There have been a lot of immersive exhibitions in the Marron Atrium of The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), and Isaac Julien’s Ten Thousand Waves, which opened on November 25th is no exception. Though the most buzz-worthy installation recently may have been Tilda Swinton sleeping in a glass box, exhibitions in this space are usually interactive and sensory. Last year’s Meta-Monumental Garage Sale filled the floors and walls of the atrium with second-hand goods that could actually be purchased and whose prices could be negotiated. Carlito Carvalhosa Sum of Days in 2011 was a veritable labyrinth of translucent sheets amidst a sound installation.
Ten Thousand Waves, a nine-channel video installation, is a global narrative about human migration that interweaves a 2004 tragedy in Morecambe Bay where 23 Chinese migrant workers from the Fujian province perished off the waters of northwest England, with stories pulled from both ancient Chinese myths and contemporary Shanghai. Movement is explored in both the content of the exhibition itself and how visitors themselves experience the work at the museum.
MoMA’s 60-foot atrium offers a unique vertical space for multimedia works, unlike exhibitions in galleries limited by more standard dimensions. Ten Thousand Waves is the first installation at MoMA that shows screens at multiple levels, and the curators had to make sure the images were legible from multiple vantage points. This meant that installation was particularly challenging from a technological standpoint. High-lumen projectors by Christie, of the same quality used in movie theaters, are used to counterbalance the flood of natural sunlight in the atrium. The screens are able to show the same brightness of image on both sides, allowing for visibility at all angles.
The complex cabling, which weighs over 300 pounds and stretches for over 400 feet, is invisible to the viewer but strong enough to hold the 23-foot wide screens—the largest ever suspended for an exhibition at MoMA. The sound design by Jamie McElhinney uses speakers that can take out ambient sound while preventing it from leaking into MoMA’s other galleries. The intention, as Julien describes, is to make the “sound become more sculptural in the space [and] also [to] become foreground as well as the image.”
In this behind the scenes video, Isaac Julien describes the initial inspiration for Ten Thousand Waves. “I felt very moved by the tragedy [at Morecambe Bay] because people had come from such a far distance to meet this kind of a horrid end. And I thought it would be very interesting to try to view this tragedy, not from the European point of view, but from a Chinese point of view.” Ten Thousand Waves is the culmination of four years of research and production. The sea goddess Mazu, who originates from fables in Fujian province, forms the central figure of the film. Julien says, “I thought it would be interesting to view this tragedy from Mazu’s point of view.” The film thus moves from modern day Shanghai to 1930s Shanghai and ends in the Ming Period in 15th century China, with footage from the Guangzhi province.
Julien intends to bridge East and West in this cross-continental story, and the choice of creative collaborators of the film clearly demonstrate this objective. Mazu is played by Maggie Cheung, the award-winning actress from In the Mood for Love and 2046. Other collaborators in the film include actress Zhao Tao, calligrapher Gong Fagen, film and video artist Yang Fudong, cinematographer Zhao Xiaoshi, poet Wang Ping, London-based musician Jah Wobble and the Chinese Dub Orchestra, and Spanish composer Maria de Alvear, who wrote the original musical score.
Ultimately, Ten Thousand Waves raises questions about globalization and exchange, exploring how economic development impacts disparate populations across the globe. For Julien, Ten Thousand Waves is a continuation of his artistic exploration as an artist and filmmaker, pushing boundaries of presentation for media art in the digital era.