In 2004, 23 Chinese migrant workers walked out a mile into the North England Bay of Morecambe to pick cockle shells. Unfortunately, they didn’t know that the tide would turn and they would be stranded. All but one worker drowned.
Their tragedy became the basis of a staggeringly beautiful nine-screen film that is part fiction, part meditation on global migration by the British filmmaker and artist Isaac Julien. Titled Ten Thousand Waves, the film features Hong Kong actress Maggie Cheung as the floating goddess Mazu, who, according to 16th-century legend, would lead fisherman lost at sea to safety.
Julian weaves this folk tale together with the Morecambe tragedy to create a spectacular visual poem displayed across nine enormous screens. Images of modern Shanghai intercut with 1930s film noir shots of the city; images of the remote Fujian landscape, shrouded in clouds just like ancient Chinese scroll painting; scenes of Mazu floating over the hypnotic, rolling sea, looking for the sailors; and in the background a poem especially commissioned for the film is recited in Chinese.
Ten Thousand Waves makes its U.S. debut at the Bass Museum of Art in Miami as part of a major retrospective of the artist’s films. The show is sponsored by PUMA.Creative (yes, an arm of the sneaker company), which is using the opportunity to launch a social networking website and cultural directory, the Creative Caribbean Network.
Julian originally comes from the Caribbean island of St. Lucia, which is also the home of the Nobel Prize-winning poet Derek Walcott, who is the focus of Omeros (Homer), a Julian film loosely based on the Walcott’s 1990 poem of the same name. He has been exploring issues of global population displacement and loss as people leave their homelands searching for work, similar to what has happened to his own country.
With its mix of cultures, particularly cultures from the Caribbean, Miami is a perfect site for Julian’s work. Similarly, Julian notes that his 2000 film Vagabondia was shot on location at the equally eclectic Sir John Soane Museum in London. The Neo-Classical architect’s home, filled with his myriad collection of paintings and antiquities, became an ideal backdrop for Julian’s kaleidoscopic vision of the psychic power of objects and the release of repressed memories. "The dialogue is entirely Creole," Julian notes, "and for that reason it will only be understood by people who can share the inside message of my film."
Julian works with several galleries, including Victoria Miro, Metro Pictures and Almine Rech. Over at Art Basel Miami Beach, Victoria Miro is displaying Julian’s large photos of Maggie Cheung as Manzu, floating against a green background. The asking price is $50,000, in an edition of six.
"Isaac Julien / Creative Caribbean Network," Dec. 2, 2010-Mar. 6, 2011,, at the Bass Museum of Art, 2100 Collins Avenue, Miami Beach, Fla.
DEBORAH RIPLEY is a senior print specialist at Artnet.