Waterscapes: Johannean Journeys

1000 hand made white archive paper boats

Permanent Collection of St. John’s College, University of British Columbia

As children we loved to fold paper boats and float them down the stream. We believed that they carried our hopes for the future, for going out into the world, into unknown places. This work explores the idea of migrations, including my own from China to Canada, by imaginatively bringing the Yangtze and Fraser rivers together. My home city of Chongqing is on the banks of the Yangtze while the Fraser flows past Vancouver, my “new” home since 1990. Both rivers are formed by smaller rivers joining together as they flow through different geographies and locales. From opposite directions, they merge and meet in the Pacific Ocean.

In my experience, rivers signify encounters with different peoples and cultures. For me, there were no bridges to help me cross these rivers: you just have to jump in and swim a long distance in order to experience another culture by being open to benefiting from differences. There is inevitably conflict in this process. I have asked myself, how can I bring the two rivers in my life together? The answer: I have to become like a river myself—a river of migration, a river of transcultural identities, a river of change and uncertainty—in order to shape these forces into a new global space.

At St. John’s College, “Waterscapes” is inspired by the stories of Johannean journeys from all over the world. The Founders of the College are alumni of St. John’s University of Shanghai, the largest metropolis on the Yangtze. Every year, new residents come to UBC from all over the world. Like the boats, each of their stories is uniquely individual, but they come together to form a thick palimpsest of histories, memories, and material traces of migration and transformation. Migration and globalization have brought the invisible and the visible together, creating new spaces in which life journeys intertwine and new paths on which to build our present and future.

Water, people, and time flow on. They do not return to their original points but show it is possible for life itself to flow on.

Gu Xiong


The artist gratefully acknowledges the generous support of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada as well as his research team: Chris Lee, Jennifer Chun and April Liu.

Special thanks to the principal of St. John’s College principal, Henry Yu, the staff, and the many student volunteers who helped make this work possible for the public.


“Waterscapes: Johannean Journeys,” a permanent public art installation at St. John’s College, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, 2013