Isaac Julien’s <em>Ten Thousand Waves</em> – Photo by Jennifer Stock

Isaac Julien’s Ten Thousand Waves at MoMA

moma_logoWhen it comes to layering complex strata of myth, memory, and culture, video installation holds an advantage native to the art form: an ability to juxtapose multiple screens and soundscapes within loosened narrative contexts. Isaac’s Julien’s current installation at MoMA, Ten Thousand Waves, uses nine double-sided screens and surround sound to offer viewers a plurality of vantage points. Julien takes the Morecambe Bay tragedy of 2004 as a starting point, fashioning what Laura Mulvey calls an “essay film” which interweaves the death of 23 Chinese cockle pickers drowned off of the coast of England with a myth about 16th-century fisherman lost at sea, a recreation of the 1930s film The Goddess, and scenes of Shangai both past and present. The plight of the drowned migrant workers serves as a springboard for a broader mediation about the movement of people and the dizzying transference of capital under the shifting forces of globalization.

Isaac Julien - Photo by Felix Clay

Isaac Julien – Photo by Felix Clay

Julien uses the power of his nine-channels of video to provide a kind of deconstruction of film editing. As we watch Julien’s re-take of the 1934 film The Goddess, with scenes acted by Zhao Tao, we are greeted with a cascade of slightly out-of-sync perspectives. Tao plays a woman who has become a prostitute to support her son. Looking around at the screens we see at once close-ups of her pacing feet and her reflective face, coupled with shots of her in the distance—walking away, lighting a cigarette—and finally the same street scene without her in it. Instead of building the scene by linear narrative, Julien presents a diffuse body of possible or overlaid events—an excavation of the past’s rituals and possibilities. And the further juxtaposition of Tao’s scenes with those of the drowned migrant workers parallels the difficulties of two disparate group of workers, their lives distorted by capitalism.

In Ten Thousand Waves the soundscape and score to the installation play equal partner to the visuals, a palimpsest of instrumental music, drones, popular music, and ambient and found sounds. Created by London-based musician Jah Wobble and the Chinese Dub Orchestra, with additional scoring by Spanish contemporary classical composer Maria de Alvear, the installation’s soundscape cycles through traffic sounds, wind, water, synthesized drones, processed spoken word, snippets of traditional Chinese music, and spare, ambient gestures for piano and electric guitar.

Isaac Julien's <em>Ten Thousand Waves</em> - Photo by Jennifer Stock

Isaac Julien’s Ten Thousand Waves – Photo by Jennifer Stock

The beginning of the installation starts with a close-up of waves, moving in slow-motion, with a soundscape of lightly altered ambient sounds. With the screens still focused on the ocean’s surface, we hear the roar of a rescue helicopter circle the installation space before it appears on screen. The overlay of a crescendoing helicopter with the dark ocean waves establishes a feeling of suspense and dread, and soon Julien introduces found footage from the night of the Morecambe Bay drownings. The soundscape uses a confusing and frantic overlay of British voices; words are not always intelligible but the sense of a futile rescue mission is palpable. The footage from the rescue helicopter provides a ghostly outline of a single survivor at the edge of the shore; as the screens cut to black a voice announces “suffocated, homesick, heartsick, drowned to death.” This scene of the installation builds its soundscape entirely from found sounds and spoken word, and the careful spatialization and overlay of the sounds is as effective and moving as any instrumental scoring could be.

Throughout Ten Thousand Waves the scoring maintains a documentary aspect with its incorporation of everyday sounds and field recordings, but it simultaneously heightens these sounds through skillful collage and processing, as well as their incorporation with atmospheric instrumental lines. Most importantly, by using recorded sounds in addition to instrumental scoring, the actual events become implicated in the fabric of the piece. Field recordings have the utmost power to place us within a narrative of the past—not by imitation, but by direct exposure, representing a collapse between an imagined program for music and a direct engagement with one. Ten Thousand Waves skillfully integrates each recording into the musical surface, so that the field recordings are part of the music, but also maintain their raw and suggestive power to evoke, instantly, time and place.