Isaac Julien is being quite prolific these Winter months. His three short sets, Playtime, opened in November and now his work created especially for the MOMA pavilion, Ten Thousand Waves, is in its intended place, where it will remain until February 17th.
The work is a nine screen installation. It is as much an experiment with the medium of multiple screens as it is multiple loose narratives ostensibly dealing with the 2004 Morecambe Bay Cockeling disaster. The disaster, where 21 workers were drowned after the tide rushed in off the coast of Lancashire, involved Chinese immigrants from Fujian and it's that aspect of the disaster that seemed to inspire Julien; as he draws from Chinese myth, cinema and poetry.
Julien paints a bleak picture of the icy sea, focusing on the isolation of being stranded on a sandbank. Over footage caught from a rescue helicopter, commissioned poetry by Wang Ping is narrated. The poem was a dirge about the ocean and the ancient plight of fishermen; woefully underpaid in a dangerous profession.
To discount the portion of the work dealing with found footage, poetry and topic would be crass. So let's simply put it to one side rather than forgetting about it.
That being said, the most interesting part of the work is the format. The nine screens are double sided and huge, hanging from the ceiling. There is no one static point that is the best viewing area – although most people tend to hover on the outside rather than standing at the center to surround themselves with a non-linear timeline. Flying goddesses and a tram commute were filmed with about five different angles. It is wrong to stand in the center, twirling rapidly. Attempting to take in a commute filmed from so many angles simultaneously is a challenge. The human eye takes in detail quickly, and New Yorkers are used to scanning down a subway car in .25 of a second, judging and taking in every detail; it's the .25 seconds that make all the difference. Forcing your brain to comprehend a high resolution image of two slightly different positions on a woman's face is more mind expanding than one would imagine. The screens are in and out of sync at different times. Sometimes they all focus on one shot, bathing the pavilion in green or blue light from the bright background in which a white clothed goddess bounces. Other times they are a linear, or rather circular, following heels clicking down a hallway.
It's unlikely that anyone will stay and watch all 45 minutes, being in such a high traffic area, but it can be seen from a floor above and below, drawing people in with the flashes of color.
Text by John Hutt
Photos by Tanya Kiseleva