edge of absurdity into undiluted, self-deprecating satire.

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In Baltimore, Julien is challenging the relevance of time and place in establishing both cultural context and period-specific racial stereotypes. The artist draws on some of his earlier, more conventional works including footage and research compiled for the documentary Baadasssss Cinema (2003), which recently aired on the Independent Film Channel. Baltimore visually interweaves three disparate cultural institutions in the urban Baltimore area - the Great Blacks in Wax Museum, the Peabody Institute, and the Walters Art Gallery - using these very different physical spaces as the backdrop for a slightly choppy composition that blurs the straightforward trajectory of time and space, all the while humorously belittling the traditional cinematic gaze.

Again, the three-screen format indulges a vast visual latitude. Baltimore features the decidedly bad-ass actor/director Melvin Van Peebles, the reluctant progenitor of the über kitsch blaxploitation genre. Throughout the film, Van Peebles is stalked by a shape-shifting, vaguely alien entity played by the conspicuously lovely model/actress Vanessa Myrie. The result is at once a retro romp through blaxploitation's hell-raising heyday and a big budget, futuristic, nonlinear fantasy that parodies and visually deconstructs notions of "blackness" consciously propagated by the film industry.

Critics (myself included) may be far too preoccupied with the role of black and queer identity in Julien's work. In Paradise Omeros especially, labels of "black" and "white" are quietly rendered obsolete, not simply through the introduction of an overt Creole gray zone, but through an artfully postulated, universal yen. In Julien's films, want, desire, lust, and the suspenseful pursuit of pleasure transcend cultural distinctions. In essence, for Julien, these sentiments exist not simply in reaction to perceived racial and cultural differences, but in spite of them. •


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