Toward the new Frontier

A catalog essay by Petra Watson

This essay is an excerpt from the catalog for Red River, an exhibition at the Winnipeg Art Gallery. Please click here to view the page related to this exhibition.

Our understanding of place, history, time, identity, and memory is increasingly undergoing transformation within the new economy and culture of globalization. This landscape of shifting spaces of local cultures is caught up within rapid economic, political, and technological change. Globalization is not just the physical circulation of capital and commodities aligned with trade circuits and the consumption of goods moving across unprecedented transnational boundaries. Globalization brings networks, situations, representations, communications, perceptions, impressions, and emotions to a form of consciousness that has recently become understood as taking place through the sociopolitical and cultural process called hybridization. As a central feature of current global economic exchange, hybridization is a commingling, entwining, and diffusion of representation facilitated by elements from diverse nation-states, societies, practices, and cultures, a process closely tied to the introduction of new technologies and electronic space.

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Gu Xiong’s four-channel video installation and photographs exhibited in Red River depict three rivers coming together as a spatial metaphor for globalization; the concept of flow within this transformative landscape defies any absolute boundaries, either physical or psychological. The river is brought forward to represent place and to give spatial interpretation to global fluidity addressing economic, political, social, and cultural change in a transnational mobile world.

Rivers communicate in ways that are constantly indeterminate. Fluidity defies stability, and the river no longer draws from any immutable continuity with nature; the river is now entangled with culture. This thematic of mobility encountered as a journey and taken up by river views is the central encounter or passage through the exhibition.

Panoramic photographs depict three rivers: Winnipeg’s Red River; the Qingxi River near Chongqing, China; and the Rhine River as it runs through Koblenz in Germany, Basel in Switzerland, and finally the port city of Rotterdam in the Netherlands, where it empties into the North Sea. The rivers conceptualize a local and global reach, enacting a form of critical engagement that spatially plots conceptualize a forum where hybridization occurs. The three rivers in their direct and expansionary metaphorical flow of information (media and digital), people (immigrants, workers, and tourists), technology (machinery, programs, and electronics), markets (trade, investment), leisure (picturesque aesthetics) and cultural exchange (high and low) are mobile landscapes and contingent histories.

To pass through this transnational landscape is to encounter a complex postmodern route of exchange, mobilizing place and seeking out representation. Hybrid conditions instil fusion and pastiche, bypassing many expectations earlier enforced by physical isolation, cultural archetypes and political doctrines. Hybridization is affiliated with potential and imaginary global settings and aspirations appropriated as a transcontinental flow or a letting go of fixed meanings. This does not mean that there no longer exists a centre and periphery of power and exploitation; rather that society and culture, their representation and styles—and by extension former restrictions and limitations—dissolve within the new world economy to become spatially interchangeable through mutation, confluence, and commingling. Consider this eclectic moment of hybridization as when two rivers flow together, or as interpreted within the artwork, the river as metaphor for the global world is where three rivers are taken as one.

The rivers’ inherent flow initiates the centralized concept of journey, or travel that runs throughout the exhibition. This includes the journey taken by the artist in order to shoot the video and photographs; the leisure activities represented on a Chinese karaoke VCD; immigration, including the artist’s own move from China to Vancouver; and, as well, the flow or journey that starts from the river’s source, moving through the countryside, towns, and cities, finally to reach the open sea. Now the spatial landscape of three rivers becomes a world geography absorbed by or saturated with cultural signs. A sense of cultural infusion or saturation, as being soaked through, leads into exploring the multiplicity of diverse forms that are the very practice and experience of hybridization.

Space, place, and landscape become central elements of inquiry into hybridization by bringing together the local and the global, and each are set in motion and reworked. While space is a more abstract geography of discovery, the rivers represent place as formed by shifting images of our increasingly global world through their contingent histories, fragile stability, and irreversible flow. The artist functions as mapmaker, ethnographer, nomad, tourist, and immigrant within a travelogue framed by river views addressing concepts of place within the collapse of the spatial barriers of a world economy that is increasingly understood as without boundaries. When East meets West in advertising, music, food, global exhibitions, television, entertainment, the Olympics, and other international spectacles of sports and politics, hybridization is the point of departure. But this journey introducing hybrid renewal, reconciliation, and transformation, where historical legacies of control by earlier powers and ideologies once stood firm, can not be considered entirely separate from current doctrines of “civilizing” wars or political ideological disputes. China today plays a central role in the global world, but this follows a history of isolation. The ancient Silk Road and the cross-continental Eurasian Mongol Empire are historical examples of commerce extending beyond immediate borders. China had a magnificent seagoing fleet well before the Europeans set sail seeking raw materials and goods throughout the world. The Chinese fleet of the early fifteenth century journeyed throughout Asia and East Africa displaying power, gathering tributes, and lavishing gifts in return. But unlike the European fleets that entrenched colonialism by increasingly seeking resources, labour, and new markets throughout the world to support industrialization, China looked within its own internal base of productivity, relying on agriculture and internal trade. Mao’s programs for the Cultural Revolution expanded on this position of orthodoxy dependent on agriculture rather than advanced systems of modernization, and this sharply enforced China’s separation from the industrialized West. Socialism’s revolutionary policies demanded nationalization for production, abolishment of private property and enforced control of many aspects of everyday life.

