Isaac Julien’s Ten Thousand Waves is a nine-screen video installation interweaving three seemingly discrete narratives that explore the migratory journeys of people whose impetus for movement converges on the sole need to fulfil utopian desires for a better life. Set against the contrasting backgrounds of the blustery northwest coast of England, the rush hour in Shanghai and the misty bamboo forests and mountains of the Guangxi province, Ten Thousand Waves’s motivating incident and first filmic narrative is the Morecambe Bay tragedy of 2004, in which 23 Chinese migrant workers drowned while picking cockles at the seashore in England while Wang Ping’s poem, specially commissioned for this work, is intoned over Julien’s images. In the second filmic narrative, Julien re-interprets the classic silent movie The Goddess (1934) – a euphemism for a streetwalker – whose protagonist (played by actress Zhao Tao) struggles with her chosen occupation in order to support herself and her son. In the third story, an ancient sea goddess Mazu (played by actress Maggie Cheung) believed to be the saviour and protector of fishermen and sailors in the Southern Chinese provinces, soars above the mountainous Chinese landscape.
But if the 55-minute film tests the endurance of any gallery visitor, its heavily down-sized counterpart, shown simultaneously at the Valentine Willie Fine Art Gallery (VWFA) white-cube space as photographs/stills from the film, neglects the fundamentals of this monumental work: the labyrinthine, imagistic spaces of nine, double-sided screens positioned strategically to “frustrate the ontological gaze of the spectator” (in Julien’s own words), within which the viewer experiences the truncation of traditional, linear cinematic narratives. In fact, the freedom of audience movement between screens subverts any attempt to establish a coherent narrative and sets up instead, a poetic interplay of images competing for visual dominance that tell of the migratory experience across the installation space.
Unhinged by the lack of context and the significant immersive engagement provided by the film, there’s the hazy sense that VWFA’s wall installation’s inevitable emphasis could only be photography’s proclivity for the duplicitous. In the film, Julien readily draws attention to the level of artifice that is merely hinted at in the photographs in VWFA. If it seems as though Ten Thousand Waves ostensibly indulges in rehashing Sino stereotypes (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’s cinematography for western spectatorship comes to mind here), it is just as quickly dispelled by footage of the production process that Julien weaves into the show. Against a green screen, Cheung dangles on wires in a film studio in front of a green screen while her long dark hair blows around her with the help of a wind machine. But while the dissolution of the mythical fantasy of Mazu serves as an ironic allusion to the oblivious Western articulations about non-Eurocentric Others, Mazu admittedly remains, in this globalised era of transnational capitalism where film grounds much of popular culture, a reminder of the highly marketable paradigm of Asian self-representation.
Isaac Julien (b. 1960) is a British filmmaker whose work incorporates different artistic disciplines in audiovisual film installations. Ten Thousand Waves: Photographs by Isaac Julien will be on show at the Valentine Willie Fine Art Gallery in collaboration with the Victoria Miro Gallery until 26 Feb 2012. The film is presently showing at the ICA Boston until 4 March 2012.