I had meant to write this post way back in May when the exhibition first opened, but then summer and vacations happened. However, it’s not too late to check out the current exhibit at the Gordon Smith Gallery, Gu Xiong: a journey exposed. It’s on until next Saturday, August 23.
Gu Xiong at the Gordon Smith Gallery. Photo by Luke Potter
Through my Curtain Call Editing business, I became involved with the exhibit as I edited the main essay about the artist and his work featured in a glossy print catalogue, written by the curator. I hadn’t heard of Gu Xiong prior to this, but I quickly became fascinated by his story.
Gu Xiong grew up in the Chongqing province in China and moved to Canada in 1989. He worked as a university instructor in China and now works as one at UBC, but he started from the very bottom when he immigrated here. He was a busboy in UBC’s cafeteria. Themes from his cafeteria days are evident in the gallery, with the Crushed Coke Can and Cafeteria series. In an interview with Shawn Connor in the Vancouver Sun, Xiong discusses the significance of his crushed coke can works:
When I came here and I was working in the cafeteria, I would see students crush a Coca-Cola can after a drink. When I came from China, I was between two cultures. That kind of situation inspired me to crush the can. The can has no life. Every can looks the same on the store shelf. But when it is crushed it becomes life; it has a unique shape. You cannot find two that are the same shape. That unique shape inspired me—from no life, to life.
The crushed coke can not only speaks of turning garbage to gold or making something out of a less-than-ideal circumstance, but connects with other themes of globalization, food production, water safety, and mass consumption present elsewhere in the exhibit through paintings, photographs, sculpture, and installations.
Invisible in the Light
is an installation of tomatoes inspired by several research trips to British Columbia and Ontario. What’s “invisible” is any mention of the workers/immigrants from the international community who picked and packaged these tomatoes. There’s a more complex, layered story than what’s on the label in our grocery stores: “Product of British Columbia.” Xiong wants to expose these layers, hence the exhibition title.
This “exposure” appears most powerfully in the central installation running the length of the gallery space: “A Pigs River”.
This political and environmental work consists of 10,000 ceramic pigs made by the artist as well as elementary and high school students through the Artists for Kids
program connected to the gallery. 10,000 was the number of dead pigs in the Huangpu River in Shanghai last March. The river supplies some of the city’s drinking water. At the time, the Chinese government said the water was still safe to drink. Xiong quite literally made this audacious statement into art by placing ceramic pigs in 275 water containers at the end of a long, winding river of 10,000 pigs.
Xiong’s own relationship with water is depicted in the series of drawings called Drowning
, based off a real-life event when Xiong and his daughter almost drowned in the Yangtze River in China back in 1998. These drawings pull the viewer under water with images of struggle, chaos, and confusion. It’s interesting that the two series in this exhibit based on Xiong’s personal experiences use such strong verbs, crushing
, and that these words can be metaphors for the larger immigration experience and human experience in general, crushing or drowning from the weight of political oppression or large companies who control food production.
The series of photographs in the exhibition cycle back to the Crushed Cans, with their reference to mass production and consumerism à la Andy Warhol. Again in the Sun interview, Xiong says, “The food is like beautiful propaganda posters. But that man-made food has problems—(it is) not good for our health. I try to discuss that: who has the power to produce that food for us? Do we have a voice?”
a journey exposed
features old and new works of the artist from 1993-2014 in the Gordon Smith Gallery, open Tuesday-Saturday, 12-5 pm.