The Crashing Of The Waves – A Personal Response To Isaac Julien’s ‘Ten Thousand Waves’
When I lived in the north west of the UK, the Morecambe Bay tragedy was one of those things that I had to become aware of eventually. Even though it had happened before I moved to Manchester, even though I had never heard of it until I lived there, it was an important piece of the regional fabric. It was one of those stories that resonated in the background, one that subconsciously informed regional lives and identities. Even so, I never quite found out what had happened. A number of Chinese immigrants lost their lives whilst picking cockles in Morecambe Bay, unaware of the treacherous tides. They had been working illegally in the UK under appalling conditions. Rumours of human trafficking and modern-day slavery abounded. The cockle pickers were nameless, faceless cogs in the wheel in one of the richest countries on earth. Their road to a better life and a better future ended in the cold waters of an estuary in the north of England.
About ten years after this tragic event I came across Isaac Julien’s Ten Thousand Waves in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. I could not help but note the irony of the situation. Here I was – a Dutch visitor to that historic melting pot in a country long the prime destination for migrants dreaming of a better life – looking at a piece of art that takes as its starting point a tragedy in a region where I spent four formative years of my life. I was soon mesmerised by this film examining exactly what can go wrong during such a journey.
Ten Thousand Waves is a fifty-five minute multimedia installation consisting of nine projection screens positioned on multiple levels. The film comprises three separate parts that seamlessly flow into one another. There is no obvious beginning or end. Due to the way it is installed as well as filmed, the viewer can never see it in its entirety. This only emphasises its poetic, non-linear structure. All three parts deal with the Morecambe Bay tragedy, but they tackle it from different angles.
The first part is the most literal one. Footage of the rescue mission is cut with footage of dark blue undulating waves. The viewer does not actually get to see anything specific. This makes the underlying sound scape all the more haunting. We hear the voices of the people involved in the rescue mission crackling over the radio. The despair comes through loud and clear as they quickly realise that there is nothing much they can do.
The three stories have the search for a better life, the migrant experience, the spiritual displacement, the unfinished journeys in common. They also have in common that one way or another the search is cut short and that, short of divine intervention, it can only end in tragedy.
In the second part the viewer is transported to a mythical China. The landscape is lush and verdant. A thick mist is blanketing the rivers. Old-fashioned wooden barges are slowly moving up and down the streams. A mysterious woman dressed in white is floating down the road. A group of men is following her. Is she an angel? Is she the harbinger of death? Is this a dream?
This part of the installation has been criticised a lot for being too much Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Accusations of reinforcing stereotypes have been levelled. There is no denying the visual resemblance to that particular film. This is the result of an obscure reference Julien tries to make. The story unfolding on screen refers to a myth from the region where the Morecambe Bay cockle pickers hailed from. In that particular myth a goddess leads shipwrecked sailors in search of a better life safely back to shore. Knowing the content of that myth makes the allusion to the Morecambe Bay tragedy clear. But unless the viewer has bothered to read up on Ten Thousand Waves, it is very easy to miss this connotation entirely.
The third part cuts to footage showing a contemporary urban China as well as found footage depicting a historic but modern-looking urban China. Red and yellow are pre-eminent colours here. This is cut with scenes being shot on a film-set. There is a surreal quality to it. Are we shown an actual historical part of a city? Has it been constructed especially for the film? The shots of the cameramen following this woman, what is that all about? Is this some meta-narrative? A film about a film? This has already been hinted at by the shots of the goddess suspended on wires against a green screen in the previous part.
But then the viewer is truly drawn into the third part of the film. It is about a woman who is down and out, who moved to the city to take care of herself and her son. She ends up being abused by men and finally fighting her way out of it. Apparently it is a reconstruction of a pre-WW II film called The Goddess, which alludes to the previous part of the installation. But it also refers to the word in Chinese where allegedly the word goddess is close to the word prostitute, as if they are the flip sides of the same coin.
The three stories have the search for a better life, the migrant experience, the spiritual displacement, the unfinished journeys in common. They also have in common that one way or another the search is cut short and that, short of divine intervention, it can only end in tragedy. Julien is of course not the first artist that pays attention to globalisation and migration, and the painful consequences of both. Photographers and film makers such as Jim Goldberg, Ad van Denderen, Henk Wildschut, Nikolaj Bendix Skyum Larsen, and Kadir van Lohuizen have covered these issues extensively.
In fact, with the migrant crisis as it is currently unfolding in Europe, I see an upsurge in photographers and film makers documenting what is happening in Calais, Greece, Lampedusa and elsewhere. Whilst I fully recognise and underwrite the importance of paying attention to the plight of migrants as they arrive onto European shores, I also feel hugely uncomfortable about photographers trying to make their big break on the back of this human tragedy. Moreover, I feel that many of these projects only deal with the consequences of the phenomenon. They do not address the underlying causes of what makes people leave home and hearth and risk their lifes to cross the treacherous Mediterranean.
With Ten Thousand Waves Julien creates a fiction based on true stories, myths and legends, found footage and archival material. It does not provide an explanation of how and why a number of Chinese cockle pickers drowned in the north of England, nor does it clarify how they came to be there. But the work does provide plenty of hints for the interested viewer to go and find out. Despite the pitfalls, sometimes fiction can tell the truth in a more captivating way than any documentary record can.
Isaac Julien: Ten Thousand Waves was on show at MoMA from 25 November 2013 to 17 February 2014.