Isaac Julien’s Ten Thousand Waves made its west coast premier this year at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego in the largest space yet to exhibit his nine-screen film installation. The film installation, open through December 1 at the museum, braids three strands of time and landscape together: the rural mountains of ancient China, the early Golden Age of Chinese cinema, and current day. Julien, who worked on the project for approximately five years, bears forth a delicately crafted tapestry of film that accesses all planes of time simultaneously.
Inspired by transnational immigration and the 2004 Morecambe Bay tragedy in which Chinese cockle collectors were drowned by the sudden tide on the Lancashire/Cumbrian coast, the film opens with Mazu, the Chinese goddess patron of fisherman and sailors, descending upon 1930s Shanghai. This sets the anachronistic pattern for the film, which challenges the Chinese fastidiousness to historical, artistic, and mythological authenticity. The film weaves through Chinese fisherman traversing mountainsides haloed in white mist; a beautiful, troubled woman riding a trolley through 1930s Shanghai; actual footage from the rescue helicopter searching for the cockle pickers; a sea of soldiers in white marching; the deep ocean rolling like the monstrous skin of something alien. The original score by Jah Wobble performed by the Chinese Dub Orchestra and Maria de Alvear, and Wang Ping’s poem “Small Boats” float through the film like gossamer.
In the second half of the film, Mazu is pulled before a green screen, suspended by a harness, her hair blown back by an industrial fan. A master calligrapher letters upon glass with crewmembers arriving soon after to clean and polish the pane. The streets of 1930s Shanghai are denuded as small sections of a wall are pushed across the tracks by modern day crewmembers. The peeling back of the scenes to reveal the production references Isaac Julien’s own deconstruction of our collective consciousness of Chinese mythology, landscape, history, and art.
Chief Curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego Kathryn Kanjo stated that Isaac Julien “equated his own practice to poetry,” and true to his approach, Ten Thousand Waves works like nonlinear, sensory-rich poetry. High-definition images lap at each other from screen to screen, the voices, poetry, and music form a chorus, the motifs swell and disappear. “He doesn’t give us a straight narrative,” Kathryn Kanjo added. “He says, ‘Reality? Why bother?’ He lets the viewer be active. He’s complicating the potential of the narrative with all of these permutations even as he’s making it essential and more pure by repeating motifs or echoing refrains of poetry or music or film images…The abiding the theme is journey and efforts to make a better life.”