Ten Thousand Waves, Isaac Julien's Current Project

Tracing the Movement of Selfhood via the Cinematic Experience

Julia Neal

Artist Issac JulienThis article is one of a series of essays addressing art as seen through the eyes of four budding scholars. Art history graduate students at Boston University, they are interested in exploring the uncharted bounds of African American and African Disporan visual culture.


Isaac Julien, Yishan Island, Mist (Ten Thousand Waves), 2010; endura ultra photograph, 180 x 240cm; Isaac Julien & Victoria Miro Gallery/Metro Pictures, New York.Are we all immigrants, emigrants and emigrés, or should this be an illogical question when a visitor to an exhibition empathizes and projects their experiences onto an ethnic group with whom they presumably share no relationship?


This issue arises when once considers Ten Thousand Waves, an exhibition by Isaac Julien, the black London-based installation artist and filmmaker. Julien is known for his 1989 Looking for Langston, a poetic dramatic/documentary film about Langston Hughes and the Harlem Renaissance. At the Cannes Film Festival, Julien’s 1991 Young Soul Rebels, won the Semaine de la Critique prize for best film. His 2003 Baltimore installation won the Grand Jury Prize at the Kunst film Biennale in Cologne.


Isaac Julien, Green Screen Goddess (Ten Thousand Waves), 2010; Endura Ultra Photograph 180 x 240 cm, Isaac Julien & Victoria Miro Gallery, London/Metro Pictures, New York.   Chiefly inspired from the deaths of 23 Chinese cockle-pickers at Morcambe Bay in 2004, Isaac Julien captures the migration of living persons, apparitions and imaginations in Ten Thousand Waves. By juxtaposing China’s past with its present as well as commissioning the artistic talents of prominent Chinese individuals, Julien pays tribute to the Morcambe Bay victims through his synthesis of Chinese culture and transmigration.


This traveling exhibition is on view through Nov 04, 2012 at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego. During its previous run at the Institute of Contemporary Arts/Boston, visitors experienced a cinematic and immersive installation of nine video screens, music and a pitch-black gallery that enveloped them – effectively de-materializing their presence and reinforcing the illumination of each screen.


It is particularly this experience of being enveloped in the dark as an onlooker, bystander and implicit participant, that this review will examine rather than explicate the intricacies involved with Julien’s interweaving of three Chinese narratives. Ten Thousand Waves is arguably a universal film installation – despite the specific presence of Asians as the only racial actors – because the installation depends on the activation of space by viewers entering and exiting the gallery. However, my interest in discussing a general viewer experience is not intended to downplay Julien’s focus on Chinese culture and postcolonial paradigms. This would be a disservice to his four years of research and observations. When entering and activating such a space determined by the layout of the hanging screens, Ten Thousand Waves evokes a personal experience between the local and the international and the relevance of a viewer’s gaze.


Installation image of the 17th Viennale of Sydney Australia: 12 May – 1 August 2010; Isaac Julien & Victoria Miro Gallery, courtesy of Tom Cullens for Isaac Julien Studio    In an interview with Andrew Maerkle entitled, “Not Global, Trans-Local: Interview with Isaac Julien,” the artist relates his knowledge of postcolonial studies to a creolization process. That knowledge effectively inspired him to become a “creolized” subject through collaboration with fellow artists who are Chinese. These individuals include poet Wang Ping, Jah Wobble and the Chinese Dub Orchestra, master calligrapher Gong Fagen and the internationally acclaimed actress Maggie Cheung. This “creolization process" successfully transfers to the audience as they contrast their own experiences with the emission of Chinese cinema and subtitles in the West with a modern and modernizing China in Ten Thousand Waves. The experience is as punctuated and disjointed as are the screens.


