Gu Xiong The Mirror: A Return To China

Ten years ago you left China and came to North America. Did you have any expectations of what your new home might be like?

When I lived in China, I always dreamed romantically about ‘Western’ culture and thought that there was a limitless amount of freedom in North America. I wanted to live there and have freedom right away.

When I arrived, I found that it was totally different from what I had imagined. I came here for freedom, but in the process I lost it. My dreams of this culture were broken by this strange new found reality. I lost everything I had once possessed. I even lost the comforts of my inherent culture. I even lost the comforts of my inherent culture. I wandered back and forth between two cultures not knowing which one I belonged to. Unable to establish roots in either, I was left alone, isolated by my own inability to adapt to either one. I was placed at the bottom of society. Finally, I understood the real meaning of freedom. It is not given, it is paid for through pain and suffering.

The photographs in this exhibition stem from a trip to China and to your home town of Chongqing in 1998. Did you feel that it had changed? Could you have predicted this change?

China has undergone a radical transformation during these past ten years. I couldn’t even recognize my home town of Chongqing. The entire city is under reconstruction. The old city has been destroyed and replaced with a new vision of a city similar to those of North America. China not only wanted to change, but was also forced to change by the world.

Your photographs show replicas of the Sydney Opera House, London Bridge, the Statue of Liberty and other western monuments, as well as signs for Pepsi, McDonald’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Marlboro cigarettes and other icons of western commercialism. Are these all new?

Yes, these replicas are all new. Ten years ago you could only see them in magazines and books. They started appearing in China in the 90s. Now, after ten years of reform, Western culture and consumerism have a very strong influence over China. People like to see these replicas. They want to feel as if they had been to the West. Young people especially, think that things from the West must be better than what they have in the East.
Evidence of western commercialism is also new. Through the 1950s to the 70s, commercialism had a bad reputation in China under influence of revolutionary theory. After the 1980s, China opened its doors to the West. These icons were slowly introduced and then began to penetrate the whole country. I have two images in mind. First, before the 80s, we saw only Chairman Mao’s picture and his words everywhere in China. After the 80s, we started to see these western commercial icons everywhere instead of Mao. After a long period of isolation, people wanted something new. Their dreams and desires opened up to these icons, which were seen to symbolize a better life. They became very popular. They came with political change.

Do these photographs provide evidence of a kind of homogenizing, where the unique aspects of different cultures are being eroded in favour of one global culture?

They provide proof that the world is becoming a global corporation. Many different cultures have experienced this, however, it is possible that they may react to it, effecting further change of a different kind. We are in the process of a cultural evolution under cultural globalism.

Who or what do you feel is responsible? Corporations, communications, people’s desire for a certain lifestyle…?

Well, in one way I feel the international corporations and media are responsible for this change. On the other hand, people are responsible for control of their own material desires.

Do you think that although Asia might show signs of becoming more ‘Western’, North America shows signs of becoming more ‘Asian’?

Asian countries are already showing signs of becoming more ‘Western’. China is an example of such a country. They have to change in order to reach the same standard of living and rights that western countries already have. There’s a long way to go.
I can’t say that North America is showing signs of becoming more ‘Asian’. It is becoming more globalized and multi-cultural, in part due to the influx of different immigrants from around the world. The strong North American culture effects changes in immigrants, but immigrants also bring new aspects of their inherent culture into this culture and society, through their practice in the West. There are many possibilities that could happen.
It is, in a way, an experimental ground for the union of different cultures. In reality, North America is far ahead of Asian countries, with the few exceptions of Japan, Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong. North America has a different way of seeing the world. For me, every country and culture should have their own way to go, while understanding and attaining better communication amongst themselves.

Is it inevitable that we will become one worldwide hybrid culture?

It is possible. For me, this hybrid culture should include every culture. It should have great knowledge and good channels of communication, in order that aspects of individuality and collectivity are well integrated and understood. This world culture will provide a rich global background for each individual. An appreciation for this one world culture will come through individual practice and understanding.