Friday, November 29, 2013

Ten Thousand Waves, Now Installed at MoMA

There 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.

Julien 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.

However, 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.

Of 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.

Some 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.