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Monday, Jan 30, 2006
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Englishman Isaac Julien made his U.S. debut at Art Basel

Miami Beach with a three-screen video installation, True North.

By BRETT O'BOURKE
bo'bourke@MiamiHerald.com

On the opening night of Art Basel Miami Beach, artist Isaac Julien -- dressed in a smart khaki suit with matching light green shirt and tie -- greeted the long line of international art world VIPs filing into the specially designed viewing room MOCA built for the U.S premire of Julien's three-screen video installation True North.

The film is a non-linear meditation on a 1909 trek to the North Pole led by Robert Peary, which suggests Matthew Henson, a black man, may have been the first to reach the North Pole rather than the expedition's leader.

''Basel is a wonderful stage to have a premiere on,'' Julien said last month in a phone interview from his Miami Beach hotel room. ``It focuses the art world in America, and MOCA [provides] excellent exposure.''

Exposure has not been in short supply of late for the 45-year-old filmmaker. Since leaving the movie house for the art world in the early '90s (he's now represented by London's prestigious Victoria Miro Gallery), Julien's star has been on the rise.

''Film, [in Britain], is still quite structured around the idea of entertainment,'' he told London's Daily Telegraph. ``Artistic creativity is not prioritized in the same way it is in an art gallery. Besides, the art world is so much sexier than cinema these days.''

Born in London in 1960 to immigrant parents from St. Lucia, Julien trained as a painter at the city's St. Martin's School of Art. It was there that he became interested in experimenting with film and video.

In 1983, Julien co-founded Sankofa, a film collective dedicated to advancing independent black cinema in the U.K. He quickly made a name for himself with a string of films built on themes of identity, sexuality, race and the Anglo-dominated interpretation of the historical record.

Most notable among his films are the documentaries Looking for Langston (1989), about celebrated gay, black poet Langston Hughes and The Long Road to Mazatlan, for which he was a Turner Prize nominee in 2001; a feature film about second-generation urban youths struggling to make their way called Young Soul Rebels (the film won the critic's prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 1991); and Baltimore (2003), an exploration of '70s blaxploitation films and what Julien has called the resulting ''complication of stereotypes'' set in the city's National Great Blacks in Wax Museum.

It was Baltimore that brought Julien to his True North subject and, ultimately, to Miami.

''I came across a wax bust of Henson in the museum and became more interested in the story after reading on a website that he was perhaps the first person to reach the pole,'' Julien said.

For the art world, Baltimore, a three-screen projection, was also a sign of Julien's stepping over in full from cinema to art.

''I've been following his work for years . . . Baltimore really blew me away,'' said MOCA director Bonnie Clearwater. ``When I heard he was working on a trilogy [in which True North is a part], I indicated we'd be interested in showing the work.''

After the premiere, drinks were drunk, finger foods consumed and the week-long art orgy began in earnest. While Hanson may have been left out in the cold (he died penniless and largely unknown), his new champion basked deservedly in the warmth of the art world's adulation. Julien's installation became one of the more talked about works of Basel week.

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