Third Pole: The Stills of Isaac Julien’s True North
The Mak Center at the Schindler House
Los Angeles, CA
July 15 – October 23, 2005
This luxury does not yet belong to today’s politics but nevertheless already to tomorrow’s.
In the earth-toned ambiance of the Schindler House (complemented by this summer’s heat), Isaac Julien’s color photographs of explorers in grand icy landscapes stand out in their cool tones of whites, blues, and teals. With its low ceilings, dim lighting, and enclosed courtyards, the desert-shelter nature of the Schindler House underscores Julien’s depiction of deep space and endless ice terrain. Hung in heavy frames, the mid-scale photographs, curated by Lauri Firstenberg, fit perfectly onto the concrete-slab walls of the House. On view are still images from the production of the film True North (2005), shot in Iceland in 2004. The project is loosely based on the story of Matthew Henson, an African American manservant who collaborated with the explorer Robert Peary. Henson was one of the driving forces behind the 1909 expedition to the North Pole. Leading the team, he was the first man to stand at “the axis of the earth.” 1 Henson’s indispensable role in the expedition and the significance of his achievement were nearly erased by a racially biased history that attributed glory to Peary alone. Fortunately, Henson wrote his own chronicle, now memorialized in Julien’s work. 2
The film stills of Isaac Julien compel me to return to Roland Barthes’ essay, The Third Meaning. 3 It may be redundant to approach a project like Julien’s with one of the discursive mechanisms by which it is constructed–for Julien’s work is woven, amongst other things, from those threads that Barthes unraveled in 1970. However, Julien’s practice in general and this project in particular exist in a future that Barthes had anticipated. The luxury of the “third meaning,” its emotion, its excess, and above all its political force, are made visible in True North. Similar to his previous projects that revisit history, Frantz Fanon: Black Skin White Mask (1995) and Looking for Langston (1989), in True North Julien is able not only to poetically re-narrate historical omissions, but also to subvert those structures of representation that are associated with prejudiced histories.
In Julien’s account, Iceland stands in for the North Pole, the sloughing edges of its icy terrain revealing barren pebble beaches and brown horizons that give evidence to global warming. The filmic effects of voice over, sound, spectacular shots, and rapid montage utilized in the three-screen installation emphasize the perils of a voyage to the North Pole with its historical drama of endurance and conquest. In contrast, the mute film-stills have a post-climactic aura about them, as if the goal has already been attained, and now the silhouetted figures are marching back home.
This is not to say that the photographs are in any way subdued. In fact, Julien’s highly realized depictions present intense portraits of the actors, various textures of ice, phenomenal colors, and stunning landscapes. Glamorous and beautiful, the photographs nevertheless refuse to reproduce an apex. In one image, the ghost of Henson walks on a gritty beach along the shore of a turquoise ocean, the residue of melted ice echoing the kind of sheer white gown that typically drapes a female body of a classic marble Venus. Julien took the liberty of reversing genders in his choice of the actress Vanessa Myrie for Henson’s role–her image haunting the present, the memory of the past now recast. Disrupting the taxonomy of gender truncates the automatic systems of registering difference through categories such as race, gender or sexuality. Simultaneously, directing a woman to represent a man highlights the artificiality underlying all documentary reenactments. Another close-up of Myrie/Henson portrays her staring out of the frame, her gaze contemplative rather than tortured. I was captivated by the play of textures and colors emphasized by the sharp and magnified rendition in the photographs. The contrast between her fur hat and the texture of the snow supersede the importance of the historical event, opulence signaling something beyond an urgency to narrate.
