Showing across seven screens suspended in Victoria Miro’s vast Wharf Road gallery, Isaac Julien’s feature-length film installation is a visual spectacle to make you gasp. Yet the lavishness is wholly appropriate, given that the subject of ‘Playtime’ is global capitalism. Filmed in London, Reykjavik and Dubai (looking especially gothic and eerie), the film is full of shots of luxurious interiors, vaulting architectural spaces and scintillating nocturnal cityscapes as it follows a variety of emblematic characters through the shadily intersecting worlds of art and finance. Power hungry hedge-funders, an oppressed domestic maid, a bankrupt artist and a posturing art dealer (played to supremely repellent effect by James Franco) all contribute their stories, together conjuring a complex, dreamlike, and occasionally surreal atmosphere.
It’s both sumptuous and darkly satirical. Which isn’t to say Julien’s piece is without hiccups. The script, particularly, tends to feel slightly forced, with characters’ dialogue clearly meant to hammer home certain pedagogical points about capitalism. And this feeling extends to a second video work, the twin-screen ‘Kapital’, which consists of footage from an academic conference that Julien organised at the Southbank Centre in 2012. While the actual discussions – all about Marxism and social class – are fascinating, they serve to make ‘Playtime’ seem a bit too much like an illustration of academic theory.
Ultimately, of course, as the conference speakers point out, capitalism itself is unrepresentable. Like gravity, it can only be discerned through its effects. And it’s these effects Julien is so good at describing, his camera luxuriating in the surface details, the lustrous and sometimes decrepit veneers of a world shaped and spectacularly misshapened by flows of wealth.