Nau mai, haere mai, welcome to eyeCONTACT, a forum built to encourage art reviews and critical discussion about the visual culture of Aotearoa New Zealand. I'm John Hurrell its editor, a New Zealand writer, artist and curator. While Creative New Zealand and other supporters are generously paying me and other contributors to review exhibitions over the following year, all expressed opinions are entirely our own.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Across the watery divide

Isaac Julian – Western Union: Small boats
Two Rooms
19 August – 10 October 2009

This is the third film in Isaac Julian’s trilogy that was started by True North, seen at St. Paul St in 2004 and – in my view - the highlight of the Turbulence Triennial.

The second film Fantome Afrique (2005) never got here, but this last work in the series seems very different. It continues Julian’s interest in extraordinary landscapes and human movement. This time instead of individual explorers it is focused on the plight of refugees who in an attempt to escape deplorable economic hardship try to travel in small, overloaded boats from North Africa to Sicily, often with insufficient fuel or food.

This film though does not have the magnificent viewing conditions of True North – with three screens in a wide room. The Two Rooms venue is disappointingly narrow and like a long corridor, with a couch some distance from a single screen. Too far away to get really drawn into the imagery, as you should.

Small Boats is a sensual treat (what you can see of it, you really have to walk up close) with bleak white hills that seem to be salt, contrasting with the azure of the Mediterranean. Julian has also incorporated lavish interiors of Palazzo Gangi, a chateau used by Visconti to make The Leopard. The work is very studied and over contrived, mainly because of the choreography of Russell Maliphant, with writhing underwater bodies, and figures rolling down ornate staircases. The luxurious house, an excessively paradisical symbol perhaps for the good life the boat people crave, seems to over-complicate the concept of the film – though it provides extraordinary viewing.

In fact the best imagery is very simple, of faded smashed up boats washed onto the beach. They really make the point of the story in a grippingly succinct fashion, hitting home free from any fanciful or mannered conceit. They are the tragic true stars of the film, not the gyrating actors or very still landscape.

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