Of particular interest is the triptych showing the sole image of Myrie/Henson walking towards a single point converging in the distance. The angled gesture of the figure–one leg raised mid-stride and coat flapping–enhances the sense of motion. Repeated thrice at slightly different angles, as the figure grows smaller, the idea of progression into the distance is communicated. However, the sequence is not linear as it would be in the storyboarded version. Instead, the two larger figures are balanced on both sides of the smaller and therefore more distant silhouette, echoing in three panels the schema of single point perspective. Julien used a similar strategy in two other projects, Vagabondia (2000) and Baltimore (2003), where the illusion of depth was exacerbated by the doubling of imagery onto two screens, as mirrored Baroque perspectives were joined into a hyper-rendition of Renaissance distance. In True North, motion and time are displayed through the still, the filmic motion is replaced by almost, but not quite, repetition of the same image. The function of this double gesture makes visible what is redundant about a film still in the first place.
Analyzing the film stills of Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, Barthes identifies the persistence of a “third meaning” outside the director’s artistic intention. The artificiality revealed by the film-still functions to counteract cinematic narrative, to stop its movement along the axis of time. Beyond the film’s plot, and above its symbolism created by montage, Barthes finds an emotional quality in this third or “obtuse” meaning. The still’s counter-narrative vector coexists with both the message and the symbolism created by the filmic montage. Thus, Barthes concluded, the political achievement of Eisenstein’s film-work is not in the destruction of narrative but its subversion.
Narrative was a necessary form for Eisenstein to tell a history; therefore, his revolutionary art had to uphold the use of anecdote. However, the meaning found “inside of the fragment,” (that is, inside the film-still) could simultaneously contradict the communication of the narrative and leave its myth intact. To a political avant-garde movement that wanted to do away with image and narrative, Barthes interpretation demonstrated a read that was able to sustain both worlds:
…The presence of an obtuse, supplementary, third meaning–if only in a few images, but then as an imperishable signature, as a seal endorsing the whole of the work… –radically recasts the theoretical status of the anecdote: the story (the diegesis) is no longer just a strong system (the millennial system of narrative) but also and contradictorily a simple space, a field of permanences [sic] and permutation. 4
In Julien’s project, the “future” of the third meaning is made good. In telling a forgotten story and simultaneously challenging the conventions of historical revision, Julien answers Barthes’ call.
One of the main strategies of “identity politics” in art has been the return to narrative forms to amend what has been excluded from history. Within a proliferation of chronicles that came forth, there have been many artists whose work stands out in its ability to both utilize the systems of meaning and perform a critique of oppression sustained by those structures. In True North, displaying the stills in advance of the film is but one way in which Julien employs the luxury of the obtuse meaning. The circulation of the film still guaranties the audience both narrative and its subversion: the only way to arrive at anything that is paradoxically “true.”
A memorial to Henson, the work offers the suppressed information that Peary, in fact, did not discover the Pole on his own, and that Henson, “the humble Negro, born in a mud-chinked hovel in Charles County, Maryland,” 5 deserves at least analogous glory. Nonetheless, metaphorically speaking, should not an ideology behind conquest and pursuit of glory be subject to criticism as well? Is the retelling of a history merely an addition to the one already told? It is in the still images of True North that the representation of ideas such as truth, origin, and conquest are questioned. True North, the film, exercises its right to revise history, which in turn is strategically disarmed by the stills. While film evokes the narrative of history spoken in Myrie’s feminine voice-over, suturing the viewer’s identification, creating suspense, and telling a historical “truth,” the stills melt away the ice to reveal how history is constructed.
Nizan Shaked is an independent curator and a Visiting Assistant Professor of Art History at the University of La Verne.
- Bradley Robinson with Matthew Henson, Dark Companion (New York: Fawcett, 1969), p. 203.↵
- As art historian Steven Nelson mentions, one of the reasons history did not obliterate Henson’s achievement is because he could write. Cited from panel discussion, July 16, 2005, at the Schindler House.↵
- Roland Barthes, “The Third Meaning: Research Notes on Some Eisenstein Stills,” Image, Music, Text, translated by Stephen Heath (New York: Hill and Wang, 1978).↵
- Barthes, p. 64↵
- Robinson, p. 203.↵