On Isaac Julien’s Lessons of the Hour at Memorial Art Gallery

On Saturday, March 3, the video installation Lessons of the Hour – Frederick Douglass opened at the Memorial Art Gallery, as part of the museum’s “Reflections on Place” series.

I had the good fortune to be there for the discussion between Lessons of the Hour creator Isaac Julien and John Hanhardt, the curator of this and many other video installations. As someone who works in video, I found it fascinating to hear about the logistics of shooting on film, using balloon lighting to protect artwork against the damaging effects of lighting in the places they were shooting, and to hear how Ray Fearon, the British Shakespeaean actor who plays Douglass in the work went to extraordinary lengths to portray Douglass as accurately as possible.

Following this mesmerizing interview, I went to see the 10-screen exhibition. In truth, I’m not sure whether I was more moved by what was happening on the screens, or by the man who had created it.

The program had just let out and the viewing salon was standing- and sitting-on-floor room only. As Mr. Julien stood in the back, quietly viewing the installation, and the reaction of viewers, he saw that some people just outside the salon were unable to see. He picked up several folding stools, set them up, and invited those standing to be seated. When he saw an older woman with a cane at the rear who could see little, he got another stool, gently parted the crowd, and escorted her to the seat. I was deeply touched by his compassion.

As viewer after viewer approached to share how much his work had touched them, he humbly thanked each.

On the heels of Frederick Douglass’ 200th Anniversary, this exhibition is not only timely, it is a beautiful, inspired, and inspiring work that shows how the influence of Frederick Douglass transcends time.

If I’d had the time to interview Mr. Julien for an episode of Conversations with Creatives, some of the questions I’d have  wanted to ask during the interview would have included:

  • How did you get a start in your career creating installations of this magnitude?
  • What was the process like along each step of the way as you developed Lessons of the Hour?
  • Where did inspiration come from for this particular installation? Did you develop the idea and propose it to museums, or did museums approach you with the concept and commission?
  • How did you find the crew with which you worked? Had you worked with many of them before?
  • How long did it take from inception to installation? Is there an average time each of your projects takes?
  • Where else will this installation be exhibited?
  • When I look at your home page, you have over 30 current installations across the world. Do you ever sleep?
  • Of the many video installations you’ve undertaken, which has been your favorite?
  • When you work on a project of this scope, you can’t help but be affected by it. What inspiration did you come away with from this project?

And finally, although Mr. Julien was heading to another opening, he was kind enough to allow me to videotape the response to my final question, which was what he hopes viewers will take away from this exhibition.

Lessons of the Hour – Frederick Douglass can be seen at the Memorial Art Gallery through May 12.