Gu Xiong: a journey exposed – Gordon Smith Gallery of Canadian Art

The sun was beating down mercilessly yesterday and the temperatures were soaring over the 30C mark, so I took myself off to the Gordon Smith Gallery in North Vancouver (sheer bliss – they have air conditioning!). There is an exhibition by Gu Xiong, a multidisciplinary artist. Xiong, originally from the Chongqing province in China, moved to Vancouver in 1990. As is the case with many immigrants in this country, he struggled to find suitable employment. In China he was a well know artist and instructor at the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute. However, when he arrived in Vancouver, the only employment he could find was as a busboy in the University of British Columbia’s cafeteria. This was an extremely depressing situation for him. He had lost all his stature that he had in China and was crushed by the new realities of his life as an immigrant. Gradually he learned to adjust and through his art learned to accept himself in a different way.

Gu Xiong: a journey exposed - Gordon Smith Gallery of Canadian Art Newsletter

Gu Xiong: a journey exposed – Gordon Smith Gallery of Canadian Art Newsletter

His A Journey Exposed exhibition covers some of these moments in his life. As one entered the gallery there was a huge installation of 3,000 crushed Coca Cola cans beginning on the floor and going diagonally up the high wall. The crushed cans according to the wall text were representative of his feelings upon immigrating to Canada. While working as a busboy he became fascinated by the amount of garbage that he had to clear off the tables.  Some of his earlier silkscreens on paper (Cafeteria series) are black and white abstracts of this garbage. Adjacent to the silkscreens were large deadpan photos of pallets of different kinds of food stuff – Pringles chips, peanut butter, Coca Cola, instant noodles, ketchup, canned tomatoes, pasta sauce, quick oats and chicken stock, which he make in a grocery store’s warehouse. He is juxtaposing consumer waste with the prevalence and availability of mass produced food.

Down the centre of the gallery was an installation of a meandering river of 10,000 clay pig, of which a photo can be seen here: A Pig’s River. Xiong involved local elementary school children in helping to make the clay pigs for the installation. This represents the dumping of 16,000 pigs into the Huangpu River in China last year. The pigs were dumped into a river from which the general population of Shanghai gets drinking water from. At the end of the meandering clay pig river was another installation of over 200 5 litre water containers, some partially filled, others empty and some containing clay pigs, representing the drinking water contamination which took place.

Gu Xiong’s photographic exhibition consisted of a series fifteen photos of the Huangpu River, depicting the life on and next to this polluted river. There were photos of barges carrying coal and rocks, cityscapes, people waiting for ferries, food trucks, city streets with the emphasis on scooters, smog and traffic jams. Technically the photos were all very well executed, but nothing too spectacular, no wow factor.

The wow factor by all votes had to go to his Invisible in the Light installation. This was an installation of over 60,000 grape tomatoes which had been pierced with a long pin and then stuck into the wall, in no specific pattern. There were also about 300 tomatoes hanging suspended on individual fishing lines from the high ceiling to within about 2 feet from the floor. Such a strange sight! The exhibition had opened in May and by now the tomatoes were all pretty shriveled up, but still intact on their pins. The lighting on the tomatoes caused wonderful shadows and patterns on the walls. I only wish I had been allowed to take a photograph of this installation. This installation represented the local produce which is harvested by foreign labourers, who are separated from their home, loved ones and culture for about eight months of the year. The artist had observed a labourer pick up a big, ripe tomato, hold it in his hand while looking intensely at it and then crush it in his hand in anger. The tomatoes are the symbol of the struggles that these workers go through in overcoming their psychological journey.

As stated by the artist:

… But to crush these tomatoes is not to crush their artificially bright and happy existence – to crush these tomatoes is to transform that lonely existence into something acknowledge by the body of the tomato – the silence contained in the perfect forms let out in an explosion of pent up anger, frustration and melancholy.

I was pleased to find that even though this was my first real mixed media exhibition that I have attended, I was able to look critically (and appreciatively) at all the exhibits with a greater understanding of what I would have had a few months before. I was able to have a meaningful conversation with the volunteer who took me around the exhibit (they weren’t very busy) and even surprised her with a few questions which she was not able to answer. Sadly no photos were allowed so I had to made do with photographing a newsletter which features a couple of Gu Xiong’s silkscreen works.

Reference List

Laurence, Robin. (2014) Gu Xiong: A Journey Exposed connects the local to the global [online]. Straight.com. Available from: http://www.straight.com/arts/652361/gu-xiong-journey-exposed-connects-local-global [Accessed July 14, 2014]

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