Stories have been abundant in the visual arts for years – the main exhibition at the Venice Biennale was based on the surreal stories of Leonora Carrington – and it will only get bigger in the coming year. For example, the Biennale in the Nigerian capital Lagos is based on the history of the racecourse where British colonizers liked to hold their horse races. After independence, the track served as a venue for military parades. That place’s past will soon be the basis for art and stories of nation-building and construction. In the Finnish capital Helsinki, the ‘Biennale’ (written without the e) will focus on new paths, and the Biennale in Riga, Latvia (if it goes ahead) will partly focus on the relationship between the nation-building and image of the Baltic countries. Dutch museums come with large exhibitions about the past – the Vermeer exhibition in the Rijksmuseum is accompanied by many book editions and ‘discoveries’.
“Come tonight with stories about how the war has disappeared”, wrote Leo Vroman in 1957. A creed that is, on the one hand, a wish for 2023, but also applies to what will develop further this year: abstraction enters further in the background to make way for the (forgotten) history.
In this regard, Julien is an excellent example for those who want to understand a continued trend in 2023. After 2015, of course, more work has been added, including the fascinating tableaux vivants about the abolitionist Frederick Douglass – Lessons of the hour (2019) says. On ten video screens, the viewer is taken into scenes from the life of Douglas giving three speeches to a white audience, and on others you see clips that appear to be a nod to the Netflix hit Bridgerton. What drew Julien to Douglass to make it work was not only what the slave-born thinker about 1818 stood for, but also the relationship between Douglass’s ideas and the role of photography. Douglass was the most portrayed American of the 19th century. He has been captured more times than President Abraham Lincoln. “He saw photography as a tool to free the history of slavery from the standard images and caricatures that existed,” Julien explained of Douglass’ fascination with photographs.
Julien deliberately used portraits of Douglass (and an actor) without a distracting background, to bring the man more to the fore and push back the set. The viewer had to come up with the stories themselves.
This thought was also in line with what Douglass himself believed: he strongly believed in the power of words, but also believed that language could be too distant to highlight the reality of slavery, visual culture was more far-reaching. “With pictures it’s like with songs, they have to find their own way in the world. All we can ask is that they be hung on the wall, with the best possible light on them, and that they speak for themselves.”
At the same time, Julien seems to give his interpretation to the story: i tableaux vivants you get to see Douglass speak, sit in a carriage, walk through tall grass, walk with a horse by his side, et cetera. But by showing different ‘tableaux’ on ten screens at the same time, and while the game is talking, you are not only confronted with the many interpretations that exist, but you are also forced to choose between the worlds that appear on the screen.
He used a similar procedure in 2012 with the video artwork Ten thousand waveswhere ten screens show Chinese migrant workers drowning off the coast of England and other screens tell and depict a 16th century Chinese fable.
Julien has had this relationship between word and image, story and screen from the very beginning. In interviews, he indicated that when someone asked him what his work was about, he saw himself primarily as a poet. “I am a poet, interested in poetry,” he said in an interview Tate Shots. The commentary not only explains his choice of subjects and protagonists in his film and video art – such as the writer and philosopher Frantz Fanon, the poet Langston Hughes and the writer James Baldwin – but it also says something about the form of his work.