In 2017 I visited the Whitworth Gallery in Manchester to watch Vertigo Sea, an ‘installation’ film by John Akomfrah. A few weeks ago I managed to catch Isaac Julien’s Ten Thousand Waves in the same gallery. I first came across both artists when they were young independent filmmakers in the workshops Black Audio Film Collective and Sankofa respectively. Isaac and John both became directors recognised in international independent/festival/auteur cinema before moving into more art-orientated forms and attracting wide attention for their installation works. Both have focused on issues associated with their own ideas about identity. John Akomfrah has long been fascinated by migration and it’s interesting that Isaac Julien should join him in making a piece about a specific tragic moment of contemporary migration.
The deaths of twenty-three Chinese migrants in Morecambe Bay in 2004 was a horrific event which resulted in the conviction of three Chinese for trafficking with one also as a gangmaster responsible for manslaughter. Isaac Julien was shocked by the events and he teamed up with the Chinese poet Wang Ping to make a trip to Morecambe Bay and then to explore a multimedia arts project about Chinese migration and the sea. This was the beginning of the project in 2006 and it was completed for the Sydney Biennial in 2010. Since then the work has been on show in several galleries, sometimes as a complex nine-screen multi-media show and sometimes, as here in Manchester, as a three-screen video installation accompanied by two large photographic exhibits. Since I’ve already written about the viewing conditions at the Whitworth, I won’t repeat my complaints, but it’s a shame that an otherwise excellent venue can’t do more to make viewers more comfortable. Like Vertigo Sea, Ten Thousand Waves takes around 49 minutes for a complete run through its narrative and most people stayed for only part of the full experience when I watched the film. Unlike Vertigo Sea in which the three screens seemed sometimes to offer different material and sometimes to produce meanings by the juxtapositions of sounds and images on adjacent screens, Ten Thousand Waves seemed to be playing the same sequence of images, slightly out of synch with each other, on all three screens. But since it is impossible to focus on three large screens simultaneously, I can’t be sure. I entered the installation partway through and stayed until I was sure I’d seen the whole thing.
There are three distinct sections of the narrative, although two of these also use two or more different kinds of material within them. What I assume is ‘found footage’ from the screens of the Liverpool Coastguard shows helicopter footage of the discovery of one of the survivors of the tragedy in Morecambe Bay and is accompanied by some of the phone and radio dialogue associated with the emergency. A further sound layer has Wang Ping’s poem about the events read by the British-Chinese actor Benedict Wong. This is all very affecting, although the poem strikes an odd note with references to the ‘North Wales Sea’ since no such body of water exists (it’s the Irish Sea and specifically Morecambe Bay). It’s an understandable mistake for a Chinese poet, but a bit sad that a British filmmaker doesn’t know his geography. Perhaps it is deliberately a ‘fantasy name’? Either way it’s odd for someone like me who knows that coastline well. The second section is filmed in Shanghai and offers sequences of the actor Zhao Tao (known for her work with her partner the auteur director Jia Zhang-ke) dressed in 1930s period costume on the streets of the Bund as it would have been in the film melodrama The Goddess (China 1934). This is presented as a reconstruction so we see the camera following the actor as she goes into buildings and a tram clanks down the street. It occurred to me later (when I learned of the intended The Goddess connection) that Julien here is mirroring the work of Stanley Kwan on the film Actress/Centre Stage (Hong Kong 1991). In that film, Maggie Cheung plays the 1930s actor Ruan Ling-yu (the star of The Goddess) in a biopic which also works as a kind of documentary-drama about Maggie Cheung herself and her performance alongside interviews with survivors of the 1930s Shanghai film industry and archive sequences from the original films. I’m assuming that these streets in Shanghai are preserved/reconstructed as both tourist attractions and film locations. After Ten Thousand Waves, I watched Lou Ye’s 2006 film Purple Butterfly, possibly filmed on the same streets for a 1930-set Shanghai film. Isaac Julien also offers us short scenes of modern Shanghai (urban motorways) and other brief images which might be of young people in some form of protest march (I didn’t take notes, so this was just a fleeting image).