Since the 1980s China’s framework of capital and trade has entered a post-socialist phase of broad socioeconomic reforms, capitalist economic zones, private ownership and business ventures, and the disbanding of major collective farms and communes. By the 1990s new forms of industrialization and advanced technologies introduced a modernity initiating significant revisions of socialism. This ideological and material transition modernized modes of production, increased levels of international trade and investments, and brought rising incomes. For many Chinese the introduction of a largely capitalist market economy and consumer society brought extensive changes to their lives. Deng Xiaoping’s policy of Reform and Openness phrased this introduction of capital as a gradual and moderate transformation, where one must “cross the river by feeling the stones.” But capitalist change was more fluid, bringing rapid economic development and introducing modern technologies of globalization. This is not to disregard elements of political legacies that are still associated with the severity brought to the democracy movement associated globally with Tiananmen Square. But as conditions of hybridization are bringing shifting identities through cultural change, a central factor is the move away from political ideologies to formations of leisure activities. Within the modernizing market economy unprecedented levels of participation in forms of entertainment are globally constructed.

A review of China’s recent past is a way to map a divisive and uncertain global future. This temporal and spatial thematic of change runs through the exhibition, and is given critical insight by the karaoke positioning of “Red River Valley.” In the exhibition the past is represented by Gu’s sketchbooks, which are viewed as video images. Mao’s political program during the Cultural Revolution, “Up to the Mountains, Down to the Villages,” exiled students living in cities to remote areas of China to avoid any kind of possible political dissent. Up to seventeen million young men and women were separated from families and friends in urban areas. Their role was to teach literacy and receive in return a socialist education by working in the fields alongside the peasants. Gu was one of the many students forced to leave urban areas, and remained in exile from 1972 to 1976 in a remote are accessible only on foot, the Daba Mountain region at the borders of Shaanxi and Sichuan provinces. Gu describes the sketchbooks as “silent witnesses,” and “a medium of communication between the outer world and the inner self.” Leisure activity was largely unaccounted for, while artistic and cultural interests were severely controlled during the Cultural Revolution.

The performative experience of “Red River Valley” brings the past up to the present, and introduces karaoke as entertainment dependent on a hybrid melding of music and audiences. Gu, with other youth, sang “Red River Valley” during their seclusion in the country: “From this valley they say you are going.” Known as a Canadian folk song, during the Chinese Cultural Revolution communist officials and peasants denigrated the song as romantic or bourgeois. Consequently the young students bypassed official culture, replacing these restrictions with their own private fantasy. Taking the song as expressing loss through journey, feelings expressed through the natural landscape elements that give rise to human love and compassion, and through a search for identity, the narrative voice revitalizes an imaginary world away from the political emptiness and isolation of the Cultural Revolution. The irony is not remote, but persistently locates agricultural solitude in the valley, and the destination, although it remains unspoken and an imaginary location, contrasts with the countryside. For the students in exile the song symbolized a return to the cities and lifestyles from which they had come.

Contributing to the conceptual framework of the exhibition is a VCD for karaoke that features “Red River Valley” sung in Chinese and scripted with Chinese characters. The images show international tourists travelling on a riverboat up the Rhine, symbolizing European heritage and culture. A leisure economy of picturesque scenes and tourist markers provides for a polyphonic reading of multiple global discourse that perform as a familiar and foreign, romantic and liberating, as mass market kitsch and folklore, ironic gesture and personal identity; yet, none in isolation. Contextualized by this electronic entertainment, “Red River Valley” is now positioned as a hybrid performance in global culture, to become the starting point to engage an environment of globalization inclusive of the economies of the marketplace.

Modernization brought leisure activities to China. Today karaoke is a central feature of Chinese entertainment, which can also be found in bars and private homes throughout the world. Karaoke music drives a rush of hybrid associations. Origins of karaoke can be traced to Japan, but remain obscure; overall the music is transnational. It is not known how the song “Red River Valley” arrived in China or how it fount its present identification and popularity as a Canadian folk song and now unfolds on karaoke. Following the Japanese invasion of China in the late 1930s, Dr. Norman Bethune, a Canadian, was elevated after his death to heroic status by Mao’s essay, which was required memorization for all students during the Cultural Revolution. Which is not to suggest any direct link, but rather building on communication and exchange, and taking international myths, heroes, and parables to conceptualize the hybrid concept in motion.

