Isaac Julien: Ten Thousand Waves
British artist Isaac Julien is acclaimed for his arresting films as well as his dynamic gallery installations. TEN THOUSAND WAVES, his most ambitious project to date, poetically weaves together stories linking China’s ancient past and present. This nine-screen video installation explores the movement of people across countries and continents and meditates on unfinished journeys.
Conceived and made over four years, Ten Thousand Waves was filmed on location in the ravishing and remote Guangxi Province and at the famous Shanghai Film Studios and various sites around Shanghai. Through formal experimentation and a series of unique collaborations, Julien seeks to engage with Chinese culture through contemporary events, ancient myths and artistic practice. Julien engaged many of China’s leading artistic voices, including: the legendary siren of Chinese cinema Maggie Cheung; rising star of Chinese film Zhao Tao; poet Wang Ping; master calligrapher Gong Fagen; artist Yang Fudong; acclaimed cinematographer Zhao Xiaoshi; and a 100-strong Chinese cast and crew.
The film’s original musical score is by fellow east Londoner Jah Wobble and the Chinese Dub Orchestra and Maria de Alvear. The original inspiration for Ten Thousand Waves was the Morecambe Bay Tragedy of 2004, in which 23 Chinese cocklepickers died. In response to this event, Julien commissioned the poet Wang Ping to come to England and write Small Boats, a poem that is recited in the work. in the successive years, Julien has spent time in China slowly coming to understand the country and its people’s perspectives and developing the relationships that have enabled him to undertake this rich and multifaceted work.
Over time, Julien uncovered a symbolic body of material which he has used to create a work that explores modern and traditional Chinese values and superstitions. Julien retells a fable about the goddess Mazu (Maggie Cheung), who comes from fujian province, the same region where the Morecambe bay cockle-pickers originated. in the tale of Yishan Island, 16th-century fishermen are lost at sea until the goddess figure leads them to
safety. Using this fable as a starting point Julien, deftly draws poignant connections to the 21st-century tragedy of Chinese migrants who died struggling to survive in the north of England. Following ideas surrounding death, spiritual displacement, and the uniquely Chinese connection with “ghosts,” the film links Shanghai of the past and present, symbolizing the Chinese transition towards modernity and affluence. Julien employs the visual language of ghost stories: recurrent figures and images appear and disappear. Mazu’s spectral form traverses time and space, serving as a guide through interlocking strands of the work. Mirroring the goddess of the fable, a ghostly protagonist (Zhao Tao) leads viewers through the world of Chinese cinema’s golden period via the Shanghai film Studio, to a restaging by Julien of scenes from the The Goddess (1934), and finally to the streets of modern and old Shanghai. Julien deploys the visual and aural textures of the film to elicit a visceral response from the viewer, submerging them in the world of his making.
isaac Julien: Ten Thousand Waves is organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego and is made possible thanks to a generous gift from Maryanne and Irwin Pfister. Additional support for this exhibition is provided by the Linda Pace Foundation. Related programs are supported by grants from The James Irvine Foundation Arts Innovation Fund, and the County of San Diego Community Enhancement Fund. Institutional support for MCASD is provided, in part, by the City of San Diego Commission for Arts and Culture.