Isaac Julien’s Playtime

Ann Jones considers the veteran artist and film maker’s latest work, which tackles the place of art itself within the context of the market.


In the immediate aftermath of the financial crash in 2008 the art market briefly stalled, but by early 2009 it had started moving again and, it would seem, is now healthier than ever. In a way, it’s a conundrum. That the uber-wealthy would invest in art by famous dead people is perhaps unsurprising. Less predictable though is the success of contemporary art, both in terms of audience and of market. In the intervening five years, the London art market  has grown considerably with contemporary galleries such as White Cube, Hauser and Wirth, Thomas Dane, Victoria Miro and the Lisson Gallery opening new spaces; the arrival in London of David Zwirner (Gagosian arrived a few years earlier) and a plethora of younger galleries colonising Fitzrovia. While providing free exhibitions to a seemingly ever-increasing art audience (and on a rainy Saturday afternoon, Victoria Miro was packed), these slick commercial galleries are, of course, all about money, about the market, about capital. It’s this relationship between art and capital that is at the heart of Isaac Julien’s new exhibition Playtime currently on show at Victoria Miro’s galleries in Islington and Mayfair.

The main part of the exhibition is at Miro’s Wharf Road gallery, a large warehouse space a stone’s throw from the Old Street roundabout which has been home to the gallery since its departure from the stuffiness of Cork Street in 2000. The space here, though a white-walled contemporary gallery, is clearly industrial in origin; the worn wooden staircase to the upper gallery always scares me a bit, the doorbell is that bit too audible within the space and on one of my visits to Playtime the film is paused so that attention can be given to a leaky roof (though in fairness this says more about this stormy winter than it does about the gallery space). The new Mayfair space, just south of Hanover Square, while substantially smaller, is much slicker: as one opens the front door to go in, a white wall slides aside to give access to the space; there are no exposed old bricks here, it’s all hushed tones in what is essentially as perfect a white cube space as London has to offer. The different characters of the areas the two spaces inhabit is apparent from the cards that bear the addresses of the galleries. For each there is a map and, as is the nature of maps, local landmarks are shown to help one navigate the territory. For Wharf Road these are the Texaco petrol station on City Road and the branch of MacDonald’s just behind it; for St George Street, it’s Sotheby’s and Claridge’s.

The work at Wharf Road is in two parts: downstairs on two screens Kapital is built on the seminar Choreographing Capital] that Julien organised at the Hayward Gallery in 2012 as part of the Wide Open School. This provides the context for Playtime shown as a seven screen installation in the large upstairs space.

Set in London, Dubai and Reykjavik, Playtime – which shares a title (and a strategy of interconnected narratives about the nature of life in the modern world) with Jacques Tati’s 1967 film – follows six main protagonists all in some way caught up in the world of art and global capital. It’s the flow of money that creates the connections between the disparate narratives. The lives of the London art dealer who boldly proclaims “it’s all a game”, the Filipina maid dusting the art in a Dubai apartment and the Icelandic artist whose former home and studio lie empty thanks to the collapse of the banks might seem very different – but they are connected by the inexorable, invisible, flow of capital. Though the work is shown on multiple screens, we follow the narratives separately, sequentially, moving from Dubai to London to Reykjavik. In a sense, Playtime is both art installation and narrative cinema, though the framework for the narrative, such as it is, is in part provided by Kapital. Whether or not it needs to be a multi-screen installation is open to debate – there are often, but not always, different images on different screens though I suspect one would miss little by watching only the large central screen. Playtime is undeniably very beautiful and in places the fragmented nature of the image, broken up around the space, is stunning. When we first arrive in Dubai, and in London, the all-encompassing cityscapes bustle more frenetically than they would on a single screen; when we are surrounded by the sand of the desert outside Dubai, we seem to be in a world of gold. Though most of the characters are played by actors – Maggie Cheung (the Reporter), James Franco (the Art Dealer), Colin Salmon (the Hedge Fund Manager), Mercedes Cabral (the House Worker) and Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson (the Artist) – the Auctioneer is Simon de Pury playing himself (and being an auctioneer is clearly performance), and it’s his explanation of the art market in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis that really ties Playtime to the debate around global capital and to Kapital, the shorter work downstairs.

