Run, Skip. Hop. Do whatever it takes to make sure you see the sublime Isaac Julien show at the Bass Museum—two or three times even.
Without doubt, Julien is emerging as one of the most important contemporary artists (and filmmakers) today; this solo show proves why. It includes several films and photography, but the centerpiece, and the installation that may be the finest to have passed through the Bass’ doors, is a room with nine expertly and precisely placed screens, revealing, in essence, the various souls of Shanghai over time, called Ten Thousand Waves. On the screens pop up lush images, staggered and from different eras, while some screens go dark. It’s a long film exhibit, so give yourself time and take a seat or lie on the floor, as some were doing this afternoon. With no irony but many references to the artifice and mechanics of the filmmaking, one gorgeous scene after another rolls around, absolutely unabashed by its beauty, instead reveling in it.
There’s ancient China, represented by a female ghost flying over some of the country’s most scenic areas, such as Guilin, and over hyper-modern skyscrapers (yes, Crouching Tiger comparisons seem intentional); there is Revolutionary China with is profusion of red flags; the glamourous but tragic 1930s Shanghai, looking like a set from In the Mood For Love; tea time; and some incredible shots of calligraphy being painted on clear glass in front of the camera—those images alone could be its own show.
The screens also reveal how the actress flies (with wire), and how the green background is used. Then interspersed are images of waves, a nod to the waves of Chinese immigrants who have shown up on every shoreline in the world, sometimes at great personal cost, and even loss of life.
Anyone who knows China will get all the layers, like movie superstar Maggie Cheung as the main muse, and the master calligrapher Gong Fagen. In fact, Chinese and non-Chinese alike could assume that this was made by a Middle Kingdom native. But Julien is London born, of Afro-Caribbean descent (which is actually why this show landed here, as part of PUMA’s Creative Caribbean Network’s three-year deal with the Bass). Downstairs are three older films, almost as different in subject matter as you can get (the city of Baltimore, a dancing vagabond in an 18th century English library), but all exhibiting the artist’s incredible eye and skill, all beautiful. Julien has appeared in town before, during Art Basel at MOCA in 2005, with the film True North, about a black explorer of the North Pole. But none of these are as exquisite as the 2010 Ten Thousand Waves. Don’t miss this leading light in art.
Isaac Julien through March 6 at the Bass Museum, 2100 Collins Ave., MIami Beach; 305-673-7530; www.bassmuseum.org.