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Isaac Julien: Ten Thousand Waves at Whitworth Art Gallery

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by David Keyworth (subscribe)
I’m a freelance journalist and published poet, based in Manchester. keyworthdavid@gmail.com https://uk.linkedin.com/pub/david-keyworth/49/b3a/b83
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The Cruel Sea
Having previously been shown in New York (MoMa) and London (Hayward Gallery), Isaac Julien's three-screen installation has been purchased for Manchester's Whitworth Gallery collection. It means that Ten Thousand Waves (2010) is closer to the location of the tragedy which inspired its creation.

In 2004, 23 migrant workers from China's Fujian province drowned on a sandbank in Morecambe, Lancashire. They were working as cockle pickers. They were employed by a gangmaster who was subsequently convicted of manslaughter and breaking immigration laws.

Isaac Julien's artistic response to this tragedy of modern exploitation is a 50 minute film which mixes Chinese myth with scenes of bustling twenty first century Shanghai.

Isaac Julien Whitworth, University of Manchester, Whitworth Art Gallery, Morecambe Bay, Art
The Whitworth Entrance


These are intercut with archive black and white images of Shanghai and footage from the rescue mission at Morecambe. The all too real recordings of panicked voices and shaky camera shots, searching above the violent night-time sea, raises questions about how authentically art can convey a real-life tragedy.

But the juxtaposition also demonstrates how art can go beyond factual reporting to give empathy and a historical perspective to that tragedy.

In Ten Thousand Waves, Isaac Julien references the 'golden era' of Chinese cinema. He recreated scenes from The Goddess (1934), which tells the story of a mother who resorts to prostitution to fund her son's education. Zhao Tao takes on the role originally played by Ruan Lingyu (1910 - 1935).

In this part of the installation, the three screens are used to show the same scene from different angles. We, as viewers, become our own film editors - selecting which screen to focus on from moment to moment. Images of the film crew remind us that the artist has deliberately decided to recreate the original film because of its resonance with the Morecambe tragedy.

Isaac Julien Whitworth, University of Manchester, Whitworth Art Gallery, Morecambe Bay, Art, Maggie Cheung
Mazu, Turning 'Ten Thousand Waves' Isaac Julien


The use of juxtapositions and different angles keeps us on edge as observers and also gives fresh meaning to the idea of seeing the same work of art differently on each encounter with it.

The most surreal scenes feature a modern-day film star - Maggie Cheung, who was born in Hong Kong but schooled in the UK. The star of In the Mood for Love (2000) and Clean (2004), floats past the steel and glass of a skyscraper robed in an angelic-white. She is the Maiden of Silence - a reference to the Chinese myth of Mazu - the Sea Goddess, protector of seafarers.

The fable of the goddess Mazu comes from the Fujian Province - where the Morecambe Bay workers mainly originated.

Isaac Julien Whitworth, University of Manchester, Whitworth Art Gallery, Morecambe Bay, Art, Maggie Cheung
'Ten Thousand Waves' Isaac Julien, film installation, at the Whitworth. Endura Ultra photograph



Ten Thousand Waves is very much a collaborative project - with Isaac Julien enlisting the support of other talented creative people. The poet Wang Ping's verse complements the images. His lines, like "my love harbours in the dark shadows" and "our souls scattered across the ocean" are acutely poignant when heard alongside the caller in the Morecambe rescue footage saying "can you please just get them all out."

The musical score, broadcast in surround sound, is by London-based musician and Public Image Ltd (PiL) member Jah Wobble and the Chinese Dub Orchestra and also Spanish contemporary classical composer Maria de Alvear.

Isaac Julien Whitworth, University of Manchester, Whitworth Art Gallery, Morecambe Bay, Art, Maggie Cheung
'Red Chamber Dream (Ten Thousand Waves), © Isaac Julien, film installation, at the Whitworth. Endura Ultra photograph



Jah Wobble and Chinese Dub Orchestra treated Whitworth gallery-goers to an infectious performance after a public discussion, in June, between Whitworth Director Alistair Hudson and Isaac Julien.

In September the Whitworth will launch two new exhibitions. Thick Time, by South African artist William Kentridge, combines drawing, tapestry, music and film projection as well as sculpture.

Thread Bearing Witness by Alice Kettle is "a major new series of large textiles and other works which "considers cultural heritage, refugee displacement and movement."

Ten Thousand Waves
has been co-acquired by the Whitworth and The Towner, Eastbourne and is the first acquisition made through the Art Fund's Moving Image Fund for Museums.

Isaac Julien Whitworth, University of Manchester, Whitworth Art Gallery, Morecambe Bay, Art, Raqs Media Collective, Bending' sculpture
'Bending' sculpture Whitworth Park by the Raqs Media Collective






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Why? A Free Screening of a Moving and Cinematic Film Installation
When: Until 28th August 2018
Phone: 0161 275 7450
Where: The Whitworth, The University of Manchester, Oxford Road, Manchester M15 6ER
Cost: Free
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