ISAAC JULIEN at MoMA

Isaac Julien: Ten Thousand Waves

November 25, 2013–February 17, 2014

Ten Thousand Waves (2010) is an immersive film installation projected onto nine double-sided screens arranged in a dynamic structure. Especially conceived for The Donald B. and Catherine C. Marron Atrium, the installation choreographs visitors’ movement through the space. The original inspiration for this recently acquired, 55-minute moving image installation was the Morecambe Bay tragedy of 2004, in which more than 20 Chinese cockle pickers drowned on a flooded sandbank off the coast in northwest England.

Julien poetically interweaves contemporary Chinese culture with its ancient myths—including the fable of the goddess Mazu (portrayed in the piece by Maggie Cheung), which comes from the Fujian Province, from where the Morecambe Bay workers originated. In one section, the Tale of Yishan Island, Julien recounts the story of 16th-century fishermen lost and imperiled at sea. Central to the legend is the sea goddess figure who leads the fishermen to safety. In a preceding section, shot at the Shanghai Film Studios, actress Zhao Tao takes part in a reenactment of the classic 1930s Chinese film The Goddess. Additional collaborators include calligrapher Gong Fagen, the film and video artist Yang Fudong, cinematographer Zhao Xiaoshi, and poet Wang Ping, from whom Julien commissioned “Small Boats,” a poem that is recited in Ten Thousand Waves.

The installation is staged on the streets of both modern and old Shanghai, and includes music and sounds that fuse Eastern and Western traditions. The installation’s sound structure is as immersive as its sequenced images, with contributions from, among others, London-based musician Jah Wobble and the Chinese Dub Orchestra, and an original score by Spanish contemporary classical composer Maria de Alvear.

London-based Julien is an internationally acclaimed artist and filmmaker. After graduating from St. Martin’s School of Art in London in 1985, he came to prominence with his 1989 drama-documentary Looking for Langston, a poetic exploration of Langston Hughes and the Harlem Renaissance. Informed by his film background, Julien’s gallery installations form fractured narratives that reflect critical thinking about race, globalization, and representation. In 2008 MoMA coproduced Julien’s film Derek(2008), a filmic biography of the late British filmmaker Derek Jarman.

Ten Thousand Waves was conceived and created over four years. In a reflection of the movement of people across continents, audiences move freely around the Marron Atrium, with the ability to watch from whichever vantage points they choose.

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ABOUT Isaac Julien

Sir Isaac Julien KBE RA (GB, 1960), a London-born filmmaker and installation artist, is celebrated for his groundbreaking approach to art, seamlessly merging film, dance, photography, music, theater, painting, and sculpture to craft compelling visual narratives through multi-screen film installations. Notably, his 1989 documentary-drama “Looking for Langston” and the Cannes Film Festival Semaine de la Critique prize-winning debut feature, “Young Soul Rebels” (1991), garnered critical acclaim on a global scale.

Julien’s international acclaim extends to prestigious solo exhibitions at prominent venues, including the Barnes Foundation, Smith College Museum of Art, and Bechtler Museum of Modern Art. His works have graced the walls of renowned institutions such as the Museum of Modern Art and the Art Institute of Chicago.

In addition to his artistic pursuits, Julien has made significant contributions to academia, holding key positions at institutions like the University of Arts London and Staatliche Hoscschule fur Gestaltung, Karlsruhe. His educational efforts were further recognized when he was awarded the James Robert Brudner ’83 Memorial Prize and delivered lectures at Yale University in 2016.

Isaac Julien’s dedication to the arts has earned him distinguished accolades, including The Royal Academy of Arts Charles Wollaston Award in 2017 and a knighthood as part of Queen Elizabeth II’s Honours List in 2022. Furthermore, he was honored with the esteemed Kaiserring Goslar Award in 2022.

In April 2023, Tate Britain hosted a comprehensive survey show, presenting Isaac Julien’s illustrious career. This exhibition featured works spanning four decades, encompassing early films and expansive multi-screen installations that delve into the themes of global movement and history. It marked the first-ever presentation of Isaac Julien’s extensive body of work in the United Kingdom. Following its showcase at Tate Britain, the exhibition traveled to K21 in Düsseldorf, with its next destination set to be Bonnefanten in Maastricht, where it will be open for viewing from March 9 onwards.

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