Not waving but drowning

Art - Richard Cork admires Isaac Julien's haunting exploration of identity and eroticism

Isaac Julien is impossible to pin down. Moving with ease between feature films, video installations, documentary and "blaxploitation" cinema, he has always been an audacious and unpredictable artist. His taboo-breaking is as defiant as his determination to dis-regard, or even demolish, the barriers dividing one discipline from another. He conducts raids on an intoxicating range of genres, as his mini-retrospective at Sketch demonstrates. From the Aids-haunted homoeroticism of Trussed in 1996 to the boisterous documentary called Baadasssss Cinema in 2002, he has thrived on a heretical agenda.

But behind all the pyrotechnics and provocation, a fundamental sense of engagement can be found. In Looking for Langston, his 1989 evocation of the Harlem Renaissance world inhabited by the black poet Langston Hughes during the 1920s, Julien used fantasy as well as history to arrive at a picture of the bohemian world that nourished his elusive subject. As a black, London-born artist, he ensures that all these films possess a very personal spirit of inquiry. Julien will never stop pursuing his open-ended explorations, even if he remains acutely conscious of the obstacles impeding true understanding.

His latest work is a haunting installation at Victoria Miro Gallery, called Paradise Omeros. Torn between antagonism and desire, this sensual yet painful film moves incessantly between London past and St Lucia present. But the delight promised by the title is countered, from the outset, by a sense that everything is out of kilter.

Instead of breaking gently on the shore of this seductive Caribbean island, the ocean recedes with alarming speed. Derek Walcott, whose poems from Omeros provided Julien with some of his inspiration for the film, appears in profile gazing at the water. But Walcott is soon replaced by the film's protagonist Achille, whose early years in St Lucia are recalled in a tantalising shot of a small boy on the beach.

The child is replaced by his adult self, dressed in a waiter's uniform as he walks across white, luminous sand. Suddenly, without warning, he wades fully-clothed into the sea. A large wave engulfs him, and his now naked body floats underwater with outflung arms. Instead of drowning, though, he lets his mind leap back to a far darker time when, like so many Windrush migrants, he found himself struggling to adjust to life in London. While the phrase "as if to pay for our sins" can be heard on the soundtrack, we see a van blazing with flames in a setting redolent of race riots and urban dereliction. Achille peers disconsolately through a fence, watching adolescents of his own age play football on a grey English day. He may be yearning to participate, but another kind of game is introduced when the camera catches a white boy looking at him, very intently.

Julien cuts to a Caribbean beach. Pretending he is still a child in St Lucia, Achille can forget that he feels so lost in London. But all too soon, Julien returns us to the reality of a dank, concrete-buttressed housing estate.

He gets into a dismal lift, the doors of which slide open to disclose the white boy gazing in hungrily at him. They stare at each other, silently and motionless, their faces deadpan. This, the most tense and ambiguous moment in the film, leads on to a superbly realised party scene. For a while, at least, the threat of aggression is exchanged for the buoyancy of dance. But then the camera travels through the vibrant party-goers to settle on a nightmarish, partly obscured scene beyond.

There, like an image from a Francis Bacon painting brought to gruesome cinematic life, one figure bends over another sprawled on the bed and beats him. The dancers continue with unabated relish, unaware of the violence.

Julien leaves us in no doubt about the mortifying effect of this viciousness. We see Achille slumped on a chair, surrounded by party guests. A grinning girl places a tiara on his head in a mock ceremony, while a woman who may be his mother gazes at him questioningly. Once more, Julien makes us feel we are on the edge of a revelation. But he is far more interested in suggestion than statement, and quickly cuts back to the Caribbean Sea again. "I was a lost soul," says a voice on the soundtrack, echoing Walcott at the beginning of the film.

No respite can be found even here, and we are quickly returned to the London lift. Achille and the white boy confront each other as before. But after a brief flash of palm fronds by the shore, we find them separated by a concrete wall. Edging their way gingerly towards the camera, they look askance rather than aggressive or lustful. Julien leaves both boys there preparing themselves for a combative or erotic event that perhaps never happened.

Since the film's consistent refusal to go beyond hints is frustrating, I watched it again in the hope that more might be revealed at second viewing. It was not, and yet I emerged with my admiration for Paradise Omeros enhanced. The unanswered questions are consistent with Julien's insistence, throughout his career, on defying the conventions of narrative cinema. After all, he studied painting, fine art and film at St Martin's in the early 1980s. So he could hardly be expected to produce an orthodox account of the confusions, misgivings and temptations besieging Achille as he struggles to adjust to life in England.

That is why Paradise Omeros concludes on such a melancholy note, cutting from the two figures backed against the council estate wall to a sunlit ball floating alone on the water in St Lucia. As the final image fades to darkness, all we can hear are dogs howling, as cicadas fill the soundtrack with their relentless noise.

Isaac Julien is at Victoria Miro, 16 Wharf Road, London N1 (020 7336 8109) until 11 October, and at Sketch, 9 Conduit Street, London W1 (0870 777 4488) until 25 October

This article first appeared in the 06 October 2003 issue of the New Statesman, Who the hell are you?