The Udo and Anette Brandhorst Stiftung has co-commissioned a new work by Isaac Julien, which was completed in 2010 and will be presented in Germany for the first time starting for the public 30 March 2011 in the Museum Brandhorst
Ten Thousand Waves is a 9-channel video installation, which the artist worked on for almost four years. The main scenes were filmed in China under participation of several internationally-celebrated actresses, including the legendary Maggie Cheung and Zhao Tao. The video artist Yang Fudong, as well as the poet Wang Ping and calligraphy grandmaster Gong Fagen also stood before the camera.
The starting point for Julien was a Chinese legend concerning the goddess Mazu whose special powers include the safe escorting of those imperiled at sea to quieter shores. Clips of old photographs conjure up this story; however, Julien relocates the main character, played by Maggie Cheung, to modern-day China where scenes are repeatedly filled with tumultuous traffic jams in Shanghai. These are contrasted with wonderful riverscapes, bordered by bamboo forests and sandstone mountains, in which a few river boats have gone astray. A second storyline focuses on the death of 23 illegal Chinese immigrants in England who worked as cockle pickers. Being unfamiliar with the tide times of the Atlantic Ocean, they perished in 2005 during the incoming spring tide. Mazu was unable to help with this situation. The only thing that "survived" the tragic accident was a major media response. A third level is manifested in sequences that relate to the first decades of the 20th century when Shanghai was granted special status, enabling the production of important films like, among others, The Goddess (1934), which traces the fate of a young unemployed woman who turns to prostitution in order to support herself and her child. In Julien's version, which evokes the atmosphere of the 1930s, this role is played by Zhao Tao.
Through the fragmentation of the sequences, the double and multiple images projected onto the nine transparent surfaces plus their spatial dislocation, Isaac Julien has created a complex artistic synthesis whose power of fascination is heightened through the additional use of an elaborate sound backdrop. As confusing as the intertwining of aspects of Chinese culture, history and contemporary events may seem at first glance, there is a structured order of events covering the entire 55-minute video. Various narrative and descriptive means have been subsumed in this complex ensemble, also encompassing the reflection on the medium of film used by Julien, exemplified again and again in the scenes where Maggi Cheung is made to hover or the way in which the historical episodes have been staged.
With Ten Thousand Waves Julien resolutely continues to make use of those elements that already characterize his earlier works (including Western Union / Small Boats in the collection of the Museum Brandhorst). His video installations all address aesthetic, social and psychological aspects of various living environments in which Western ideas of global culture are partly questioned and partly formulated in a new way. It is, as it were, the interleaving of post-colonial strategies with post-structuralist rudiments that assigns Isaac Julien's oeuvre the outstanding role it has achieved within the spectrum of contemporary art.