I met with Isaac Julien during Art Basel in Miami Beach where he was showing his video installation Stones Against Diamonds.
Filmed in Iceland’s remote glacial ice caves, the work was inspired by a letter written by the Brazilian modernist architect and designer, Lina Bo Bardi. Within the film, the artist explores Bardi’s love of semi-precious stones. He incorporates the Rolls‑Royce (who commissioned the work) iconic Spirit of Ecstasy, led by the character actress Vanessa Myrie as a ‘spirit guide’ – taking the viewer on a journey from one landscape to another.
Elena Scarpa: I’m really curious about the technical aspect of this work. I know you went to Iceland with quite a big team.
Isaac Julien: the first thing to say about this work is that, for a number of years I was really interested to try to film in an ice cave. I filmed several works in Iceland and when I heard about this cave that had finally came to fruition, I wanted to film there immediately and at the same time I had been working on a research project on Lina Bo Bardi and so what I wanted to do was, in a way, try to take a number of iconic architecture motifs from Lina Bo Bardi and to place those into the ice cave. Vanessa Myrie is a kind of guide as we walk through the cave and we come across these elements. In terms of shooting the work we had a 50 member crew because it’s very hard conditions, it’s the wilderness. We were about four hundred miles south of Reykjavík and even to get to the ice cave itself it would take about two hours because you’re going over a glacier. It’s kind of a really bonkers thing to do and a lot of Icelandic people thought “Who is this black person wanted to go to the ice cave and film” it’s pretty strange. The thing that was really interesting was that once we actually got there and we started to put Lina Bo Bardi’s props into the space, we had this very crazy idea of incapsulating the staircase into the space and people got really excited about it; we could only film there in the ice cave itself over a period of five days. By the fifth day of shooting the situation had become very precarious and the whole thing was uninsurable, you can’t insure anybody when you’re filming in a space like that and after the fifth day the whole Icelandic crew turned to me and said we had to get out. You can feel the ice moving all the time and basically it means that you have to be careful, if a chunk falls on you, you’re dead. Everybody is taking the risk with you because you can’t ensure anybody.
ES: This video installation is part of a bigger project that you’re going to unveil next year, can you tell us a bit more about that?
IJ: The project is called “The Seven Faces of Lina Bo Bardi” and it’s a work which basically tries to at her biography, it’s a work that goes to all of the buildings she built and we’re going to film in them: in SESC Pompeia, in MASP, we’re then going to travel to Salvador; we basically want to make a work that is based on interviews to lots of people that knew Lina personally. What I am going to do is extract from those interviews stories, we have two amazing actresses who are going to be playing Lina Bo Bardi, a mature Lina and a young Lina. It’s very exciting, at the moment we are fundraising for that project and maybe even for a third part of it in Italy because of course Lina was Italian and I spent two months at the American Academy in Rome this autumn and I was able to go to Lina’s school, to her house and also to see where her formation took place. She was very against rationalist and fascist architecture of that time and that’s why she left Italy, because she knew she wasn’t going to be able to build the things she had designed there. She was right to go to Brazil but I also thought that if I was going to make a project about her I’d also need to understand what was her architecture antithetical to.
ES: Do you know how long you’re going to be in Brazil to film in the buildings?
IJ: I have been going back and forth for a couple of years, I was there in August for a month and hopefully we’re going to go there early next year. All of it really depends on when we can get all the funds together.
ES: When did you decide to research about Lina Bo Bardi? How did it happen?
IJ: I had an exhibition at SESC Pompeia in 2012 and thanks to that I was able to meet Andre Vainer who worked with her when he was a student. The experience to do this show there with Videobrazil gave me the chance to see this utopian, wonderful art center and I started reading about Lina Bo Bardi. I was then invited by Hans Ulrich Obrist to be part of this exhibition at the Glass House, Lina’s former residence, and I created a poster called The Ghost of Lina Bo Bardi. I also realised I went to her building in Salvador in 1997, that’s actually when I saw her work for the first time.
- Isaac Julien: Stones Against Diamonds, installation view at National YoungArts Foundations, Miami, 2015. Photo: Elena Scarpa. © My Art Guides
- Isaac Julien, Stones Against Diamonds, 2015, Courtesy the artist, Victoria Miro, London and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney, ©Isaac Julien