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Finding poetry and tragedy in immigration

Artist Isaac Julien's work about the death of 23 illegal Chinese immigrants in the UK wins PhotoEspaña prize

In February 2004, 23 Chinese cockle harvesters died in Morecambe Bay, in northwestern England, after being caught by rising tides. The tragedy uncovered a network of illegal migrant exploitation, in which Chinese nationals risked their lives to make five pounds for every 25 kilograms of cockles they picked.

The British artist Isaac Julien, who has explored the issue of immigration in several of his projects, began investigating and found out that all the dead harvesters came from the same Chinese village.

That was the origin of Ten Thousand Waves, a film project that was first screened in Shanghai last year, and is now on display at the Helga de Alvear Gallery in Madrid.

The project, which won a prize at this year's PhotoEspaña festival, was originally going to be called "Better Life," but Julien changed it when he realized that the slogan of the Shanghai Expo was "Better city, better life." Julien was alluding to the drive that brings people to seek a better life outside their native towns.

In the case of the Chinese cockle harvesters, like so many Africans who take to the sea to reach European coasts, the journey ended in death.

"In this project, Julien continues to explore the themes of his earlier work - journeys and immigration - but in a more complex form," explains Joaquín García, co-producer of the project. This trip, in the artist's universe, not only deals with physical movement but also with transformation.

The spectator embarks on a journey that connects China's past and present. To do so, Julien superimposes several stories, and projects them on nine screens, thus breaking the linear nature of the tale and encouraging a reflection that goes beyond the images' esthetic value. Modern Shanghai blends in with shots from the film.

Julien enlisted the actress Maggie Cheung and Yang Fudong, one of China's leading contemporary artists. The first, morphed into the goddess Mazu, protector of sailors, serves to establish a link with tradition and the past, while Yang Fudong evokes the transformation that the Asian giant has experienced in recent decades as a result of its accelerated economic development.

One of the images that form part of Isaac Julien's Ten Thousand Waves project, which is on show at the Helga de Alvear Gallery in Madrid.
One of the images that form part of Isaac Julien's Ten Thousand Waves project, which is on show at the Helga de Alvear Gallery in Madrid.
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