The Middle Kingdom


IJ: I think that myths are waning in a way, aren’t they? I think it’s interesting to reveal through visual deconstruction. For instance, in the way the flying sequences were constructed by showing the labour that’s attached to a technique, and it’s also a way of trying to reveal the means of production – so I think also there is that aspect, but it works on this other meta level.


MC: Is it a comment on the Chinese movie genre in mainstream cinema, the Chinese ‘Hit’ movies that we love in the West?


IJ: Yes, precisely, there is that, and in a way, it’s the video art section of the work.


MC: Why distinguish this section from the rest?


IJ: Well you know, it’s my version of [3]Expanded Cinema, I think there are a lot of rights on Expanded Cinema that talks about 70’s and the 80’s that doesn’t talk about the 90’s, or certainly anything about the 2000’s because this work is not like Expanded Cinema of that genre – it’s not made by somebody who is white, for example, and male, in that kind of heterosexual sense.  I think a lot of these debates around the moving image are so euro-centric. That’s one of the other things I’ve enjoyed about making this work, not that I’m not European or black European.  I think it’s interesting to have that cross-cultural transnational aesthetic conversation, where you’re utilizing technologies and formats, and at the same time doing that in correlation to somewhere else than the West.


Another aspect of the installation that one should mention is the performative nature of the piece. When viewing the piece in its own environment, different sequences of the film play simultaneously on the nine screens, thus pulling the audience in different directions. By doing this, Isaac is ‘choreographing the spectator and wants the audience to move in the space.  This makes the dialogue and narrative more discursive with the audience, as well as making it an altogether more immersive experience.


MC: You shot ‘Ten Thousand Waves’ at the prestigious Shanghai Film Studios, one of the largest film studios in China.  How did the experience of working there compare to other established film studios?


IJ: The technicians were amazing…fantastic! That’s why I said it’s like the Olympic Games, because of the commitment to making images and to this work. I think its Chineseness in that. This would be difficult to achieve in the West, in terms of the budget, the sensitivities, the specificities and the work ethic.


MC: Would you go back to China to make other pieces?


IJ: Absolutely, without a shadow of a doubt – working with Zhao Xiaoshi the cinematographer for example; I spoke no Mandarin and he spoke no English. I remember when we were shooting the opening frame of The Calligrapher, and in my mind, I would say, ‘I think we should move it to the left’. With no prompt from me, he would just move it the left.  On another occasion, when we were shooting the mountain – I thought to myself, we should pan it to the right’ and sure enough, within a few seconds, he panned it to the right.  It tells you something about someone who has a more experimental approach and is able to view it from a different angle.


MC: Did they learn a lot from you?


IJ: I learned a lot from them.


MC: How does ‘Ten Thousand Waves’ compare to your other installations?


IJ: I wanted to make a piece of work which was going to be different from my other works; I realise that to quite a lot of people, to copy is to pay homage, that people are making three screen and five screen works – but I felt that a piece that is a nine screen work is more ambitious, not because of its nine screens, but more of how can you synchronise that.

MC: Thinking back to the Morecambe Bay victims, have you actually visited Fujian, where they came from?


IJ: I did go to the Fujian province, and I visited their town. We weren’t actually allowed to film there because as soon as they see a foreign TV /film crew, they think ‘Oh you want to do something about Morecambe Bay?’ But it was really fantastic to go there, since once I had visited the place, I thought, ok, I know why they (the victims) came.


MC: What was your impression of the place?


IJ: In my eyes, it was like versions of the West Indies, do you see what I mean? That people are in this kind of rural area, they can’t get to the kind of economic development zone.  Also, the thing about people in the Fujian province is that this is where Admiral Ho probably set off from, and so that’s the powerful thing about diaspora Chinese culture, the moving – this is something that would have been done ordinarily, so the fact that people have been moving from this area for thousands of years, in a way it’s more to do with the way that we set up the borders.  I think [4]Nick Broomfield’s film is very interesting, it’s a very important document and not at all gruesome, and is showing the hardship – the thing is, in this work, it’s not like a documentary, it’s more like a homage.  I don’t mean to use the word homage, it’s more like saying, if someone like Billy Holiday talks about lynching, it’s a beautiful song, that’s also what this work is a little about. This is meant to be from their point of view, they’re dead, and they’re speaking to Mazu.


The reference to distant travel and the idea of ‘new frontiers’ and exploration make me think again about Isaac’s roots, and I ask him whether he has made anything autobiographical. He refers to one of his earlier pieces, ‘Paradise Omeros’ (made for Documenta 2002) and mentions that there are parallels between this piece and ‘Ten Thousand Waves’.


‘Paradise Omeros’ is set in London in the 60’s and the Caribbean island of St Lucia in the present day.  It depicts travel from the distant shores of the West Indies to England, and the cultural displacement of the ‘immigrant’. There are similarities in the visual imagery between the two film installations, with the recurrent imagery of the sea, the spoken verses of Walcott’s poetry, and the recital of Wang Ping’s poem that convey being alone, the dislocation and longing to be back home in the familiar. Another aspect that Isaac is keen to point out that connects him personally to the ‘Ten Thousand Waves’ is the music composed and played by Jah Wobble, the Chinese Dub Orchestra, and the Anglo-Chinese collaborative relationship between them. Jah Wobble is the English bass guitarist and composer; his wife, is the Chinese guzheng player, Zi Lan Liao, and Isaac describes their partnership and fusion of traditional Chinese music and dub as ’ Anglo-Chinese creole’ –  it is within this ‘creolisation’ in the music that he sees parts of himself. 

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