The basis of the Choreographing Capital seminar, is a conversation between Julien and David Harvey, a Marxist academic and author of The Enigma of Capital, with questions from an audience that included Stuart Hall, Irit Rogoff, Paul Gilroy and Colin McCabe. Responding to Julien’s opening question about why capital is so hard to depict, Harvey likens capital to gravity: “in the same way you can only really intuit gravity exists by its effects, you can really only intuit that capital exists by its effects … the apple falls from the tree, you say it must be gravity; the factory closes: it must be capital.” Though in some ways Kapital arguably closes down our reading Playtime too much, this notion of capital as perceivable by its effects – and as having to be constantly in motion – opens up the connections between the stories of the six protagonists; the threads that bind the stories together remain invisible, but we know they are there.

Though Isaac Julien’s references often come from cinema – his starting point and, for want of a better description, spiritual home – Playtime also falls into what might be thought of as a genre of art about art, but in this case art about the art market which is more unusual subject matter, and it’s this, I think, that interests me the most while simultaneously irritating me somewhat. Julien is clearly working within the art market – and at a very high level within that market – while seeming to critique it. I guess in the end, although I like Playtime a lot – in no small measure for the way it looks but also because it is genuinely thought provoking – I think it leaves me wondering not just about capital per se, or about the nature of the art market but about the way the work fits within its own frame of reference.

In the Mayfair gallery space, Julien is showing a series of large-scale photographs based on scenes from Playtime (as well as Enigma, a time lapse video of Dubai shown in a window and visible from the street). The pictures are beautiful – and stunningly presented – though the focus on the House Worker – Mercedes Cabral features in three out of the five pictures – seems unbalanced in terms of connecting the work at both locations together as a single exhibition. Showing prints or photographs that relate to larger works is a fairly common strategy but it’s one that always seems to me to be about positioning the work in the market. Video installations inevitably have a limited place in the market – essentially museums and a very few major private collectors – so for artists who make them, photographs are more saleable allowing the work to reach a different set of collectors. In Kapital, David Harvey describes the art market as having some of the characteristics of a Ponzi scheme. If and when the market comes crashing down it certainly won’t be Julien’s fault but the cynic in me notes that he’s in the scheme early enough to emerge from it in profit; though of course in the end it’s the collectors, dealers and auction houses who make the real money. Artists are just pawns in the game.

PLAYTIME is at Victoria Miro Islington until 1 March 2014. Related photographic works are at Victoria Miro Mayfair.

About Ann Jones

London-based artist and educator who somehow seldom gets time to actually make any work, who writes about art, somewhat irregularly, at and occasionally contributes to – writing about art, mostly.

2 thoughts on “Isaac Julien’s Playtime

  1. Dear Anne, I just read your review of my exhibition and thank you for the critical way in which you have engaged with PLAYTIME and it’s context. The questions you have raised, are both thought provoking and astute and reflect a clear understanding of what I was trying to do – in my contradictory way. I wanted to critique on my own gaming activity (and that of others) in a poetic and critical manner. I think this goes right back to my own ambivalence about being thrown into the art world at an early age when in 1980 I showed at Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. I was an excited 20 year old art student, who had the chance to show a painting (and sold it!) but I felt hugely alienated by the experience and it put me off the art world for almost 20 years. I only returned to it after being starved out of existence in the film world. But film is not a good commodity for the art market. I guess that is why I like it. The good thing about film in the art context is the way you can use it as a mirror and PLAYTIME is merely a reflecting of “the gaze” of the art world back onto itself. Or myself? We all have different games we try to play. PLAYTIME is my one! Isaac

    (Editors note: comment updated 1 March 2104)

    1. Thank you, Isaac, for taking the time to respond and for such a generous comment! When I started writing I expected the piece to be about the way you situate film work in the gallery having moved away from cinema, but the nature of the work dictated that the piece take a different direction. The idea of art as holding a mirror up to the world is a key one for me, I think, but using art to reflect the art world rather than the wider world is tricky – and audacious, really, in that critiquing the market is always going to be a gamble (even if your position is hedged to an extent by being with a major gallery) – but it’s something PLAYTIME does very well.

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