Ten Thousand Waves is a seminal work in Isaac Julien’s oeuvre. It weaves ancient myth and modern-day tragedy into a spectacular multichannel visual tapestry about survival in the age of globalism. It also establishes an uneasy discourse of the contradictions and similarities of traditional and contemporary China.
Julien makes China’s sixteenth-century mythical goddess Mazu his protagonist, floating her image across historical time and weaving it in and out of the narrative. Mazu is believed to have rescued young sailors from drowning at sea. Her symbolic presence adds spirituality to a narrative that coalesces four stories into an allegory about indentured labour, migration and exploitation across the ages. The matrix of Julien’s tale is the tragic death of twenty-three young Chinese migrant workers in Morecambe Bay in Lancashire, UK, in 2004. While collecting cockles on the sand flats at low tide these workers were trapped and drowned in the changing tide. This part of the story is told with original footage and sound from the attempted rescue.
For the second story Julien restaged the sixteenth- century myth of young sailors under the protection of Mazu in a mountainous terrain in China. He also retells, in brilliant, twenty-first-century HD colour, scenes from Goddess, a 1934 Chinese B/W film about a mother driven to prostitution to survive. The undulating ocean and the booming, capitalist metropolis of Shanghai Julien uses as metaphors for the real and floating worlds to contemporary China.
Text: Gavin Jantjes
From "Highlights. Art from 1945 to the Present", Nasjonalmuseet 2016, ISBN 978-82-8154-116-0