Isaac Julien on his ode to brutalist architect, Bo Bardi

Published 7 June 2019

The master of multi-screens is back with a new work exploring the life of Brazilian brutalist architect Bo Bardi, whose socially conscious buildings and writings come to life through Julien’s lens. Here’s what you need to know.

  • From the Summer 2019 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    The British artist-filmmaker Isaac Julien RA first encountered the work of the Italian émigré architect Lina Bo Bardi in 1996. It was a huge wooden staircase installed in the Solar do Unhão in Salvador, in her adopted country of Brazil, that left a lasting impression, its open spiral inspired by ox cart wheels, providing the art museum with a spectacular centrepiece. “I always remembered it,” says Julien, whose new film, Lina Bo Bardi: A Marvellous Entanglement, is a meditation on the architect’s life and work. In the film, which has its world première in London this summer, the staircase serves as a stage for a performance by the Balé Folclório da Bahia dance company (above, right), in a work featuring the iconic buildings Bo Bardi created in Brazil.

    In the years since her death in 1992, Bo Bardi has been increasingly lionised in the world of architecture and design. A modernist, whose brutalist structures enthusiastically engaged with local folk traditions, she pioneered a socially attuned approach that remains rare in today’s urban landscape. It is this which makes her a figure with obvious appeal for Julien, who in films such as Playtime, a recent examination of the art market, or Ten Thousand Waves, inspired by the 2004 drowning of Chinese cockle pickers in Morecambe Bay, unpicks the forces of capitalism, migration and cultural identity. Playing Bo Bardi at different life stages are the legendary Brazilian actor Fernanda Montenegro and her daughter Fernanda Torres. Julien recalls how, during the lengthy research process, Montenegro pushed him to start filming: “She said, ‘I’m going to be 90 next year. If you’re going to do this project, you better do it now!’” Julien invited the actors to bring to life Bo Bardi’s writings on architecture, which he describes as “poetic polemics”, in relevant settings. While the multi-screen film installation won’t skip visual feasts like the São Paulo Museum of Art – where art is displayed on Bo Bardi’s glass easels and concrete plinths – it also promises a few surprises.

  • Isaac Julien, A Marvellous Entanglement

    Isaac Julien, A Marvellous Entanglement, 2019.

    Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro, London/Venice. © Isaac Julien.

  • One of these is a set-piece in the rarely accessible Coaty restaurant, now “a modern ruin”. “It’s on the steep Ladeira da Misericórdia [the Ladder of Mercy]. When slaves brought goods up from the city’s port on this road they would stop because it was so demanding. Today it allows the police to get from one part of the city to the other. It’s cordoned off.”

    Here, the film emphasises Bo Bardi’s interest in buildings as part of the life of a city, via a large number of performers. These include young artists Julien met during an art residency at the Goethe Institut Salvador, as well as followers of the region’s Candomblé religion. “Bo Bardi herself worked with some of the symbols of Candomblé, like the use of red in her architecture,” says Julien. “What we emphasise, as much as the space itself, is the unique thread of collaboration in her practice.”

    In managing these diverse performances, locations and historical moments, Julien took a typically fluid approach to time and story. “Non-linearity is inscribed into it, in how we’ve assembled the choreography, how we’ve edited it, and how it relates to the viewer,” he says. A “marvellous entanglement” is how Bo Bardi herself described time, spooling back and forth like her magnificent, spiralling staircase.

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