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Isaac Julien: Western Union: Small Boats

Isaac Julien revisits his multi-channel installation Western Union: Small Boats, a poetic meditation addressing migration across the Mediterranean from Africa to Europe.

Isaac Julien, Western Union Series No. 1 (Cast No Shadow), 2007. Courtesy the artist | Right: Italian navy rescues asylum seekers traveling off the coast of Africa on the Mediterranean, 2014. Photo: Massimo Sestini—Polaris.

Isaac Julien maps the traumatic effects of migration on people, architecture, monuments, and life itself by repositioning the themes poetically.

Western Union: Small Boats is a three-screen video installation work Julien created in 2007 as debate grew about immigration and its effects on geopolitics, cities, and individuals. These debates have amplified since then to encompass other issues — the climate crisis, political extremism, war, famine and more.

‘I would say a work like Western Union: Small Boats, though made more than a decade ago, continues to speak to these issues, which are still pertinent,’ Julien says. ‘In Western Union: Small Boats I was looking at the way that people were moving, in this case across the Mediterranean Sea from North Africa to Italy.’

In the video installation, Julien includes Russell Maliphant’s choreography, using the movement of the dancers’ bodies as an alternative view to the desensitizing images of mass immigration we have become accustomed to seeing in the media. The dancers serve as a metaphor for individual journeys, expressing this in dialogue with the architecture.

Isaac Julien, Western Union Small Boats. Galería Helga de Alvear, Madrid, 2008. Courtesy the artist.

‘I was interested in Italian Cinema, especially director Luchino Visconti’s 1963 film The Leopard. I tried to go to locations where Visconti had shot.’ Julien re-mimed certain scenarios with dance, aiming to suggest poetic movement in relation to the questions and issues the installation addresses. He said while some might see this mixing of art forms as incongruous, from his viewpoint it is important to explore big questions in ways that go beyond how they are typically reported in the news. ‘I want to give back subjectivity to people’s journeys and their actions. I hope this ignites debate,’ Julien says.

Claudia Cardinale and Alain Delon in The Leopard (Luchino Visconti, 1963). Photo: Twentieth Century Fox/Pathé

‘Sometimes you make some works out of both personal interest or things you are passionate about, and then they resonate in another way, which you can't really second guess.’

Isaac Julien, Western Union Series No. 12 (Balustrade), 2007. Courtesy the artist

Related links

Isaac Julien

Refugees and Displaced People, The New York Times

Isaac Julien’s Political Memory, Hyperallergic, 2020

A conversation around Western Union: Small Boats, Museums and Migrations, 2020

Pandemic Collides With Europe’s Migrant Crisis to Set Off a Calamity in Greece, The New York Times, 2020

Small Boats, Slave Ship; or, Isaac Julien and the Beauty of Implied Catastrophe, Art Journal, 2016

The Migrant Crisis: No End in Sight, The New York Times, 2016

Western Union: Small Boats, 2007

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