Ten Thousand Waves
Ten Thousand Waves, by artist Isaac Julien, is an immersive audio and video installation. In 2013, a custom variation of the installation was specifically designed for The Donald B. and Catherine C. Marron Atrium at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Nine double-sided screens, ranging from 16 to 23 feet wide, hung in the center of the large open atrium. Most of the screens circled around creating the borders of the installation while other screens zig-zag in the middle, making it impossible to see all the screens at once. Below the screens, charcoal gray amoeba-shaped modern benches blend into the charcoal gray floor. Looking from the outside, the installation is a dynamic structure that draws you in. Stepping into the installation, one is immersed in 3D sound and high-resolution images.
Isaac Julien is a well-established video installation artist who combines archival footage with fictionalized stories. With a clear and deliberate use of iconographic and symbolic images, these ingredients create a type of neo mythology that draws from the past and projects into the future. Julien’s family immigrated from St Lucia to London where he was born in 1960. Ten Thousand Waves focuses on narratives that span across borders and feature figures who are culturally representative. Within this abstracted presentation, Julien’s own personal narrative is being explored while also using his role in the geopolitical sphere to have a positive effect on the world.
The complicated instalation uses the screens to emerce viewers. Sometimes the screens display identical content. Sometimes the screens work together to create different views on the same scene or setting. Other times, the screens show divergent content that works together symbolically rather than visually. The settings in the images are dichotomous, ranging from nature to city, from ancient to modern, and from technical to spiritual. At one point, green screen effects are revealed. In another scene, a goddess floats in
a surreal apparition. The nature scenes are of ocean waves and rock faces. The city scenes are in Shanghai, China.
The audio is in 9.2 surround sound and it feels as immersive as the video. Orchestral drumming and symphonic strings feel lush and hypnotic. Echos and glitches create an otherworldly atmosphere. The speakers and screens work together to draw attention to one place within the installation, sometimes forcing one to turn and look over their shoulder. In this way, it feels very different than a typical cinematic experience. The screens, like the waves of a rising tide, envelop all within. It is a 55-minute piece of theater in the surround.
Ten Thousand Wave’s journey began when Julien took interest in the drowning of 21 undocumented Chinese cockling pickers in the Morecambe Bay off the coast of England. He visited the tragic site with Chinese poet, Wang Ping, who he commissioned to write a poem entitled Small Boats which appears at the beginning of the film. One significant aspect of Ten Thousand Waves is the collaborations with other artists. This is clearly seen throughout Julien's process. In addition to Wang Ping, almost the entire cast and crew are Chinese, including famous calligrapher Gong Fagen, actress Zhao Tao, and cinematographer Zhao Xiaoshi. The original soundtrack is by Londoner Jah Wobble, The Chinese Dub Orchestra, and contemporary classical composer Maria de Alvear. In addition to creative collaborations, Julien worked with a sizable technical crew to design and install the show. Altogether, the cast a crew totaled over a hundred participants; a massive collaboration indicative of Julien's general approach to creating his masterpieces.
Julien worked on Ten Thousand Waves over the course of many years. Within that time, he created another piece entitled Western Union Small Boats. In this work, Isaac Julien continues his experimentation with multi-screen installations and he continues his exploration of personal narratives involving voyages at sea, international travel, and individual journeys. These two works are very similar in style though Western Union Small Boats is on a smaller scale than Ten Thousand Waves. In the vein of Joseph Campbell, a modern philosopher of myth, Julien explores the “hero’s journey” through a “thousand faces”. Perhaps he is trying to imbue meaning in a chaotic world of globalized indifference by elevating the personal stories of otherwise unexamined souls to that of legendary lore. If this is his motivation in Western Union Small Boats, so to must it be the motivation behind Ten Thousand Waves.
Like Julien, artist Rebeca Mendez is a video installation artist who also explores narratives that are both placed in nature and defy borders. In her piece, CircumSolar, Migration 1, she explores the migration patterns of a small seabird, the arctic tern. Mendez exhibited CircumSolar, Migration 1 off the coast in Amsterdam. She used a high-powered projector to display the 26-minute film onto a 15 foot circular round screen suspended above the crowd using the oceanic background as an extension of her work. Inside the massive porthole images of the ocean, sky, and the birds unfold. Mendez is also a collaborator, working with audio artist, Ben Frost, on the immersive surround sound. Though there are many similarities between the two artists’ work, they emanate from very different jumping off points. Mendez’s Amsterdam show was a total spectacle in that is was a massive and hypnotic thing of beauty, but Julien’s piece, Ten Thousand Waves, instills a more deeply penetrating sense of the content explored. Perhaps this is because he unearths the existential crises contained within all human narratives.