Isaac Julien’s Ten Thousand Waves

Isaac Julien’s Ten Thousand Waves has been jointly purchased Artfund aiming to get more video work into British public art.  The film had been acquired for British collections, jointly purchased by the Towner Gallery in Eastbourne and the Whitworth in Manchester.  The work will be exhibited at the Whitworth in Spring 2018.

The Film’s original musical score by Jah Wobble and The Chinese Dub Orchestra and contemporary classical composer Maria de Alvear.

Sound Design by Mukul Patel.

Conceived and made over three years, TEN THOUSAND WAVES sees Julien collaborating with some of China’s leading artistic voices, including: the legendary siren of Chinese cinema Maggie Cheung; rising star of Chinese film Zhao Tao; poet Wang Ping; master calligrapher Gong Fagen; artist Yang Fudong; acclaimed cinematographer Zhao Xiaoshi; and a 100-strong Chinese cast and crew. The film’s original musical score is by fellow East Londoner Jah Wobble and The Chinese Dub Orchestra and contemporary classical composer Maria de Alvear.

Filmed on location in the ravishing and remote Guangxi province and at the famous Shanghai Film Studios and various sites around Shanghai, TEN THOUSAND WAVES combines fact, fiction and film essay genres against a background of Chinese history, legend and landscape to create a poetic meditation on global human migrations. Through formal experimentation and a series of unique collaborations, Julien seeks to engage with Chinese culture through contemporary events, ancient myths and artistic practice.

The original inspiration for TEN THOUSAND WAVES was the Morecambe Bay tragedy of 2004, in which 23 Chinese cockle-pickers died. In response to this event, Julien commissioned the poet Wang Ping to write Small Boats, a poem that is recited in the work. In the successive years, Julien has spent time in China slowly coming to understand the country and its people and developing the relationships that have enabled him to undertake this rich and multifaceted work.

Through conversations with academics, experts and artists both in China and the UK, Julien uncovered a poetically symbolic body of material which he has used to create a work that explores modern and traditional Chinese values and superstitions. These are encapsulated in a fable about the goddess Mazu (played by Maggie Cheung) that comes from Fujian Province, from where the Morecambe Bay cocklepickers originated. The Story of Yishan Island tells the tale of 16th Century fishermen lost and in danger at sea. At the heart of the legend is the goddess figure who leads the fishermen to safety. Using this fable as a starting point Julien deftly draws on this story and the poignant connection between it and the 21st Century tragedy of Chinese migrants who died struggling to survive in the North of England.

Following ideas surrounding death, spiritual displacement, and the uniquely Chinese connection with “ghosts” or “lost souls”, the film links the Shanghai of the past and present, symbolising the Chinese transition towards modernity, aspiration and affluence. Mirroring the goddess of the fable, a ghostly protagonist (Zhao Tao) leads us through the world of Shanghai cinema via the Shanghai Film Studio, to a restaging by Julien of scenes from the classic Chinese film THE GODDESS (1934), and finally to the streets of Modern and Old Shanghai. Isaac Julien is as equally acclaimed for his fluent, arresting films as his vibrant and inventive gallery installations. TEN THOUSAND WAVES is his most ambitious project to date with the nine-screen installation forming a dynamic architectural structure through which the viewer navigates the multiple narratives. Julien deploys the visual and aural textures of the film to elicit a visceral response from the viewer, submerging them in the world of his making.


PREMIERE | Sydney Biennale, Cockatoo Island, 12 May – 1 August 2010 For the work’s world premiere at the Sydney Biennale in May 2010, TEN THOUSAND WAVES will be installed on Cockatoo Island – the largest island in Sydney Harbour and Australia’s most unusual urban park as a former prison and shipyard.

CHINESE PREMIERE | ShanghART Gallery, Shanghai, opening 20 May 2010
TEN THOUSAND WAVES will show in Shanghai to coincide with the Shanghai Expo.

UK PREMIERE | Hayward Gallery, London, 13 October 2010 – 9 January 2011


Isaac Julien is a British artist and filmmaker whose work incorporates different artistic disciplines,
drawing from and commenting on film, dance, photography, music, theatre, painting and sculpture, and uniting them to create a unique poetic visual language in audio visual film installations. Isaac Julien lives and works in London.

Julien is represented in museum and private collections throughout the world, including the Tate, London; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; Centre Pompidou, Paris; the Guggenheim Museum, New York; the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington DC; Moderna Museet, Stockholm; and the Brandhorst Museum, Munich. His early work, Looking for Langston (1989) won several awards including the Teddy Award at the Berlin International Film Festival. In 1991 his debut feature film, Young Soul Rebels won the Semaine de la Critique prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Julien was nominated for the Turner Prize in 2001 for his films The Long Road to Mazatlán (1999) and Vagabondia (2000). In the same year, he received the Eugene McDermott Award from MIT in Massachusetts, USA: other recipients include artist Bill Viola. His acclaimed 5-screen installation, WESTERN UNION: small boats (2007) has been shown at Metro Pictures, New York; Galería Helga de Alvear, Madrid; Centre for Contemporary Arts, Warsaw; and also opened the new Museum Brandhorst in Munich in 2009.

In 2008, Julien collaborated with Tilda Swinton on a biopic about Derek Jarman simply entitled Derek, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival the same year. The film received a Special Teddy at the Berlin Film Festival; the Documentary Prize at the 34th Seattle International Film Festival and Best Documentary at the Milan International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival. The film received nominations at the British Independent Film Awards; the Sundance Film Festival; and the Gucci Group Awards.