are two goddesses now gracing the walls of MoMA. Mazu was a traditional Chinese marine deity
thought to protect seafarers, while Ruan Lingyu (widely hailed as “the Chinese
Greta Garbo”) starred as the saintly fallen mother in Wu Yonggang’s silent
classic, The Goddess. The term “character” might not be
particularly apt, but both appear as figures in Isaac Julien’s Ten Thousand Waves, a nine screen video
installation now installed at the MoMA (behind-the-scenes video here).
Waves was originally
inspired by the tragic deaths of twenty-three Chinese cockle pickers, illegally
laboring along the northern shore of England for the gang that had smuggled them
into country. Afraid to abandon their
work for shelter, they were washed away by a flash storm. Julien incorporates footage of the rescue
attempts mounted by the local British emergency response team. It might have provided Wave’s impetus, but it is probably the least visually intriguing
element of the project.
hopscotches around quite a bit, both thematically and across the nine screens
suspended in the MoMA atrium. For
younger patrons, following the darting images, much like a tennis match, is a
good deal of the show. For amateur
Sinologists, it is quite fascinating to see the large scale images of contemporary,
extremely go-go Shanghai alongside footage of the Red Cadres marching about
during the Maoist era mass movements.
the most dramatic and cinematic portions of the installation feature Jia
Zhangke’s muse (and wife) Zhao Tao appearing as Ruan Lingyu, recreating scenes
from The Goddess and appearing
ghostlike in the penthouse floors of Shanghai’s gravity defying skyscrapers. Proclaiming
her the “definitive and defining actress of our day and age” right here in a
review of A Touch of Sin might have
sounded somewhat bold at the time, but seeing her expressive countenance
shining forth upon the multiple screens in MoMA rather supports the claim. After all, as the undisputed actress of her
era, Ruan should only be entrusted to someone of similar stature.
course, Zhao was not the first to portray Ruan on film. In Stanley Kwan’s Center Stage, she was portrayed by Maggie Cheung, who also appears
in Waves as Mazu. Cheung’s iconic
looks are well suited to the marine goddess, bringing to mind some of the
imagery from her classic films, particularly Wong Kar Wai’s Ashes of Time (Redux), which Julien
seems to deliberately evoke. Watching
her float past Zhao’s Ruan through Shanghai’s stratosphere on MoMA’s large
suspended screens is almost dizzying.
of the audio recordings get lost in the open space of the Marron Atrium (the
same space where Marina Abramović faced the public) and subtitles would have
helped convey greater meaning in several points. Nonetheless, Zhao and Cheung have undeniable
screen presence regardless of the context or medium.
More than a mere meditation on migration or
globalization, Waves presents a
dramatic contrast between China’s presumed futures (that envisioned by the
leftist affiliated Ruan in the 1930’s and those essentially driven mad by
ideology in the 1970’s) with the strange hybrid-capitalist reality of today,
with Mazu looking on as the goddess grieving the age-old values thrown by the
wayside. Given its super-star power and some very cool green-screened images, Ten Thousand Waves is considerably more
cinematic than most video installations.
Recommended for fans of Chinese cinema that happen to be in the
neighborhood, Ten Thousand Waves runs
through February 17th at MoMA.
Labels: Isaac Julien, Maggie Cheung, Video Installations, Zhao Tao