On the 5th of February 2004 a group of Chinese ‘illegal migrant’ cockle pickers set out on the sands of Morecambe Bay to collect the small edible clams – they were to be paid £5 per 25kg of cockles collected. By the end of the day 23 of the 24 pickers were dead – drowned by an incoming tide that can travel faster than a running horse. Unable to read the warning signs in English the Chinese pickers were oblivious to the notoriously dangerous bay. The gang-master who sent his countrymen to their deaths was convicted of criminal negligence and sentenced to 14 years in prison. This provided scant solace to the victims’ families 5,000 miles away in Fujian province who were still in debt to the gangsters who smuggled their relatives into Britain.
How is it possible to represent a tragic event like this, where a combination of a hostile natural environment, global labour markets, illegal migration, criminal gangsters and different cultures coalesce to produce a violent and unimaginable catastrophe. One approach was taken by Nick Broomfield in his film Ghosts which uses a realist drama documentary to follow Ai Qin, a young girl who pays £20,000 to be smuggled to Britain to support her family.
The British filmmaker and artist Issac Julien takes a different approach. His installation ‘Ten Thousand Waves’ avoids realism and linear narrative because, as he explains, ‘I always think, ‘Realism – why bother?’ There are other more fruitful approaches’. Using nine cinema screens, arranged at angles around a dark space in which viewers are free to wander, Julien projects moving images and sounds that connect Morecambe Bay, Britain and China. The result is beautiful, arresting and saturated with a quiet anger.
The installation starts with images of waves and aerial scenes of Morecambe Bay, together with the confused and painful recordings of emergency responders urgently talking to one another. The installation then rapidly moves onto re-enactments of famous Chinese films, urban scenes from the business district of Shanghai and stock footage of Cultural Revolution era parades.
A recurring presence in the installation is the goddess Mazu (played by Chinese actor Maggie Cheung) whose spirit floats above the stunningly beautiful Guangxi landscape and the sky-scape of modern Shanghai as well as North-West England. Mazu is taken from a 15th century Chinese fable that tells of how the goddess rescues fishermen in distress and leads them to the mythical Yishan Island. But these 23 cockle pickers were not led to a mythical island but instead died lonely cold deaths in the waters of the Irish Sea. This is emphasised by the representation of Mazu which is itself subverted when we suddenly see her against the ‘green screen’, held aloft by wires manipulated by a man in a red hoodie.
The whole work seems call into question the very notion that events like the Morecambe Bay disaster can be represented easily or comfortably. What is the connection between globalised labour markets and the strange dangerous tides in an English estuary? Why did workers from a ‘people’s republic’ pay enormous sums of money to work for less than minimum wage in a far off land? Are we watching depictions of China or ideas of what Westerners imagine China to be? Julien was trying to use images that were ‘parodic of those stereotypes. They’re representations of representations, subversions of a western exotic.’
What is certain is that migrant workers (both legal and illegal) are some of the most exploited to be found in western countries. They are often made to pay fees to work; have little chance of paying off their debts; are threatened and bullied using sexist and racist language; and frequently have inadequate access to health services, union representation or social support networks. Issac Julien’s installation is a fitting tribute to the sufferings and premature deaths that migrant workers are subjected to in our globalised economy. The Shanghai-born poet Wang Ping words’ can be heard as a background to the images and he poignantly highlights the cost that migrant workers face:
We know the tolls: 23, Rockaway, NY;
58, Dover, England; 18, Shenzhen; 25,
South Korea; and many more.
We know the methods: walk, swim, fly,
metal container, back of a lorry,
We know how they died: starved, raped,
dehydrated, drowned, suffocated,
homesick, heartsick, worked to death,
working to death.
We know we may end in the same boat.
This is extraordinary and powerful film-making by any standards – and manages to effectively illuminate the power imbalances in our globalised world.