A combination of rich images and strong storylines makes British artist Isaac Julien’s video installations must-see works of art. Ten Thousand Waves, on view through March 4 at the Institute of Contemporary Art Boston, is a complex piece that Helen Molesworth, chief curator at the ICA Boston, says she was “bowled over by.”
“I was in London last fall and I saw this new piece [Ten Thousand Waves] by Isaac at the Hayward Gallery,” she says. “I just thought it was so visually lush and complicated and innovative and I thought it would be a great thing to bring to Boston.”
According to Molesworth, the ICA is committed to “bringing artists from around the world to Boston audiences.”
“Isaac is a very prominent British artist, and bringing his work to the States and Boston exposes our audience to the most cutting edge work that’s happening across the world,” she says. “The piece is really innovative in its strategies, both visually and narratively, and the ICA is committed to artwork that’s challenging and innovative.”
Ten Thousand Waves features nine screens that show three different stories. One is inspired by the 2004 Morecambe Bay disaster, in which 23 Chinese immigrant workers drowned while collecting cockles on the English coast. The second is the legend of the ancient sea goddess Mazu, who protects fishermen and sailors, and guides shipwrecked sailors to shore. The third story examines the 1934 silent film The Goddess, which is about a woman who became a prostitute to support herself and her son. The videos were shot in China and England.
“Isaac is a student of the history of cinema, the history of painting, and the history of photography, so he has a really rich storehouse of images in his head when he composes a picture for the camera,” Molesworth says. “It’s really quite lush, whether it’s the costumes, the way the camera is moving, or the way he frames the shot. On top of the visual lushness, which is seductive, he’s frequently working with a very complicated narrative structure. You’re thinking about the story and seeing the rich images, and I think that’s what makes him important. I think a lot of artists can do one or the other, but only a handful use both equally well, and he’s one of those people.”
Molesworth says that the video screens are suspended from the ceiling and freestanding in the space.
“Viewers can walk in and around them, which also means that you see images on both sides of the screen,” she says. “You can see it in its proper orientation, and you can also see it in its reverse. It’s quite an immersive experience to walk into this room with nine screens, all showing a different part of the story. Sometimes they show the same image, but most of the time there are nine different images, and as the viewer you have to pick and choose what you’re focusing on. You’re trying to synthesize it simultaneously, which is both difficult and fun.”
The three videos each run on a loop that’s 49 minutes and 41 seconds in length.
“It just goes over and over again, so you can either orient yourself to the beginning and sit through to the end, or you can come in the middle and watch it go around,” Molesworth says, adding that it was Ten Thousand Waves’ depiction of China drew her to the work.
“The news is always filled with news of China, but usually it’s financial in nature,” she says. “It’s filled with news of the yuan or trade embargoes and has a very abstract quality. I think that Isaac has tried to make a very rich cultural examination of these different facets of Chinese culture and doesn’t just simply shine a light on this economic superpower. I think it’s a more nuanced, more open way to start thinking about this extraordinary culture.”
Ten Thousand Waves is on view at the ICA Boston through March 4, 2012.
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