GU XIONG: An Essay
"In China, I dreamt about freedom and democracy, but when I arrived here, I found I had lost everything. No one could even understand what I was saying. Reality had totally overcome my romantic dreams about this culture." - Gu Xiong
Vancouver based artist Gu Xiong was born in the Republic of China in 1953 and immigrated to British-Columbia after the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989. In China, Xiong completed his Bachelor?s and Master?s degrees in printmaking at the Sichuan Institute of Fine Arts and began teaching there in 1977. Before his arrival to Western Canada as a Citizen, Xiong had participated in an exchange program with the Banff Centre for the Arts. He had briefly experienced Western Canadian life within the poetic landscapes of the Rockies with which he was familiar as he had been exposed to the Group of Seven - allowed into China, being labeled as non-political art.
It was after this first impression of Canada along with his deep disappointment with the little to no impact of the efforts at Tiananmen Square on his Government that he felt compelled to leave China. The political activist gave up the fight and entered Canada as a refugee. This time left to his own measures to find his ?home?, while adapting to the intense culture shock.
He had to work at a variety of odd jobs while continuing to produce his art before he landed a teaching position at the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design. He currently teaches visual art disciplines at the University of British Columbia. Ding Ho / Group of Seven (2000) is a collaboration with Andrew Hunter ? an independent curator, writer and artist - about individual and national identity, stereotypes, memories and official histories. It is about one's perceptions of other cultures and the jarred sense of reality upon the first hand experience of these cultures.
Hunter accompanied Xiong on a trip to China (as a guest speaker at his former school in Sichuan) and it is during this excursion that the men began to discuss their perceptions of one another?s cultures. Hunter?s first memory or impression of China was the Ding Ho Restaurant in Hamilton and etched in Xiong?s memory of Canada was the Group of Seven exhibit. One of the exhibit pieces is To Belong (1995), a charcoal illustration on canvas that places Xiong?s daughter in an exterior landscape resembling the Canadian Rockies. He?s placed her there as if to confirm the combination of the two opposite icons in is life, to understand how they might represent two different times and places yet they are one now merged existence. Furthermore, she is placed on a terrain over which Canada?s dark past looms, a site filled with memories of racism and violence towards Asian people. Hunter examines these historical facts (forgotten in his school curriculums) through his work within the Ding Ho/Group of 7 collaboration.
The River (1998) is an installation that flows beautifully across a large room. With its warm red walls (China?s lucky color) and ample casts of salmons (possibly representing the Canadian Pacific Coast) suspended from the ceiling create a strong sense of movement. This work is a comment on ?sacrifice and transformation? through migration. Xiong?s discourse is often about displacement as it has had an enormous impact on his life. In exile, the sense of home is said to be somewhere in-between the country of origin and the ?new? country. A place where a negotiation or exchange happens. This is the energy that fuels Xiong?s work. Struggling to find a sense of belonging was familiar to Xiong even before his arrival to Canada. At the age of 17, the city boy was sent to a countryside labour camp for being too outspoken in his art practices. There, he had to adapt to a new environment, landscape and social context within which he would have to find his place. In 1998, Xiong returned to his homeland and specifically to this camp and he took several photographs that are an integral part of his China Diary (2001) exhibit.
Stone Bed (1998) is a nostalgic photograph of a bed made of stone. By Western standards it is practically inconceivable to have a stone bed yet Xiong has a warm memory of this object. He says "When I lay down in my bed today and place my head on the soft pillows, I cannot say that I am more comfortable and happy than I was on a bed like this stone bed in the Chinese countryside. A tired body does not require more than a place to lay down?. This could be interpreted as an expression of his anxieties in coping with Western culture. As if Xiong has a fond memory of the simplicity of the Chinese countryside in contrast to the Western world driven by commercialism and excess.
Xiong?s sense of humour in brought into play with some of his documentation of the effects of globalization and the threat of a ?standardized? cultural. He was shocked to note the logos from the capitalist West nestled deep into China as represented in Forbidden City Starbucks (1998). And to see an American movie legend - Ice Coffin Store, Mao & Audrey (1998) - in a remote shop selling funeral paraphernalia? The hybridized world seemingly reserves many twists and turns filled with comical and ironic juxtapositions.
Today, Xiong continues to produce art installations, drawings, photographs and texts and is represented by the Diane Farris Gallery in Vancouver.