Isaac Julien, "Baltimore," Oct. 25-Dec. 13, 2003, at Metro Pictures,
519 West 24th Street, New York, N.Y. 10011
In his films, the British artist Isaac Julien has been known to take the sacrosanct Western art museum, that solemn repository of history and culture, and use it as a setting for blasphemous capers.
Once again, with his new film Baltimore, Julien considers the thorny question of whether the notion of the "museum" is benign or ideologically suspect. (Baltimore was jointly commissioned by the Walters and the Great Blacks in Wax Museum as part of a series, "Facing Museums," aimed at stimulating dialogue about the evolving role of museums in society.)
Some of Julien's most notable previous films enact this debate through depictions of after-hours museum visits by characters whose mere presence suggest disruption.
In The Attendant (1993), a hunky, white leatherman wanders through the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the culmination of his trip being an interracial, psychic three-way with a middle-aged museum attendant and his wife. In Vagabondia (1999), two Creole ladies (ghosts from the colonial past), a vagabond dancer and Julien, in a subtle cameo appearance, invade London's Sir John Soane's Museum.
These earlier films emphasize the implicit tensions between socially marginal museum visitors and the august spaces that celebrate so well the Dead White Maleness of high culture.
In Baltimore, tensions arise from African Americans' search for their own legends and icons. Julien's exploration of this truly intriguing topic is layered, contemplative, inconclusive -- keyed to the two uncompromising, pop-culture characters who populate it.
The "Baltimore" exhibition at Metro Pictures features photographic stills and an 11-minute film starring Melvin van Peebles, the veteran film director whose 1971 movie Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song initiated the Blaxploitation genre. Baltimore starts with shots of the city, followed by van Peebles's long, solitary stroll through Baltimore's Great Blacks in Wax Museum. On his tour, van Peebles takes in the figures of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X and other African American notables, until eventually he comes face to face with his own likeness in the wax museum collection (a statue that was, as it happens, added by Julien).
Is Julien arguing for van Peebles's place in black history alongside towering Civil Rights figures? What the artist wishes to remind us is that even though the films van Peebles directed, and the genre he inspired, were widely criticized by the black bourgeoisie as glamorizing racist stereotypes, they were immensely popular with everyday black audiences.
From this thought, Julien moves quickly on to a commentary about high and low culture. Van Peebles, after his visit to the wax museum, ends up at Baltimore's Walters Art Museum among the Old Masters, and who should be looking over his shoulder but the wax statues from the "black" museum space. How startling is it to see Dr. King standing there surrounded by European paintings? It is a simultaneously mournful and celebratory moment. Icons once locked in a hierarchy of social and artistic worth now turn in unison to face the products of a culture historically framed as superior to both of them.
A second narrative in Baltimore focuses on Angela, a gun-toting black woman with a 1970s-style Afro. She and van Peebles never meet in their slow tours through the deserted museum, although they appear to be in pursuit of one another. Julien relegates them to different screens (the Metro pictures presentation of Baltimore uses three screens). At one point, Angela rips off what turns out to be an Afro wig, revealing a bald head, as if to declare that Julien knows the image she is portraying is an anachronistic fiction.
Despite making its point, Baltimore lacks the cleverness and sheer visual appeal of Julien's previous work. It has none of the stylized cinematography of The Attendant, with its wild colors and imaginative camera angles, or Vagabondia's dizzying use of reflections or, for that matter, the marvelous psychological tension that drives The Long Road to Mazatlan, which got Julien short-listed for the Turner Prize in 2001. these films intelligently showcased Julien's ambivalence towards the museum's spectator/display set-up while Baltimore felt like a side project -- the cumulus of shots and ideas that hadn't made it into Julien's more substantive work.
Julien's affection for Blaxploitation has been widely noted, and Baltimore's references to rebellious Afro-chic(k) role models like Angela Davis and Jackie Brown are hard to resist. But Julien is also intent on liberating these icons from the overwrought, the familiar. He therefore gives Angela fairly contemporary superpowers. She emits laser beams from her pupils. She taps on an invisible control pad in her palm, causing van Peebles to materialize on an opposing screen. She even leaps Matrix-like through the air. With this display of special effects and digital manipulation, Julien strongly defines Angela as a figure of the future, not the past.