Gu Xiong


Harold Ortiz
Year01 Forum Issue #3, 1997

Gu Xiong of course, is not only an artist aware of his own situation in the historical process, but an active agent in clarifying, questioning, and expropriating the legacy of Postmodern art. Purposefully locating his work within that context.

Gu Xiong filters two ideologies (some would say two dogmas) through his personal dislocation/relocation, and in his search for bridges, he proposes interpretations that neither by-pass the panoramic of cultural geopolitics, nor are they strange to the causes that determine it.

With his current exhibition at A space, Gu Xiong articulates a cultural junction that in spite of its panoramic view [MAOIST CHINA/POP ART/CULTURAL ASSIMILATION/CORPORATE/SELF IDENTITY] focuses persistently on the personal dilemma of reshaping a life with the intruments of capitalism while retaining one's very raison d'etre.

In Gu Xiong's work, the smallest of gestures, domestic anecdotes, the most humble fragments, are re-articulated and reconstituted into coherent markers that bridge the cliff between geopolitics and personal destiny, between the anonymity of the subject and the rebelliousness of the creative self.

Guy Debord predicted thirty years ago in The Society of the Spectacle both the co-dependency and co-lapse of polarized geopolitics founded upon the capital/labour dialectic, foreshadowing the same paradox Xiong's installations explore.
Debord read between two antagonizing ideologies the interchangeability of their political discourse; seeing that the maxims of Marxism and the slogans of consumerism were not really political extremes, but ultimately means of persuasion subservient to the program of an absolute order through which society is made uniform and by which its cultural forms are standardized standardized to conform with a homogenous system.

Redlands depolarizes the effects of political dogma vis-a-vis western pop culture. The west's underdeveloped political consciousness is offset by Gu's own awareness of a dislocated identity.

Hung on opposite walls at A space gallery, family portraits by Gu Xiong face a Mao series by Andy Warhol. A mano-a-mano of cultural and sociopolitical contexts that borrow and alternate signifiers: Mao, the Socialist cult icon, foregoes it's communist affiliation and becomes an icon of consumerism - a chairman of a marketing board. Conversely, the faces and grimaces of corporate clowns morph into a friendly immigrant family who relate identity to entertainment and fast-food franchise loyalty. Alien yet familiar.

The rhetoric is optional in the sense that one could easily transpose the script without changing the spirit of the message, just as the slogans on pixel signs on either side of a red bridge -Mao's exhortation to become a cogwheel in the engine of the revolution and Warhol's sound bite of intellectual vacuity: "in the future everybody should be a machine...think the same, look the same..." - mirror each other and come full circle.

Gu Xiong reassesses his own inception within the current of contemporary art and claims a territory, a cultural space that becomes richly layered with the detritus of despotic rule, both political and commercial. The red of the cultural revolution becomes the background for a cut-out mounty with slanted eyes, candidly unaware perhaps that his identity has been bought by Disney.

The sale of the mounty attests to the PRE-emptying of symbols of nationalism. Their repackaging and relocation, a contingency of supply and demand.

The custodians of patriotism might just one day sale-pitch the Maple Leaf to the boards of Warner, Sony or Matel in compliance with the latest trend in global marketing culture.

Mao prints. Stuffed pandas. Serial products executed by attendants at their respective assembly line factories, unequivocally created for the market; they affect our reading of western art by proxy...To know who really did pass the squeegee will prove as irrelevant as to know who sewed up the stuffed pandas.

Gu uses Warhol serigraphs with a vengeance. First he expropriates their iconoclastic status by deflating the context in which they were produced, and then the mystique of their celebrity. He re-cycles them, but only as metaphors. He mocks the process which authored them by placing real, poster-size family portraits of his own children (originals) which unlike reproductions, have been painstakingly pencil drawn stroke by stroke. As if denouncing the chairmen line-up as fakes (no more political than Warhol's wall flowers), Gu proposes that the meaning of art is related to the process of knowing, and that it is by this 'knowledge of subject in relation to object in relation to context, that art relates to life.

Warhol's prints as pop objects are as dis-locate and alien to what they represent as Gu Xiong was himself in Western Canada when he arrived after the Tiannamen massacre.

In their respective exiles: the Cultural product from its political context; the producer of culture from his compulsory standardization, both seek re-interpretations. It's as if Mao had been made to get off the idologically barren wall assigned to its effigy at the National Gallery and forced to work the assembly line. The pictures warn us against what we are poised to become: complacent, satisfied, and factotum. Gu Xiong and his family portraits seem not to have escaped Mao's fate. With their second hand culture they too have been made into parodies for whom the trappings of modernity have been purchased at the expense of history, relationships, and identity - their Mcdonalisation a simpler form of freedom.

Having worked at a fast food joint to support himself, Gu Xiong collected the detritus of his menial occupation: hamburger wrappings, napkins and pop cans, objects which inspired the backdrop of his installation at A space. They are the most pervasive element in the show. And in their wallpaper incarnation they become a Wildean reference intended as a pun on modernity and its subscribers. The landscape Gu translates is littered with residues from our exhilarating freewheeling through nature. It wrap us up in Coca Cola logos, Andy Warhols, the Muppets, Little-Chairman-Mao-Books and Licence Plates, Highways, Mounties, Atari, Big Macs and Blue Uniforms.

The wall paper becomes the great wall of consumerism: a zen meditation on smuggling human ethos across cultural frontiers. On trafficking with memory and experience. The pattern unveils and critiques corporate and state despotism, which on one end of the wall strives towards designing producers loyal to the enterprise of progress; and a society of brain dead techno-consumers perpetually disposing of their identity labels on the other.

Gu Xiong was born in Chongquing, Sichuan China in 1953. He received a BFA in 1982 and a MFA in 1985 from the Sichuan Institute of Fine Arts, Chongquing. He was in residency in the Visual Arts Program at the Banff Centre, Banff Alberta from 1986-1987 and 1989-1990. He currently resides in Vancouver.


Photos by Bill Braithwaite

Back to Top