Isaac Julien
Waves (Ten Thousand Waves) I 2010
Endura Ultra photograph I 180 x 240 cm
Courtesy of the artist and Victoria Miro Gallery, London

Ten Thousand Waves was shot on location in China. The work explores the movement of people across countries and continents, and meditates on unfinished journeys. Through formal experimentation and a series of unique collaborations, Julien seeks to engage with Chinese culture through contemporary events, ancient myths and artistic practice.

The original inspiration for Ten Thousand Waves was the Morecambe Bay tragedy of 2004, in which 23 Chinese cockle-pickers died. In response to this event, Julien commissioned the poet Wang Ping to come to England and write Small Boats, a poem that is recited in the work.

Through conversations with academics, curators and artists both in China and the UK, Julien uncovered a symbolic body of material which he has used to create a work that explores modern and traditional Chinese values and superstitions. These are encapsulated in a fable about the goddess Mazu (played by Maggie Cheung) that comes from Fujian Province, from where the Morecambe Bay cockle-pickers originated. The Tale of Yishan Island tells the tale of 16th Century fishermen lost and in danger at sea. At the heart of the legend is the goddess figure who leads the fishermen to safety. Using this fable as a starting point Julien deftly draws on this story and the poignant connection between it and the 21st Century tragedy of Chinese migrants who died struggling to survive in the North of England.

Following ideas surrounding death, spiritual displacement, and the uniquely Chinese connection with “ghosts” or “lost souls”, the film links the Shanghai of the past and present, symbolising the Chinese transition towards modernity, aspiration and affluence. Here, Julien employs the visual language of ghost stories, with recurrent figures and images appearing and disappearing. Mazu’s spectral figure traverses time and space, serving as a guide through the interlocking strands of the work. Mirroring the goddess of the fable, a ghostly protagonist (Zhao Tao) leads us through the world of Shanghai cinema via the Shanghai Film Studio, to a restaging by Julien of scenes from the classic Chinese film The Goddess (1934), and finally to the streets of Modern and Old Shanghai.