Global Adventure in Migration

By Yang Xiaoyan on Gu Xiong’s art and its cultural meaning

Gu Xiong’s art practice is an absolute global adventure if we look at his experiences as a whole. The key word in his adventure is migration.

Forty years ago, the abruptly resumed National College Entrance Examination allows Gu Xiong –back then a sent-down youth in the countryside of Southwestern China – to become a university student at the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute. After an individual and symbolic resistance towards the “enclosures,” Gu crossed the vast Pacific Ocean and migrated to Canada. This is the second time Gu set foot on this land, and with it started another migratory experience – the transformation of social identity and social status. Initially an ordinary immigrant, it is through constant efforts that Gu becomes a real mainstream Canadian artist as he is today.

These are the two overlapping migrations, which include a change in social status, as well as a change of the living environment. Gu uses “Big River and Big Sea” to name his exhibition, trying to describe the extended personal experience of migration to his audience – from Yangtze River, across the Pacific Ocean, and finally to the Fraser River. Through this name, I realize what Gu really means by choosing this name: Gu’s migration is not merely a personal experience; On the contrary, his life experience is one tiny part of today’s globalization, a wave in its ocean and a mirror reflecting its passage.

I have been trying to imagine how Gu must have felt when he was standing by the beach of Vancouver Island, looking at the tomb stones of Chinese ancestors whose remains could not be shipped back home; how he must have felt when he walked into the crude residence of international migrant workers, where barely anyone else would step foot in, and how he must have felt looking at their faces and the hardships written on them.

It was by the end of year 2015, I was curating an exhibition titled “Beyond Image: Laboratory of Light” for Hubei Museum of Art. I invited Gu to join the exhibition as an overseas Chinese artist. The project he presented is “A Stretch of Beach by the Sea of Victoria.” Fine sand is laid flat on the floor, which represents the beach; On one side of the walls is the projector screen, one could see waves of the Pacific Ocean crashing on the shore and hear their sounds; On another side of the wall is a group of photos, in which Gu recreates the scenes of bone washing, a procedure before the remains’ shipment. I remember that I was at the scene, telling the audience over and over again the stories behind these objects.

When we live in our home country, the idiom “a falling leaf should return to the roots” doesn’t mean much to us. At best, we feel that it is a cultural tradition, an emotional attachment the expatriates show towards their hometowns. However, for the Chinese who left for North America over half a century ago, by the sea of Victoria at night, they carefully wrapped up fellow countrymen’s bones to be shipped for burial back home. For these ancestors, this is so much more than ancient teaching – it is a mission that needs to be accomplished.

When Gu immigrated with his family to the unfamiliar land of the North America, did he not experience the cruelness embodied in this sense of “mission”? My guess is, the moment he stepped onto the land of the North America, his understanding of art went through revolutionary changes. At this moment, art starts to mean more than mere resistance. When the body goes through a journey of migration and lands on a foreign land, art goes through a revolutionary change with it. That is, art changes from a symbol of resistance to the reality of life, to the tangible being of everyday life that comes alive.

In other words, through the migration of his physical existence, Gu becomes inserted in the process of globalization, that he breathes in the cultural meaning of this process on a daily basis. The result of this is that Gu’s migration becomes a genuine global adventure, and his art naturally becomes a record and an appropriate expression of this adventure. Gu Xiong’s art has become a highly sensitive personal probe, which he uses to check the truthfulness of all resistance and subversion made in the name of art.

Regardless if the result comes back as truthful or not, the practice of probing and testing remains truthful perpetually, and every shout becomes strength from the past.

Drafted in the early morning of May 23, 2017