In Isaac Julien’s Ten Thousand Waves, images play across nine screens arranged in a darkened room on Cockatoo Island. Shanghai and its crowded cityscapes are visited by the ghostly form of a goddess, a white-robed spirit of China’s rich mythology and fable, while images of the Cultural Revolution play on adjacent screens. On the soundtrack, fragmented voices recorded from a police emergency line segue into electronic static. Modern and ancient China collide.
Ten Thousand Waves is a stunning piece, commissioned for the 17th Biennale of Sydney and funded by a consortium of private art collectors, an anonymous foundation and the biennale itself. The work also reveals that some artists working in narrative video art are making a persuasive claim as the future of cinema. At Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery in Paddington, meanwhile, Julien has an exhibition of stills and light boxes of images from the installation that, the artist says, offer viewers a meditative counterpoint to the visceral impact of the multi-screen 9.1 surround-sound experience.
British-born Julien has been working in film, photography, video and installation art since the early 1980s, moving easily between the art gallery context and the cinema.
In 2001 he was nominated for the Turner Prize for his feature films The Long Road to Mazatlan (1999) and Vagabondia (2000), while his earlier feature Young Soul Rebels (1991) won the Semaine de la Critique prize at the Cannes Film Festival.
Julien’s latest work carries on a number of the artist’s concerns – diaspora, cultural autonomy and identity. Ten Thousand Waves weaves together myth, poetry and fantasy with the story of the death of 23 illegal immigrant workers at Morecambe Bay on the north-west coast of England in 2004. The workers had come from Fujian province in China and were drowned by rapidly rising tidal waters as they collected cockles. Attempts to call police or other rescuers failed because the men could not speak English well enough to explain their predicament, nor their location.
“It was such a tragic event,” Julien says. “There was a national outcry when it happened and it was seen as a scandal, exposing these very severe conditions that certain people from other countries work in. Like a lot of people I was affected by the tragedy.
“People wanted to know how it happened and why. Why would people come from China to work in Morecambe Bay? It was an enigma.”
As he set out to make Ten Thousand Waves, Julien discovered a rather strange coincidence. A fable of the workers’ home region, The Tale of Yishan Island, tells the story of the goddess Mazu who rescues fisherman lost at sea. “I found a different China from the one I thought I would,” he says. “That created a space for meditation, both on contemporary and historical China, and a way to explore a character that has been greatly affected by the tragedy.”
That character is played by a rising star of Chinese cinema, Zhao Tao. Also featured in the work is actor Maggie Cheung, who plays Mazu, poet Wang Ping, master calligrapher Gong Fagen and contemporary artist Yang Fudong. At 50 minutes, Ten Thousand Waves is effectively a highly concentrated feature film that’s equally ambitious in its aims. “In a way the piece is like an archaeological dig into what happened and an attempt to try to articulate the event, not just through Western eyes, but also through China,” Julien says.
A work such as Ten Thousand Waves has the potential to be regarded as a kind of kitsch Orientalism, even if it is made by an artist who has spent most of the past decade immersing himself in contemporary Chinese culture. Ten Thousand Waves opts not for didactic politics but an impressionistic, poetic montage. And it’s emotionally affecting.
“The fable The Tale of Yishan Island was a way of exploring the myth as allegory,” he says. “My point is that Mazu does not save the fishermen at Morecambe Bay. The work is really about the power of myth and how that power is waning. This is my point about diaspora. You have a very old tradition of moving through the world but since there are these contemporary barriers [to that] because of globalisation, that diaspora seems unusual. But it’s not.”
Julien isn’t bound by traditional ideas that an artist is supposed to stick to one idea and one medium.
Since the late ’80s, he has pioneered what has become something of a phenomenon: artists making feature films shown commercially in cinemas. “There’s a fascination with the idea you can reach a wider audience through making films and escaping the art world,” he says. “You can see it in Steve McQueen’s Hunger  and Sam Taylor-Wood’s Nowhere Boy  and all the works that are coming from England soon by Jake and Dinos Chapman and Gillian Wearing. There’s always been a fascination of artists making feature films, like Cindy Sherman’s Office Killer  and Julian Schnabel’s films. In Schnabel’s case, the films are much more successful than his paintings.”
Instead of taking credit for this phenomenon, Julian cites an inspiration from a source close to home. “I have to say that I have always adored Tracey Moffatt’s film Bedevil,” he says.
“I thought that was a really quite fantastic film. She was a pioneer – [it was] a film that was made before its time. There is a resistance to the aspiration of artists wanting to make feature films, unfortunately, in the film industry. That’s why there has been this recent excitement in the art world. That’s accumulated now with so many artists making films or doing installation or moving-image works that are more interested in making pictures and achieving other possibilities. The most exciting place for moving image isn’t in the cinema – but in the art world.”
West Meets East, Sydney Morning Herald, July 2010.
© Andrew Frost, 2010