Now Playing

Isaac Julien’s ‘Playtime’ Is an Econ Lesson Disguised as Cinema

The critically acclaimed British artist presents a trio of thorny works at Fort Mason.

Playtime (2014)


What drives people to cross continents and borders in search of a better life? What does something look like when it can’t be pictured? Watch, or rather, walk through these and other questions posed by way of three major works by British video and installation artist Isaac Julien, on view at the Fort Mason Center for Arts and Culture and opening December 1.

The films play across multiple, expansive screens, set up at several spaces dotting the FMCAC campus and have a combined runtime of nearly three hours. Though seating is available, Julien doesn’t want gallery-goers to sit passively and politely, as would a typical filmmaker. “You can actually walk around the screens, view the film from different angles, start your journey into the artwork from any given time in space. I believe this makes for a more curious spectator—one who is free to ask what that reference is, what a certain image means,” Julien says, adding, “there’s a certain seduction I’m interested in.”

Julian first earned notice as a director of feature and documentary films. His fantasia Looking for Langston (1989) remains a touchstone of black gay culture. His most commercially successful film, Young Soul Rebels (1991), won a critic’s prize at the Cannes Film Festival. In the years since, Julien has tacked away from commercial work, and his more conceptual pieces have been shown at the MOMA, London’s Tate Modern, and three times at the Venice Biennale.

“When I want to understand something through my work, it’s essential for me to try to picture it, whether it’s China’s present, past, and myths in Ten Thousand Waves, or something more abstract, such as gay black desire in Looking for Langston,” Julien says.

In Julien's seven-screen installation Playtime (2014), James Franco, playing a sleazy art dealer, smirks while strolling through a London art gallery. “It’s a game,” he explains—one in which “eagle-eyed investors” can make millions off painting, sculpture, “maybe even video art.” Next door, in the SFMOMA Artist Gallery, is the equally conceptual KAPITAL (2013), Julien’s two-screen companion piece. The installation is a 31-minute exchange between Julien and Marxist scholar David Harvey on the whys and hows of making art out of economic theory. “It’s a bit like gravity,” Harvey explains in the film. “You can really only intuit that capital exists by its effects.” The final work is more meditative: Better Life (Ten Thousand Waves) (2010), explores the deaths in 2004 of 22 Chinese laborers off the coast of England by weaving scenes of contemporary Shanghai and the mountains of Guangxi with 1930s cinema.

If that sounds a bit intimidating, Julien offers reassurance. “As much as the works offer a perspective on issues like labor and inequality, I try not to be too literal,” he says. “I hope that viewers can feel engaged enough with the work to continue to relate to it outside of the exhibition space and look for answers to possible questions that come up in their encounter with the film.”


Have feedback? Email us at
Email Kelsey Lannin at
Follow us on Twitter @sanfranmag
Follow Kelsey Lannin on Twitter @KelseyLannin