Withering Critiques of Capitalism in “Isaac Julien: Playtime”

SFAI's debut show at Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture contains three outstanding film installations.

A still from the Dubai segment of Isaac Julien’s Playtime. (SFAI)

Since it appears we’re truly, seriously headed for a new Gilded Age courtesy of the GOP’s tax scam, it feels perversely appropriate that Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture (FMCAC) is the new home of a mostly cinematic exhibit by a poetically damning British artist and filmmaker. “Isaac Julien: Playtime” consists mainly of three pieces, all of them on at least one screen, and all of them interrogations at the complex eddies and flows of global finance. A partnership with the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI), it’s the inaugural show at SFAI’s new Gray Box Theater on one of FMCAC’s pavilions.

If that sounds like a hastily mimeographed flyer encouraging you to sit outside the Federal Reserve in ashes and sackcloth while getting harangued, it isn’t. Julien’s work is, on the whole, moodily beautiful. In 2010’s Better Life (Ten Thousand Waves), he takes modern Shanghai as a jumping-off point for a query into the alienation plaguing a country that leapt into incredibly wealth on an abbreviated timescale. An angelic figure — the ancient goddess Mazu, protectress of sailors — floats above the skyline (and, in some meta shots, against a studio greenscreen). Below, earthly figures find themselves spiritually adrift in high-rises and on public transit — or worse, as migrants trapped in quicksand and dying of hypothermia in the cold waters of England’s Morecambe Bay, where some 22 Chinese nationals perished in 2004 while picking cockles for illegally low wages.

In 2013’s KAPITAL, Julien discussed the power dynamics of our financialized world with celebrated Marxist geographer David Harvey. Since the invisible, weightless, and odorless nature of capital renders it impossible to capture on celluloid, Julien sought to portray it via its emanations into the world of social relations. A 30-minute conversation on such weighty topics almost shouldn’t fly by like this.

Lastly, in the three-part, seven-screen Playtime, Julien travels to London, Dubai, and Reykjavik, the world cities that were arguably the foci of the 2008 global economic crisis. (The Zelig of our times, James Franco appears in one segment, as do Mercedes Cabral, Maggie Cheung, and Colin Salmon.) In the Reykjavik component, an industrial home near one of Iceland’s many geothermal power plants feels like the monitoring station for the pressures building up within the Earth itself. Its lonely inhabitant — a photographer — stares through a disconcertingly yellow, Moholy-Nagy-esque window, brooding on his station with a Nordic glumness. Of the Dubai section, which follows a Filipina guest worker, Julien calls it a “Blade Runner set.”

The viewer moves — or feels compelled to move — among the seven screens, as few vantage points afford a perfect line of sight. (Julien set them up this way, here and at a previous installation in Seoul.) If you’ve been to SFMOMA to see Ragnar Kjartansson’s hour-long, nine-screen piece The Visitors, in which a group of musicians plays the same song and gradually moves out of an old farmhouse in Upstate New York, the effect is similar. That similarity is not lost on Julien, although his work is more jagged in feel.

“Since making [Playtime], there’ve been a number of people like [Kjartansson] who’ve kind of copied my way of working in the multiscreen set-up,” he tells SF Weekly.

“I have lots of theories why I make several-screen works, because I’ve been doing them since 1996,” he adds. (By “theories,” Julien means his work is grounded in critical theory, not that he’s taking stabs at the mysteries of his own mind.) “In a sense, I think it became kind of like flattery, but I’m someone who pioneered that way of working.”

In addition to the films, Julien produced a few cards with stock-ticket borders surrounding cameo portraits of the figures in his films and Yoko Ono-esque messages on the obverse. “Buy one of the 40 million+ apples that the United States produces each year. Imagine what percentage of the price goes back into the hand that picked it?” one says, while another dares you to “Find a place where nothing is for sale. Check your pockets. Do you have your phone? (If so try again.)”

As of last week, the total value of all the world’s stock markets crept up on the $100 trillion mark, and to Julien, the technologically mediated present may have actually departed the capitalist framework that got us here.

“Perhaps we’re at some form of feudalism, actually, and late capitalism under liberalism is over,” he says, before adding that, like capital itself, the transition may be invisible to us. “I think it’s really interesting that [scholar] Frederic Jameson spoke about how we can imagine the end of the Earth more than we can imagine the end of capitalism.”

Isaac Julien: Playtime, through Feb. 11, 2018, at Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture, 2 Marina Blvd., Building A. Free; fortmason.org.

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