Linda Pace Foundation, San Antonio
Through June 30
by Wendy Atwell
A metanarrative, or story about a story, sparks a complex series of concepts. In the aptly named Ten Thousand Waves (2010), a 49-minute audio-visual installation on view at the Linda Pace Foundation, Isaac Julien employs a single incident to reflect on the grave situations faced by millions of immigrant workers who undergo suffering and hardship, and risk their lives so they may obtain 'a better life' for their families.
Julien works in a collaborative manner, and Ten Thousand Waves, like much of his work, is expansive in nature. One hundred Chinese people contributed to this piece, including actors, visual artists, calligraphers, musicians and poets. The result of these efforts, a chain of narratives and archival footage combined with evocative sound, music and voice, is an enormous feat that, as the title suggests, bring continuous revelations to viewers. Though the primary medium is film, multiple genres of art are present. For example, during the opening and closing of the film, a calligrapher paints a life-sized character in black paint with a brush the size of a mop. In the end, several Chinese men wash it away.
On February 5, 2004, between 21 and 25 illegal Chinese immigrants (the exact count remains unknown) were digging for cockles in Morecambe Bay, just off the northwest coast of England, an area known for rapidly rising tides and quicksand. Despite calls for help, all, except for one worker, died that night. As the tides rose in the North Wales Sea, the workers, who walked out into the middle of the bay during low tide, succumbed to hypothermia and drowned. The tragedy exposed the difficult conditions that millions of immigrant workers face in foreign countries. With no knowledge of foreign surroundings, culture or the language, they face a double jeopardy as they undertake difficult, unwanted jobs for little pay.
Assorted shots on each of the three screens and the 5:1 Surround Sound offset the viewer’s conventional gaze. In certain segments, Julien utilizes all of the screens, for example, to let a streetcar glide across their expanse. During other segments, Julien uses audio without any visual while sometimes he only uses one or two screens. This non-traditional formal structure mirrors how Julien treats his content. He delves deeply into his subject matter, looking at it through mythology, history and personal accounts, uncovering countless links and interconnections in the process.
The ancient goddess Mazu, who protects sailors and fisherman, serves as a connecting thread throughout the film. Translated as “mother-ancestor,” Mazu originates from the Fujian province, which was home to the majority of the Morecambe victims. Her popularity continues to this day. In the beginning of the film, Mazu, played by actress Maggie Cheung, makes her first of many stirring, ethereal appearances throughout the film. On adjacent screens Julien juxtaposes Mazu with footage from the heat-seeking cameras that were in the rescue helicopters on the night of the Morecambe Bay disaster. Dressed in flowing white robes, Mazu hovers over the ocean, scanning its vast surface for those who summon her. Disembodied, ghostly voices call out in mourning and desperate tones. These male and female voices are reading heart-rending evocations of the drowned cockle diggers, poems commissioned from Chinese American writer Wang Ping, who draws from the victims’ personal stories as well as Chinese history to create Small Boat and The Great Summons. These poems are an essential aspect of the film and are published in the accompanying catalog.
Another narrative thread throughout the film centers around a beautifully costumed woman (played by Zhao Tao) who languishes in lavish but lonely settings. The framework and setting suggests the emptiness of “a better life,” as far out of the immigrant’s grasp as heaven itself. Also interspersed throughout the film are multiple shots of the crew and sets at the Shanghai film studio. Scenes also reveal Cheung being lifted and guided by cables against the green screen. This transparency deepens the contrast between the film’s fictional narratives and historical footage. Mazu’s enchanting presence has the power to seduce the viewer, yet Julien strips it away by including the green screen. The resulting tension points to the seminal role of art to help process critical situations that are transnational and transhistorical in scope.
In his rich examination of the Morecambe Bay tragedy, Julien reveals the mythology and history specifically related to these types of tragedies. Then he widens his view to China’s political history, contrasting scenes of busy Shanghai streets, a frenzy of cars and buildings and traffic, with the documentary footage of the Cultural Revolution in the throes of its passion—zealous marching women in white uniforms carrying red banners. These disparate scenes, along with the film’s transparency, question how specific world views become framed. They leave the audience to consider what, exactly, is the elusive ‘better life,’ against what odds can it possibly be attained and how is the western world complicit in this illusion?
Wendy Atwell received her M.A. in Art History and Criticism from The University of Texas at San Antonio. She is the author of The River Spectacular: Light, Color, Sound and Craft on the San Antonio River.