Now that karaoke is ingrained in local markets and popular cultures, this global geography participates in a spatial distribution not only of song and images, but also of global intellectual property rights. In China it is estimated that nearly 100,000 karaoke establishments—each usually with ten karaoke rooms—generate almost one billion yuan yearly. The introduction of copyright royalties by the Chinese government in 2007 brought localized karaoke within global electronic space and international interests of the marketplace; now the China Audio and Video Association has the task of collecting royalties for the China Record Corporation, EMI, and Warner Music Corporation.

These references are entry points to the exhibition’s global matrix formed by the spatial presence of three rivers on three continents. Circulation and mobility, as well as views confounding natural and artificial landscapes, are central to this spatial reading. As instability characterizes the landscapes of the three rivers, this is expressed in the decay of the riverbank from past floods (Red River), and expected high water in accordance with dam construction (Qingxi River), as well as historical localities of secure flood controls (Rhine River). Geographical mobility and its spatial configurations—both real and illusionary—map out this fluid sense of location and inhabitation in the large drawing.

The narrative sense of flow or fluid space represented in the wide-view sequential images embraces the expansive unfolding of a Chinese scroll or European panorama. These images were taken as the artist walked along the opposite riverbank with camera in hand. These landscape images taken in China show the Qingxi River, a tributary of the Yangtze River, the longest river in Asia, which flows swiftly eastward to enter the East China Sea at Shanghai. Known for its beauty and historical significance, the river will be forever altered by the building of the controversial Three Gorges Dam. The Qingxi River provides for broad sweeping vies with its muddy water increasingly stirred up by prevailing modernization. The panoramic views of the Rhine River follow its northern passage to the sea, showing the historic towns of Koblenz and Basel through leisure spaces of mobility—the car and trailer characterize the journeys of the tourists camping along the riverbank—and then Rotterdam, the largest port city in Europe, and the world’s busiest until replaced by the expansion of the port city of Shanghai in 2004.

Rotterdam is situated on the banks of one of the channels in the Rhine delta formed by the Rhine and the Meuse Rivers. During the fifteenth century, floods caused serious changes to the harbour, and only in 1872, with extensive programs of dredging and filling, did the city become a central port. Then, with the introduction of container ships in the 1960s, the riverscape was again reconstructed, becoming an increasingly artificial landscape accommodating the expansion of global trade. Extensive changes to the architectural built environment followed by the German Luftwaffe bombing of the city on May 14, 1940, nearly destroying the whole city. The city was slowly rebuilt after the war, but with the introduction of a new architectural policy in the 1980s, new postmodern buildings—recognized globally for their hybrid form—characterized the business centre, contributing to a new and remarkable skyline.

Winnipeg, our other port of call through panoramic views, is located at the fork of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers. Here the rivers meet to bring together a vast network of waterways that enabled an earlier fur trade economy. Winnipeg as a European settlement was located on the site of a well-established trading post, with the Cree, Ojibwa, and Assiniboine aboriginal groups forming a presence for at least 8000 years. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a city developed along the banks of the Red River that would become a major trade route, railway system, and financial hub. Between 1881 and 1918, Winnipeg was one of the fastest growing cities in North America. The fine modern architecture of Winnipeg’s Exchange District became the infrastructure for global economic activity equal to that of London, Chicago, and New York. But with the construction of the Panama Canal, global economic distribution and investment began to bypass Winnipeg. The panoramic photographs taken by Gu along the banks of the Red River depict the outlying city districts as sparsely settled.

The smaller format images contribute as details, filling in the travel sequences shown in the panoramas. They point to shifting spaces of modernity and sociocultural change, including an aging peasant hut, a placid well, a newly constructed modern home, a memorial plinth, graveyard markers, postmodern corporate architecture and the present-day heritage designation of Chinatown.

To return to the photographs taken as the artist walked along the riverbank and the projected video images of views taken from riverboats; it is capital and commerce, national cultures and tourism, global connections and personal memory that construct the panoramic language of traversing space or fulfilling a journey. Whether as an experience gained from reading maps or following trade routes of capital and commodities, the river’s cartography never pursues a solitary task. Globalization brings the awareness that the world itself is a location, a singular place, increasingly brought together through new technologies and global mobility. The river as metaphor also explores cultural terms of belonging, of how to locate oneself in hybrid culture. The global world in these terms is both expanding and diminishing through information and networks of trade. Through these image-making references to globalization and as a metaphor to represent identity and culture—with nature undergoing irreversible change—the river as mobile landscape charts its course through views both of picturesque sites and the increasing clutter of the industrial, urban riverbank.

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— Petra Watson