Isaac Julien, PLAYTIME @Metro Pictures

JTF (just the facts): A total of 4 color photographs and 3 videos, displayed in a series of three rooms on the main floor of the gallery. The video PLAYTIME occupies the second room and was made in 2013. It a double-projected ultra high definition video with 5.1 stereo surround sound; it runs for approximately 70 minutes and is available in an edition of 10. A single-screen video excerpt from PLAYTIME and the video KAPTIAL are on view in the third room; KAPTIAL is a double-monitor high definition video with stereo sound, made in 2013; it runs for roughly 31 minutes and is available in an edition of 10. The other works on display are stills from PLAYTIME; these are Endura Ultra photographs, made in 2013. The prints are sized either 71×106 or 63×94, in editions of 6. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: It takes chutzpah for an artist to satirize the art market while fully benefiting from its largesse. Isaac Julien’s show is full of this double-talk. He is apparently upset at the gulf between rich and poor but is clueless about where to point the finger of blame; and he regards contemporary art collectors with disdain unless, of course, they happen to be shopping for one of his pieces. His sympathies and anger, to judge from the look of things here, don’t run deep. Save for a few minutes in one chapter of his lengthy video PLAYTIME, where we watch a Filipino housekeeper staring down on freeways of Mercedes from a Dubai apartment tower, the artist manages to exhibit many of the hypocritical values his work wants us to abhor.

The title of PLAYTIME, the panoramic video from which the four enormous color photographs on the walls here were taken, bears the same title as Jacques Tati’s 1967 movie. The works of both filmmakers express distress at the wreckage caused by modern capitalism. But where Tati was sprightly in his mockery of business and International Style architecture, Julien has responded to the gloomy state of the world economy with sumptuous images of landscapes and luxury housing that, however inadvertently, celebrate what money can buy.

The work has five characters, identified as The Artist, The Auctioneer, The Collector, the Housekeeper, and The Reporter. They are played by actors who speak words based on interviews made by Julien with people affected by the financial crisis of 2008. The action, such as it is, is set in three places: Reykjavik, where signs of trouble were first detected; London, center of the booming art market (and Julien’s home); and Dubai, epicenter of oil money and labor alienation. For the scenes in Iceland, Julien has focused on icy landscapes and the silence of isolation. A man watches from his window as steam pours out of power plants across frozen wastes. He is framed with his back to us, like a character out of a Casper David Friedrich painting, a wounded Romantic. Although the source of his despair is never clear in the video, he turns out to be an actual photographer who lost his handsome modern home in the crash.

The actor and writer James Franco dominates the London segment. He plays a smarmy art advisor who walks us through a gallery full of contemporary paintings while extolling their value as investment vehicles—perfect for today’s young acquisitors seeking to diversify their portfolios, he explains. Blame for Franco’s hammy performance should probably be shared by actor and director alike, but Julien is entirely at fault for the knowing line that cutely suggests big money awaits investors smart enough to buy risky art forms–“who knows, maybe even video.”

Only in the Dubai section, where a Filipina maid dusts a spotless multi-million-dollar apartment, do Julien’s words and images emotionally synchronize. The helplessness in her voice as she describes her economic entrapment is complemented by shots of her staring out the window of this extravagant aerie during sunny afternoons and, even more poignantly, at night. The chasm between the 1% and the rest of humanity seems even starker in her case because she is “privileged.” She is not among the truly poor, who labor in the streets below her view, or back home in the Philippines. And yet, although she is surrounded by art collected by her absentee employer, nothing that she sees or touches every day in this airless tomb will she ever be able to own.

Julien appears as an interviewer himself in the video KAPITAL, a Q&A session shot this year at the Hayward Gallery in London with economic historian David Harvey, author of “The Enigma of Kapital.” It’s not that what is being said is dull, it’s the sight of a man talking to a crowd of listeners that is dull. Even the cameraman seems more entertained by faces in the audience, thus the frequent cutaways to art-world celebrities, such as Hayward curator Ralph Rugoff.

Harvey has lots of trenchant observations, noting the uneven effects of the 2008 debacle on countries and continents, with China and South America escaping relatively unscathed. It’s too bad that Julien couldn’t have found a way to fold these words into PLAYTIME, which is verbally doughy and visually overbaked. The 2010 documentary INSIDE JOB handled this material with far more acuity. Perhaps an issue this immense and invisible to the eye is beyond dramatic treatment by any artist.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced as follows. The video PLAYTIME is $160000, while KAPTIAL is $48000. The still photographs are $57000.  Julien’s photographs are only intermittently available in the secondary markets; recent prices have ranged between roughly $7000 and $75000.

Isaac Julien, Metro Pictures Gallery

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