Gu Xiong: Migrations

An Exhibition Never Opened

This past summer I had a large solo exhibition, Gu Xiong: Migrations at the Galaxy Museum of Contemporary Art in Chongqing, China. After a month’s preparation (with the help of over a hundred volunteers and the gallery staff), however, the exhibition was shut down before it could open. It was taken down over the following two days, during which time the gallery’s doors remained open, allowing visitors to watch the work slowly disappear.

Exhibition Overview

Exhibition poster
Exhibition poster.
Yellow Cargo, a cargo ship constructed out of boxes from businesses in Chongqing, Gu’s hometown.
“It’s been 19 years since I have travelled back and forth between the two cities. … As Chongqing strives to rise as an international metropolis, I strive to build up a new cultural identity overseas. The struggles we went through pull me even closer to the city.” — Gu
Projected on the stern of the ship is a video of the confluence of the Yangtze and Jialing rivers. The Yangtze eventually joins the Pacific, carrying the made-in-Chongqing merchandise to the world.
Illuminated Niagara Falls: this installation consists of 4000 photos of foreign migrant workers, five souvenir bottles of “illuminated” water from Niagara Falls, and four fruit baskets from Ontario farms.
Niagara Falls is a Canadian icon, yet few realize that tens of thousands of foreign farm workers labour in the region behind the Niagara Falls. Their presence goes back to the 1960s, but their contributions to the country are often overlooked. The hardworking migrant workers remain unknown and anonymous; yet it is them who bring color and illumination to our Niagara Falls, not the spotlights that are thrown on at night, nor the colored water in the souvenir shops.
The tomato first came to Gu’s attention in the hands of a Mexican migrant worker. The worker was staring intently at the tomato, turning it this way and that. Then he crushed it in his hand.
The agricultural labour is provided by migrant workers from across the world, but the tomato packaging just says “product of Canada.” For the worker, to crush these tomatoes is to transform that lonely existence into something acknowledged 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.
The crushing of the tomatoes symbolizes freedom from the silence, isolation and barely endured existence to something solemn and stirringly beautiful. Their remains assert their presence—the smell, the wetness, and the splattering.
There was a bone house at Harling Point in Victoria, Canada in 1903, where the remains of deceased Chinese immigrants were cleaned and prepared for burial. After being buried for seven years, the remains of early Chinese immigrants were re-excavated, cleaned and dried, wrapped in a white cloth and shipped back to their hometown in China for burial.
This tradition was practiced by Chinese immigrants in Canada until 1937, when Sino-Japanese war sparked in China. Following the closure of this bone house, around 900 stored remains were buried at a cemetery, which replaced the bone house. Their tombstones face towards the Pacific, their homeland on the other end of the ocean.
A Bone House. Reverence for ancestors buried to rest.
Intertwined Rivers
This karaoke-style video brings together images of three rivers: the Rhine, the Red River, and the Yangtze. While these rivers do not meet on a map, they are joined by an individual’s global journey. The merging of these distant rivers represents our cultural hybridity.
I Am Who I Am tells the history of Chinese Canadian immigrants, their hard work, and their effort to build a social identity in a different cultural background. From the time of gold rush to the construction of railways, Chinese immigrants have spread out across Canada. The photos expose the hardship Chinese immigrants endured, their persistence and beliefs. This installation taps into the connection between humanity and cultural backgrounds in the age of globalization and world migration.
Chinese Canadians have made many contributions to the country. They built the railways. They fought in the Second World War. Their contributions boost economic development in Canada and uphold Canadian values. In return, it also propelled the Canadian government to repeal the Chinese Immigration Act and to grant Chinese immigrants suffrage. Today, every Chinese immigrant or immigrant descendent, while adapting to a new social environment, is also reflecting upon the culture and self in between the clashes of two cultures. In the process, new cultural identity and space are created.
Gu’s poem “Pins”
Gu participated in the <i exhibition at the China National Museum of Fine Arts in Beijing. In February 1989, it was the first Chinese Avant-Garde exhibition. Around 250 Chinese contemporary artists participated in this show. This video shows the exhibition and Gu’s installation/performance, Enclosures.
“Facing the Great wall, the Paris Bastille Wall and the Berlin Wall: we understand the isolation between humanity and nature, individual and an ethnic group, individual and the self: The price people pay for trying to breakdown the isolation.“ — from Gu’s 1989 poem Enclosures
Crushed Cans

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Selected Artworks

Red River

This karaoke-style video brings together images of three rivers: the Rhine, the Red River, and the Yangtze. While these rivers do not meet on a map, they are joined by an individual’s global journey.


This video deals with the hardship of being placed in a completely different culture. This experience draws attention to the concepts of “home” and “belonging.” At the time for Gu and his family, home had just changed from China to Canada. Gu and his family had their first experience of camping in Canada after 5 years of moving. This experience was one his first leisure moments in Canada. He set up a campfire, and while he was finally experiencing a relaxing moment by feeling the warmth of the fire and listening to the cracking log fire sound, his mind was at work going through common thoughts and words he dealt with after moving to Canada. This video illustrates some of the thoughts going through Gu’s mind.


“Pins represent all sorts of embarrassment, reluctance, and unfairness, immigrants could experience living in Canada. These things make my heart ache. They prick on my heart like pins, yet not to the extent that my heart bleeds; as time passes, they appear even less important. However, these pains keep reminding me that I could not draw back out of fear; on the contrary, I have to advance against hardship.” — Gu Xiong

Tearing Down the Exhibition

Posters advertising the exhibition
Posters removed
Erasing Thoughts: Gu’s essay Rethinking Cultural Transformation is slowly peeled from the wall.
Packing up paper boats
Tearing off Memories: a gallery worker removes Ni Kun’s essay Migrations—I Am Who I Am from the entrance to the gallery.
Hiding the Enclosures: the panels for the paintings that make up Enclosures are taken down from the walls and stacked before they are removed from the room.
Dimming Niagara Falls: the 4000 photographs of Illuminated Niagra are packed up into bags.
Disposing Tomatoes: Gu’s tomatoes represent the all of the hard work, and all of the workers, which is hidden from the people who purchase the tomatoes.
Peeling the Red
Vanishing Smile

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