ART REVIEW: Isaac Julier – Ten Thousand Waves

Isaac Julien’s installation Ten Thousand Waves combines documentary, fantasy and film essay elements to explore issues surrounding labour migration and landscape and is part of a series of moving image acquisitions by The Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester.

Julien is a Turner-Prize nominated filmmaker and installation artist from London who specialises in multi-screen installations. His other notable works include the 1989 documentary-drama about the life of writer Langston Hughes and the Harlem Renaissance. He quickly developed a cult following which continues today. His website also showcases the amazing breadth of this previous as well as current works :www.isaacjulien.com/

The Whitworth Art Gallery

The three screen installation has been on exhibition since the 10th March 2018. The film runs for just under 50 minutes and features the likes of Maggie Cheung and Zhao Tao. Video artist Yang Fudong and poet Wang Ping also appear on-screen.

It opens with the Morecambe rescue mission of 23 Chinese cockle-pickers who drowned in Morecambe Bay in February 2004. The workers were from the Fujian province and had been brought to the UK illegally.

The film stitches together Chinese history, custom and legend and central to the film is the ancient Chinese myth of Mazu the Sea Goddess, the protector of seafarers, ‘alongside scenes of the Ghangxi province where the cockle-pickers’ spirits journeyed back to the ‘middle kingdom”.

What was really interesting about the film was the way it showed scenes of both past and present-day Shanghai, a city that’s the site for the flow of capital into China.

Zhao Tao as the heroine in The Goddess

Running alongside this is the restaging of scenes from the 1934 film The Goddess about the tragic plight of a mother who turns to prostitution to fund her son’s education.

As you can probably tell from my description. there was a lot going on which made it, at times, difficult to keep up with. However, it does feel like an immersive experience. Your bombarded with imagery as you try to keep up with what’s going on across the 3 screens through the corresponding 3 interwoven narratives on-screen.

The musical score to the film is by Jah Wobble and the Chinese Dub Orchestra, thereby merging both the traditional and the modern as well as the work of composer Maria de Alvear.

Maggie Cheung as Mazu


The exhibition also features 2 large-format photographs entitled, Maiden of Silence and Yishuan Island, Dreaming. Both are visually striking and line the entrance to the film viewing space. At first I wasn’t sure how the  image of the men dreaming in the shade fit with the overall concept, but the more I thought about it the more I realised that perhaps Julien was using it to show the boundaries between fiction, dream and reality. It also made me think about the nature of Western-style cultural globalization which seeps in through the whole exhibition.

Yishuan Island, Dreaming


The second image was that of a stunning actress Maggie Cheung playing the Maiden of Silence with her dress sleeves draped like angels wings, greeting you on the far wall as you enter. This one I found mesmerizing.

Maiden of Silence


The exhibition runs until August 2019 so you have plenty of time to catch it if you’ve not done so already. You can find out more here: What’s On at The Whitworth

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