The Modernist architect is memorialised by Isaac Julien in his multi-channel film ‘Stones Against Diamonds’, as geometric glass easels cut through the Icelandic landscape
Amidst the remote glacial ice caves in the South West of Iceland, wild vistas and slopes are fragmenting. Craggy snow heaps and undulating shorelines meet the sharp geometry of cut panes of glass, spaced and set proudly upright amidst the landscape. At once transparent and reflective, they both frame and distort their surroundings. Isaac Julien’s latest film installation, Stones Against Diamonds, memorialises Modernist architect Lina Bo Bardi upon the centenary of her death, enacting these tensions between the built and natural world.
Inspired by a letter that Bo Bardi wrote, Julien explores her love of semi-precious stones, believing them to be more beautiful than precious gemstones. Stones Against Diamonds takes a meditative focus on the appeal of alternative production methods in the face of conventional value systems. Materials are brought to the forefront, as glass and concrete are set amongst the shimmering whites of the Icelandic hinterland. Bo Bardi’s glass easels, whereby artworks could appear suspended amidst an exhibition space, are transported to nature. Here, the central fluidity and openness that characterised her approach to design are taken forward, whereby she frequently incorporated glass as a building material to dissolve the distinction between indoors and outdoors. Here, the easels become both solid intervention and fleeting apparition.
Julien traverses this central equilibrium through the guiding presence of Vanessa Myrie, a regular collaborator and performer in his films. She wanders on a journey that begins in Stones Against Diamonds, but will be continued next year in Italy and Brazil, as Julien works to complete the piece – to which this is the prelude. We meet in Venice as the work premieres, before it journeys for exhibition at Art Basel.
Stones Against Diamonds takes a meditative focus on the appeal of alternative production methods in the face of conventional value systems.
POSTmatter: Firstly, what drew you to Iceland as the setting and key foundation of ‘Stones Against Diamonds’?
Isaac Julien: I have filmed in Iceland other the last ten years. I made my first work there in 2004, called True North, and some may think that this new work is a redact version of that but actually it’s very different. Then I filmed again in 2014 for a work calledPlaytime that looked at the story of a friend of mine who lost his house during the Icelandic financial crash. So this work is the third time I have filmed in Iceland. I have always wanted to film in the ice caves but they are very precarious by nature, and only become available at certain times. I was told just before Christmas that this ice cave had actually come to fruition, so to speak, and therefore I decided to grab it, gain access to it and film it for Stones Against Diamonds.
PM: You have explored many different locations globally, and the next instalments of this work will be set in Brazil and Italy. What does the notion of travel mean to you in your films, and is there a collapsing of borders there? How do you connect up these places outside of their physical geography alone?
IJ: Well, you could say that in my own biography the question of geography is quite important because my parents came from the Caribbean to England. In that sense, I see my work as very much connected to movement and to different spaces. Those spaces usually mean different locations, and the location plays a very important role in the making of my works. Landscapes are almost characters or protagonists in a work.
In a work like Stones Against Diamonds, one of the main attractions to making a piece of work about Lina Bo Bardi is that she was an architect who was born in Italy, but went to Brazil and developed an aesthetic for the Latin American Modernist movement. Architecture is also one of my primary interests. So not only the location but also the actual space in her designs is very important.
One of the main attractions to making a piece of work about Lina Bo Bardi is that she was an architect who was born in Italy, but went to Brazil and developed an aesthetic for the Latin American Modernist movement.
All of these elements feed into my work, and to introduce that variety you have to move between different spaces and places and locations. Perhaps there is a visual ethnography to my work, but I see it as a critical one; one which has a certain relationship to visual difference and how that gets articulated and portrayed poetically in a work. These things are marked to my own life and my own autobiography, and they seep into my artistic practice.
PM: How did you look to explore the relationship between Lina Bo Bardi’s architecture and the surrounding landscape in the work? By introducing the geometric panels of glass amidst the ice caves, what did you discover about the interaction between the natural world and built, or artificial, interventions?
IJ: In terms of materiality, the easels can be considered as a metaphor to Lina’s approach. They’re made of glass and concrete, and these two elements were present in the majority of her projects. This heavy concrete base that holds the thin transparent glass in place plays with our senses through an ever-present dichotomy between heavy and light, opaque and transparent, and the graphic and the sculptural. It is within this structure that artworks flow seemingly free from any material weight apart from their grounding concrete structure. It creates this amazingly fluid space, which invites you to look at the artworks differently. By inserting those glass easels into the ice cave, I was trying to look at the easel that Lina Bo Bardi developed as an artwork itself, and to create that as a kind of memorial of what she was trying to create in a sculptural sense. I wanted Lina Bo Bardi herself to be memorialised.
It is within this structure that artworks flow seemingly free from any material weight apart from their grounding concrete structure. It creates this amazingly fluid space, which invites you to look at the artworks differently.
PM: Could you discuss Vanessa Myrie's role as a performer and figure within these very stark, isolated locations in Iceland? What is important to you about creating these characters in your works, rather than focusing solely on the materials or landscape?
IJ: Vanessa Myrie, as an actress and performer, has worked on several of my works and previous projects. In this piece, she figures as if she was sleepwalking through the ice cave. Her character is a Candomblé archetype and invites us on a journey through the symbolic landscape of glaciers, rocks, and black volcanic sands, all glistening like diamonds. The mountain of the glacier carves out these caves, where some of the most beautiful objects are the least precious in a conventional sense.
PM: How were your aims with the viewing space for the works, where you have mounted screens on plinths, encouraging the interaction of viewers between the multi-channels?
IJ: What I wanted to do in this presentation was to utilise Lina Bo Bardi's plinths, and to make those for the 21st century. A flat screen becomes like the glass easel, forming a window into this transparent world of ice and glass. So there is a meditation on Lina Bo Bardi's curatorial method; the glass easel becomes a screen, so to speak. I was really trying to work with the idea of how the easels work in consonance with the connection between interior and the exterior, an idea that was very present in Lina's production. As they remove the bi-dimensional artworks from the walls and give them a tri-dimensional status. In a similar sense, in my works on multiple screen stations such as Ten Thousand Waves and Playtime, as you walk along the projection screens they also get re-signified into a sense of space and time. These are all aspects that I'm trying to work with.
PM: You also aim to explore the unconscious in ‘Stones Against Diamonds’. How do you view the role of video or filmmaking as a tool to explore that?
Isaac: I think one of the things that attracted me to making films and video installations are in the ways of space where one can in a sense dream. There is a way in which the ice cave becomes a space of reverie and in this reverie we allow ourselves to re-imagine what the space is conjuring. In the juxtaposition of the glass easels, the staircase, the figure of Vanessa Myrie begins to build a kind of dream like quality or a poetic quality for meditation. As we know, the cave has a very important place in the history of art. In my work I was trying to develop this unconscious space, a space of fantasy where the spectator can, as it were, have this reverie of Lina Bo Bardi's work.
Stones Against Diamonds was commissioned as part of the Rolls-Royce Art Programme. It debuts in North America at Art Basel Miami, showing 1st-5th December 2015. For more information, click here.