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Arts & Culture

Public lured by a more open Linda Pace Foundation will find tragedy, magical reflexivity in 'Ten Thousand Waves'

Photo: Courtesy photo, License: N/A

Courtesy photo

Still from Isaac Julien's film Ten Thousand Waves.


In 2004 British artist Isaac Julien heard of the drownings at Morecambe Bay. Misled by incompetent gang bosses, Chinese migrant workers were caught in the rising winter tides while cockle-picking (digging clams) on the coastal sand flats of northwest England. Emergency services were alerted, and helicopters rushed to the scene, but only one person survived the cold waters. The press spent months following the story through the resulting trial and public outrage. Julien, whose parents emigrated to England from St. Lucia in the West Indies, recognized the migrants' story as poor-kin to his own; he spent several years building a film around the tragedy. The result is Ten Thousand Waves, a nine-screen video installation that premiered at the 2010 Biennale of Sydney, Australia, followed by showings in Shanghai and Helsinki. A unique three-screen version of the film is on view now at the Linda Pace Foundation.

Playing on sometimes one, two, or all three screens, the film blends archival footage from the rescue attempt with calligraphy, poetry, music, and lush, almost operatic storytelling. To research the story, Julien made several trips to the cockle-pickers' home in southeast China's Fujian province, a place that for a thousand years has sent its young on voyages in search of the better life. Sometimes they return, and build grand houses that contrast with the modest homes of workers who remained. But often, only letters from abroad come back home. Sometimes they abruptly stop, leaving the sea traveler's family to imagine sinking bodies and empty boats. Fujian is also the origin of the myth of Mazu, goddess of the sea. Played by Hong Kong film icon Maggie Cheung, Mazu rescues fishermen, guiding their boat to land as she looks down from above. Assuming the role of witness, Mazu (Cheung) soars over the host of stories that run through the film. That it is her eyes that record is appropriate; Mazu is also the Bodhisattva Guanyin, the most revered Buddhist deity in China.

The making of the film, which includes turns by rising actress Zhao Tao, video artist Yang Fudong (whose own works often deploy multiple screens), master calligrapher Gong Fagen, and cinematography by Zhao Xiaoshi, began with commissioned poetry by Wang Ping, who Julien met while in the U.S. Her bilingual Chinese-English poem cycle Small Boat, telling the journeys and sorrows of migrants lives, is excerpted throughout the film, both in English and Chinese, and comprises much of the film's voice-over. Shot in China and mixing over-the-top film techniques with looks-back to re-imagined scenes from Shanghai's 1930s movie industry, and forward to dreams of shimmering glass cities, the collaborative work is hybrid — part Western, part Chinese — and has a magical reflexivity that doesn't just look inwards, but spirals out, embracing the viewer. But Mazu, though witness to the world, no longer seems able to save it. Her floating image recurs next to repeats of the archival video, an eerie, but fading double to the helicopter and its helpless rescuers.

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