British artist and filmmaker Isaac Julien tackles China in a new video installation, with a cameo by Chinese video artist Yang Fudong. The artist shares his thoughts on China, film, and collaborations with Xhingyu Chen.
“We both studied film, but are from very different cultures. It would be interesting to see what Yang Fudong makes of a European subject.”
Isaac Julien is not known for subtle, quiet works. As a filmmaker and video artist, he has produced some of the most provocative works in the recent history of video, with many of his works exploring racial and sexual identity. He approaches filmmaking in critical ways, infusing his works with other mediums such as dance to create abstract narratives that challenge tradition film forms. In many ways, he is a nice complement to the work of Chinese video artist Yang Fudong, who also plays with film language. Last month, Isaac Julien premiered Ten Thousand Waves, an epic 9-channel film installation tackling issues of contemporary China, at ShanghArt, the first time the gallery has granted a foreign artist a solo show. Along with actresses Maggie Cheung and Zhao Tao, Ten Thousand Waves features a cameo by Yang himself. Below are excerpts of a conversation with both artists.
TO: Many of your works are viewed through your experiences as a gay black man. For Ten Thousand Waves, you go down a completely different path. Why did you choose to take on current issues facing China today?
IJ: I have to say that I only make works from a very personal involvement artistically. Everyone is interested in China. I have wanted to do a project here for awhile; it just took me some time to develop an appropriate subject.
TO: How much did you know about Chinese history and culture prior to making this film? How much research did you have to do?
IJ: How much does anyone know? The project is the result of several years work, and was first prompted by the drowning of Fujianese cockleshell pickers in Morecambe Bay in Northern England. From then I started collecting materials on the subject. In 2006, I commissioned a poem for the project by Wang Ping, and began a series of research trips to China. I worked with Chinese and English researchers, producers, artists, and worked with a 100 strong Chinese film crew, but I think it was probably the poems of Wang Ping that taught me how to think through Chinese history and culture. It was her work that helped me create some of the images for the piece.
TO: Have you ever been intimidated by some of the issues you take on? For example, Chinese history and the current state of China are extremely difficult for people, even experts, to explain, analyse or understand. Did you ever get overwhelmed by the breadth of this piece?
IJ: Of course, but the point of art is not to explain, analyse, and understand, but rather to explore complex and sometimes difficult issues from the perspective of an artist. The structure [of the piece] is in fact very simple, but hopefully, also compelling: three stories threaded together through a poetic montage of constructed images across nine screens.
TO: The jumping point for this piece is the drowning of Chinese migrant workers entering the U.K. Why did you choose Shanghai for the contemporary scenes? Why not film in places like Fujian, where many migrants and illegal immigrants come from?
IJ: Fujianese people have been, historically so to speak, the motor for the movement of Chinese people into the diaspora. Shanghai as an international city was the conduit by which the West came into China, but at the same time, the place where China developed its own cinematic culture. I see my work as a fusion of these two locations (the U.K. and China), and which represent to me Chinese trans-nationalism. I wanted to create a metaphoric rather than literal representation of those places. So someone who may come from Fujian, like the character played by Zhao Tao, might be in a city like Shanghai from the 1930s, or the present working in a place like Morecambe Bay. She could be a character who is haunted by these histories or she might actually be a ghost. Perhaps all the characters are “lost souls” in one way or another.
TO: Did you know much about Yang Fudong before you worked with him? How did you two come to work together?
IJ: I first met Yang Fudong at Documenta 11 in Germany in 2002, and have followed his work ever since. Yang was immensely supportive when I was working in Shanghai; when I asked him to appear in the piece, he really complemented me by accepting. It was incredibly kind of him; this is my homage to him.
TO: What similarities, if any, do you see in your and Yang’s work?
IJ: We both studied film but are from very different cultures. It would be interesting to see what Yang Fudong makes of a European subject. Perhaps what connects us is an interest in making connections between the present and historical China. Our love of film as a poetic medium, and as an installation art form is another.
TO: I am particularly interested in the section of the piece that shows the process of how Maggie Cheung is hoisted up and flown around. Is it a self-conscious acknowledgment of film as a staged medium, thus not real or reliable? Are we to question, then, the archival footage and recordings that are used throughout? What are you trying to say about film as art versus film as documentary?
IJ: Of course, it not just film that is staged. Chinese culture has Peking Opera, which is also staged. All my work has involved an element of documentary actuality, combined with reconstruction and fictional elaboration. [The section with Maggie Cheung] is really just a form of deconstruction that exposes the choreographic work behind creating film. But with the archive sections, I am trying to bring the footage to light by creating staged emotional/ visual scenarios around it. Film as art tends to question filmic codes, whereas documentary tried to hide them, make them invisible. But, as we all know, art is up for grabs and re-tooling.
TO: You often collaborate with others, most recently with Tilda Swinton on the 2008 film Derek. She both acted and executive produced the film. Can you describe how you worked with Maggie Cheung and Yang Fudong? How much input did they have in the piece?
IJ: In fact, it was Tilda who first spoke to Maggie for me about being in Ten Thousand Waves. When I first met Maggie, she told she was already quite familiar with my work and was introduced to them by the American film critic Ruby B. Rich. So she agreed instantly to be in the film. And as I mentioned before, it was a great honour to work with Yang. I would love to continue to work with these artists in the future.
TO: You seem to use many stereotypical images and notions of Chinese culture, i.e. using calligraphy, filming in idyllic rural areas of China, bird’s eye views of highways. Since many of your past works are viewed through your experiences, is Ten Thousand Waves meant to be a meditation of contemporary China as you understand it? Are you worried that Chinese audiences may misconstrue your intentions?
IJ: There is nothing stereotypical in images themselves, but in how they are used. This is something I feel I am well placed to understand since Western film culture has long stereotyped black cultures. My project is a meditation on contemporary China and how that is sustained by myth and narrative. I am sure Chinese viewers will be fascinated to see how a European artist like me views their culture.
Arts Specialist & Cultural Guide