Ten Thousand Waves of Cross-Cultural Re-Appropriations

By Chiu-Ti Jansen

Isaac Julien, Ten Thousand Waves, 2010. Installation view, Marron Atrium, Museum of Modern Art, New York. Courtesy of the MoMA; Photo: Jonathan Muzikar.

NEW YORK - At first glance, Isaac Julien’s nine double-sided screen video installation Ten Thousand Waves (2010) is a dazzling parade of Chinese Elements that are easily recognizable as such.  The 55-minute video – close to the length of a feature film – opened to public at the MoMA atrium this week, inviting viewers to watch the spectacle from many different vantage points. Through a complex web of cross-references to ancient myths and precedent artworks, the piece is desynchronized parallel stories on how we may come to grasp the “violent speed of modernity” that is overtaking contemporary China.


Myself, with the artist (second from left), Maggie Cheung and co-curator Martin Hartung (of the MoMA) at the opening reception on Monday. Courtesy of the MoMA; Photo: Scott Rudd.

The catalyst of Julien’s stunning visual investigation is a haunting replay of an emergency call from a witness of the 2004 Morecambe Bay tragedy that claimed the lives of 23 Chinese cockle pickers off the Northwest England shore. That frantic voice is interwoven throughout the film with the recitation (by Chinese actor Benedict Wong) of a poem titled “Small Boats,” composed by Chinese poet Wang Ping with Julien’s commission.

Add to that Maggie Cheung, Hong Kong actress who led the way for Chinese performing artists’ foray onto the international stage, playing the mighty white-robed Goddess Mazu (known in Southern China as fishermen’s guardian angel), flying around like a ghost in stunt rigging. Add to this calligrapher Gong Fagen who demonstrates on a glass screen in mastered showmanship a rendition of the Chinese characters for “Ten Thousand Waves” (Wan-chong-lang).

Isaac Julien, Mazu, Turning (Ten Thousand Waves), 2010. Courtesy of the artist, Metro Pictures (New York) and Victoria Miro Gallery (London).

Then add Old Shanghai brought to live in a Shanghai film studio, where actress Zhao Tao reenacts The Goddess (1934), a classic Chinese silent film about a street walker who tried to afford her young son better education but ended up in jail after killing a gangster who stole her saved-up money. 

“How would one go to such lengths to achieve a better life?” the artist asks.  (A single screen version of this project is entitled Better Life.)

But Ten Thousand Waves is also a metanarrative about a video artist’s self-referential, painstaking journey to understand contemporary China made up of incongruous elements. Julien made references to Shanghai-based cinematographer and photographer Yang Fudong, known for his adept mix of periods and characters, as well as legends and reality, to create a poetic, dream-like reflection on the role of time in narrative. In its format, Ten Thousand Waves is resonant with Yang’s The Fifth Night (2010), an ambitious video installation that requires the viewers to pass through seven large screen televisions as a “multiple-views file” that positions the viewers as if they were in the film themselves.

Isaac Julien, Blue Goddess (Ten Thousand Waves), 2010. Courtesy of the artist, Metro Pictures (New York) and Victoria Miro Gallery (London).

The rich intertextuality is also evident in the video’s allusion to The Goddess’ lead actress Ruan Lingyu (1910-1935), an early Chinese cinema icon whose tragic suicide made her China’s Marilyn Monroe. A 1992 movie titled Center Stage, starring Maggie Cheung, chronicles Ruan’s life and alternates between film-making scenes (production talks among director, Cheung and co-star), reenactment scenes with Cheung playing Ruan, and extracts from Ruan's original films.

In Julien’s work, the viewers can see in a film studio Cheung (as Mazu) being filmed flying against the backdrop of a green screen, but in fact a technician manipulates her moves via wires and another crew member blows her dark hair with a wind machine.  We also see Goddess Mazu flying away from the idyllic water scenes in the Southern China (place of origin of the cockle pickers) along the Yangzi River until she passes through the skyscrapers of the newly developed Pudong area of Shanghai, appearing outside the apartment window of the contemporary “Goddess – Ruan Lingyu,” played by Zhao Tao. Through these connections, Julien revisits the original double entendre in the 1934 The Goddess, as the Chinese terms for goddess (nushen) and prostitute (shennu) consist of identical characters, just in reverse.

We, the postmodern viewers, have seen many examples of self-referential “film within a film” before. But this is an exhilaratingly enriching experience because it illustrates the challenges and rewards of trying to tell the story of someone else, especially someone from a different culture and narrative tradition.


Isaac Julien: Ten Thousand Waves

November 25, 2013 – February 17, 2014

The Museum of Modern Art

New York

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