The third major section of Ten Thousand Waves is also in two parts and also features Maggie Cheung. Ms Cheung is now largely retired from feature films but here she appears in flowing white robes as if dressed for her part as ‘Flying Snow’ in Zhang Yimou’s Hero (China-HK 2002) (but also wearing an incongruous pair of white sports shoes). Once again, Julien shows the construction of this footage so we see Maggie on wires being pulled along against a green screen with a wind machine blowing. These movements are then laid over footage of a river gorge in South China in which also we see a group of men travelling down the river in period costume. It is from this footage that the two large still photographs exhibited alongside the film are taken, one of Maggie Cheung in flight (‘Maiden of Silence’) and one of the men (‘Yishuan Island, Dreaming’). Also in the studio, we see master calligrapher Gong Fagen who uses a large brush to write on glass, which is then rubbed off. The notes accompanying the exhibition also mention ‘video artist Yang Fudong’ and the music score which “incorporates music and original score by Jah Wobble and the Chinese Dub Orchestra as well as by the classical composer Maria de Alvear”.
What does all this mean? The notes tell us that:
. . . the film interweaves moments of Chinese history, custom and legend to explore contemporary experiences of desire, loss and separation. Central to the film is the ancient Chinese myth of Mazu the Sea Goddess, the protector of seafarers, alongside scenes of the Ghangxi province in Southern China, where the cockle-pickers’ spirits journeyed back to the ‘middle kingdom’.
I find it difficult to articulate what I felt watching the film and thinking about it later. A few weeks earlier I had sat on the banks of the River Kent estuary in Morecambe Bay watching the ‘Arnside Bore’, the racing tide which is signalled by warning sirens. It’s horrific to think of cockle-pickers caught by such tides at night and totally unprepared. Whether that feeling of helplessness and horror that comes from the archive footage can be linked to the Shanghai footage so that, to quote the notes again, “[the film] penetrates the realities of labour, landscape and migration that continues to define our times” is an open question.
Since I know something about the two cinematic references the installation uses, I suppose I can make some kind of connection. I was also to some extent primed for the experience by the Manchester-based Chinese film scholar Felicia Chan who sent me her paper ‘Cosmopolitan Pleasures and Affects; Or Why Are We Still Talking about Yellowface in Twenty-First-Century Cinema?’, Alphaville: Journal of Film and Screen Media, Issue 14, Winter 2017, pp. 41–60. Dr Chan is concerned that the orientalist images of ‘exotic China’, first created or ‘captured’ in the West and then repeated within contemporary Chinese culture, have come to dominate global representations of ‘Chineseness’. She uses Ten Thousand Waves as one of several examples, picking out a comment by the Guardian‘s correspondent in a report about the acquisition of rights to present the installation at the Whitworth:
. . . these images are continually reprised for Western ‘cosmopolitan’ consumption, even when spoken of as a ‘homecoming’ to the north of England (Brown 2016). The ‘local’ on this occasion, whether of Morecambe, the north of England, or the plight of the Chinese migrants cannot really compete with the scopophilic power of the Chinese exotic once again.
(ref: Brown, Mark, ‘Film on Morecambe Cockle Picker Disaster Bought for UK Art Collections’, the Guardian, 22 March 2016, www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2016/mar/22/film-isaac-julien-morecambe-cockle-picker-disaster-uk-public-art.) (Felicia Chan is the author of Cosmopolitan Cinema: Cross-Cultural Encounters in East Asian Film. I.B. Tauris, 2017)
I’m with Felicia Chan on wondering why Isaac Julien chose such well-known images and references from Chinese recent visual culture in constructing his story. I’m also saddened to realise (admittedly only some time after experiencing Ten Thousand Waves) that Julien might have discovered other historical migration links for the waters of Morecambe Bay. A few miles south of Hest Bank (the closest coastal settlement to the site of the tragedy) is Sunderland Point, on the headland of the River Lune estuary. In the 18th century this tiny village became part of slave trade practice. Lancaster was then the third largest English slave port and ships that were too large to reach its rapidly silting docks dropped cargo at Sunderland. As well as slavery, the ports of the Irish Sea were also embarkation ports for migrants from the UK to North America in the 18th and 19th centuries. (The main English port for migration from the region would have been Liverpool). Finally, just south of Lancaster is another possible Chinese connection via the silk mill at Galgate which operated from 1792 until 1971. Each of these connections might have enabled a different kind of analysis of the local-global perspectives on the Morecambe Bay cockle-pickers tragedy.
Viewing the 3 screen installation seems like a somewhat diminished version of Isaac Julien’s vision and in the clip below he talks about the 9 screen original and its sense of immersion. In other similar clips on YouTube he talks about the visual qualities of his work (shot on 35mm) and the importance of the best available projection. From the glimpses of the 9 screen version I can see that the moving camera becomes more noticeable – and there also seems to be material that either isn’t in the 3 screen version, or which is less pronounced in the overall presentation. As an artwork, Ten Thousand Waves is certainly impressive but the questions it raises need discussion.