Running 49 minutes and 41 seconds, it is almost impossible to enter Ten Thousand Waves at its “beginning.” To discern the point of beginning, a viewer most notably has to remain in the gallery space until a loop occurs, and this demands a significant level of attention unlike the conventional mode of narrating the experience of artworks on canvas, sculptures or static installations in museums. Yet its cinematic qualities and appearance as one complete movie spaced over several screens place Ten Thousand Waves in an advantageous position with audiences accustomed to feature-length films. As I visited this exhibition a handful of times before it traveled elsewhere, I either entered the installation during the wholly sensory and visceral experience of being surrounded by water – like the tragic fate of the 23 Chinese cockle-pickers – or in the fairly mute experience of traveling down the river with obstructed vision while phantom-like whispers of a poem occur in the background (Figure 1). This allowed for me to view the recurring scenes of the “Green Screen Goddess” (Figure 2) as an important motif of how viewers construct realities and the inability for Western subjects to differentiate Chinese films from mainstream martial arts films. Imaginations run wild as viewers are then required to disassociate their imaginings of Chinese culture with each challenge of the installation to be individual yet part of a multi-layered visual experience of transmigration and movement.


Installation photograph of the 17th Biennale of Sydney Australia: 12 May – 1 August 2010, selected four screens; Isaac Julien & Victoria Miro Gallery/Metro Pictures, New York, courtesy of Sidney Patrik Rastenberger. The scenes in Ten Thousand Waves, which effectively convey the articulation of tracing movement, are ones that display the steady action of feet in motion, vehicles in motion and human bodies in motion. From a spiraling staircase to a beautiful landscape or populated industrial city, individuals in constant motion is an identifiable and effective way to appeal to similar “migratory” patterns of people of unrelated continents. Moreover, the darkness of the gallery space similarly homogenizes each viewer while subverting the significance of his or her age, sex and race, though it is important to state that this homogenization does not simultaneously disqualify individuality. There are scenes in which the light is bright enough to expose the gallery’s visitors to each other as well as illuminate those attempting to find the “perfect angle” by which to absorb all the images at once. As one of the viewers who chose to stand during a majority of the playback, I must say that the visitors to the galleries deciding to sit still the entire time missed experiencing an out-of-body sensation that depended on keeping your body in motion and following what seemed correct with the cinematographic aesthetic.


The benches inside of the Fotene Demoulas Gallery at the Institute of Contemporary Arts/Boston were arranged along the exterior walls, and a great amount of people chose to sit there as opposed to the floor or stand when the gallery space was not full. They would only be able to view one side of the orchestration of one or two scenes along nine screens. The ICA placed screens in a similar fashion as the installation in 2010 at the 17th Biennale of Sydney Australia, except imagine that the ICA’s space forms more of a square and is more constricted (Figure 4). Therefore, when the screen presents images of an interstate buzzing with cars, noise and traffic, you only catch a “fragment” of the event rather than a presupposed whole. Standing in front of the two central video screens (Figure 5) would yield a more complete image as the circles of the highways form an oval rather than a half-circle, and the movement is less punctuated.


However, standing viewers were not fully privileged with all the information due to the organization of the screens. In Ten Thousand Waves, there are moments when you feel as if you are a passenger on a train because of your ability to view the background moving farther away as you approach an undetermined destination with other Chinese individuals on parallel screens. Your position is not entirely self-evident due to the spacing of the screens in relation to each other, thus the imagination is granted more power to render and complete spatial and physical difference of truly being present or absent in the series of actions. The series of identifications and dis-identifications becomes a cyclical process where audiences in the gallery then do not lose their sense of selfhood – whether they are Korean American, black American, etc., or casual travelers from different continents or states. The more difficult question for Ten Thousand Waves is how to explain the difference between Julien’s video installations and regular cinema.


Both typically require an entrance fee, and both require a level of spectacularization in an institutional space that influences the context of the works. My immediate opinion is that this question is not an either/or situation, but rather a seeking of ways to articulate how interdisciplinary and collaborative efforts affect the conditions of work as “art” or as “artistic” processes. Isaac Julien’s Ten Thousand Waves evokes themes of devastation, ambivalence and displacement ostensibly through Chinese narratives and Morecambe Bay, and also creatively by encompassing the viewer in darkness in which the screens appear like ideas that are part of a larger system of transmigration and rightful belonging.


Julia Neal is an art history graduate student at Boston University