Ten Thousand Waves: Isaac Julien at MoMA

Disembodied whispers circle MoMA’s atrium and land on one of the nine suspended screens, murmuring: “all dreams are not your dreams. All desires are not your desires.” Isaac Julien’s piece is an immersive sound and image constellation, aptly entitled Ten Thousand Waves; inspired by the desolate beach that tragically swallowed twenty Chinese migrant cockleshell pickers in London ten years ago, the installation is arranged so that the viewer imagines herself at the mercy of an unpredictable surrounding tide, poised to advance from any possible direction.

The piece, though fragmentary, is held together by a few shining threads. The goddess Mazu, a ghostly white-clad figure portrayed by Chinese actress Maggie Cheung, drifts in slow motion through the multiple landscapes of Ten Thousand Waves. Her presence traverses the boundaries of era and story; she and the viewer alone are witness to the trajectory of the wave as it heaves and crashes on the shore of present-day China, sweeps through Morecambe Bay in 2004 London, recedes through 1930s Shanghai, and comes to rest again in 16th-century China as a group of provincial fisherman lost at sea are guided home safely.

Though Ten Thousand Waves is immersive, it stops short of submerging its viewer completely. The occasional intonements of intangible voices, the collaborative, ambient, and almost sculptural score, and the intensity of the imagery that sails and drifts by, all seem intended less to inspire intellectual interpretation than to guide an intentionally collective reflection. The arrangement of the nine screens allows for a layered transparency, ensuring that the realities of the art museum (its hum, its patterns, and the atrium filled with an audience made childlike as it gazes at the stories unfolding above) unite with the narratives gliding by to form an enormous collage.

This desire for transparency is guided by the commitment of Ten Thousand Waves to reveal its own process. In one vignette, calligraphy artist Gong Fagen painstakingly works his outsize brush over a pane of glass, leaving enormous inky chinese characters that, once finished, are immediately wiped into murky clouds by a team of young men with rags and spray bottles. Similarly, Mazu floats in and out of myth and reality; no sooner does she fly from a desolate tidal landscape than her background is replaced by the green screen used in the making of the image, while a young worker guides her on strings as if directing a puppet and a large fan mimics a wind playing with her long hair. Later, the viewer finds a similar green haze, only to discover that it is the vivid water in which drowning bodies are submerged.

The piece seems ultimately to be concerned with the realities of the images it produces. As Julien remarks in a behind-the-scenes video, “In the same way that there’s labor into people picking cockleshells, there’s labor into making images, and you can’t make images without that labor.” The Chinese migrant workers’ lives were cut short by an obfuscation of language and labor practices, and an instinct for survival at the cost of safety. The lack of transparency in their deaths caused an international ripple that began to question the foundations of an under-regulated system valuing disembodied, disconnected, and ultimately exploitative labor practices. Ten Thousand Waves—beautifully, mournfully—heralds a reexamination of the constructions of a labor whose its ultimate purpose is turned against itself, making the very means of survival that which cruelly terminates life.

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