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Isaac Julien’s “Stones Against Diamonds”

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Isaac Julien’s multi-channel film works inhabit an epic cross-section between film, documentary and art. His most recent film endeavor—commissioned by car manufacturer Rolls Royce— is titled “Stones Against Diamonds” and explores themes, architectural elements and the unique approaches of Brazilian architect Lina Bo Bardi (1914–1992). “Stones Against Diamonds” was introduced at the 2015 Venice Biennale with the full 10-screen installation premiering on June 16 and June 17 at this year’s Art Basel.

WHITEWALL: “Stones Against Diamonds” takes inspiration from a letter by Brazilian architect Lina Bo Bardi. What first brought you to her work?

ISAAC JULIEN: In 1996, while I was on holidays in Bahia, Brazil, I saw Lina Bo Bardi’s work for the first time. I was at the Museum of Modern Art in Bahia and had the opportunity to see her powerful architecture, including the emblematic staircase in Solar do Unhão. Then, in 2012, I was invited to have a solo exhibition at SESC Pompéia, one of Lina’s most meaningful projects in what concerns her democratic and inclusive practices. For me this was a dream come true.

It was also at that time that I collaborated with Hans Ulrich Obrist. I created an imaginary poster, The Ghost of Lina Bo Bardi, for an exhibition he curated at Lina’s former residence, the Glass House. Three years later I finally felt the research on her intricate and prolific character had reached a point that enabled me to make public the poetic meditation I have been contemplating since I first met her work almost twenty years ago.

WW: Your film works, such as “Looking for Langston, 1989” and “Ten Thousand Waves, 2010,” share a relationship with, and also appear to challenge notions of, documentary. How do you position “Stones Against Diamonds” relationship with documentary?

IJ:  These three artworks were inspired by real characters or events, but they cannot be considered documentaries. Instead of having a fact-based approach, I chose to create more poetic depictions of admirable people, as Langston Hughes and Lina Bo Bardi, or compelling situations, as was the case with Morecambe Bay’s shipwreck. So I would say that, regarding this aspect, Stones Against Diamonds could indeed be seen as a film that calls into question what a documentary is as a format or as a genre. But questioning our understanding of history and memory is just as important for me. I come from a comprehensive research on facts, which stands as the basis for a regular documentary. With that I am able to extrapolate notions of reality and truth, by inserting in the film images, characters and places that were not necessarily part of what the official story tells us. History is something that might be rewritten as time goes by. It can and should be contested so that new narratives emerge and this way we are able to create new forms of identification, also learning to relate differently with our past and memory.

WW: The location for the film shoot was a glacial cave in the subzero Vatnajökull region of South East Iceland. Why was this remote location important for this work?

IJ: Stones Against Diamonds was shot in Breidamerkurjokull, which is part of Vatnajokull Glacier, the biggest glacier in Europe, and in Jökulsárlón beach. The ice cave can be read as a metaphor of the unconscious, a place of rich beauty but difficult to access, except through the processes of psychoanalysis and artistic reflection. By inserting some of Lina Bo Bardi’s emblematic architectural elements into the cave, such as the iconic staircase and glass easels, I intended to make a connection between the simplicity of forms that was one of Bo Bardi’s signatures and the organic forms of rocks and carved glacial ice. Besides, the character played by Vanessa Myrie wanders around the ice cave inviting us on a journey through a symbolic landscape of glaciers, rocks and black volcanic sand, all glistening like diamonds. This reminds us not only of the earth’s fragility – the melting of the glacier that carves out these caves – but also that some of the most beautiful objects are the least precious in a conventional sense. Lina Bo Bardi made these aspects of fragility and preciousness visible both through her architecture as well as her deep interest in Brazilian indigenous and popular cultures.


WW: Your film works have been shown within interesting contexts outside of the museum. I remember viewing “Ten Thousand Waves” in a theater of a large hall in Marrakech. Does the unique neo-Gothic Kirche Elisabethen factor into the experience of viewing “Stones Against Diamonds”?

IJ: Yes. When I first visited this stunning Gothic church I decided I should rethink the installation as it was shown in Venice. Instead of five screens, I used ten screens for Basel so that the space was occupied in a way that its specificities were respected. I installed them in the main nave of the church, where it dialogued with the church’s architectonic project. I believe installing this work in a church also empowers the feeling of contemplation and meditation I want to bring in with Stones Against Diamonds. In a way, the installation in Kirche Elisabethen allowed the spectator to fully grasp the sense of space I intended to explore as I revisited Bo Bardi’s iconic easels. Finally, I think that a very interesting conceptual transposition happened when the gothic architecture was permeated by elements of modern, brutalist design. One of the enticing characteristics of Lina’s practice was that she had a great sensibility to develop her ideas in syncretic way. I also see this syncretism taking place at Kirche Elisabethen.

WW: This film was created as part of the Rolls-Royce Art Programme, but from what we understand this is only part 1. Please tell us more…

IJ:  Stones against Diamonds (Ice cave) is the prelude to a film triptych. Through the unpicking of essential elements within the myriad of Lina Bo Bardi’s inventions, her architectonic motifs will be unveiled as they connect with Italian and Brazilian landscapes. As its cornerstone this project has Lina’s own voice, which emerges in the form of letters, writings and archive footage.

In a letter written in 1986 for her husband Piero Bardi, Bo Bardi tells in a characteristically sensitive way how her love for semi-precious stones begun in Italy when she was still a child and then was revived when she arrived in Brazil during the late 40s. While still in Italy, six-year-old Lina starts collecting these small treasures, worthless in the eyes of others. After her studies in art and architecture school she moved on to be an editor and writer, and then becoming at the age of 25 the director of Domus magazine. These remarkable events, told by Lina herself in Stones Against Diamonds will form the core of the Italian chapter of the project, that will be filmed in Li Galli island and in Rome.






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