Immigration, Community-Based Art & Pedagogy

This article is an excerpt from the catalog which accompanied the installation of Coquitlam Waterscapes in the Evergreen Cultural Centre, from December 1, 2012 to January 19, 2013.

Immersion in the community surrounding each installment is paramount to the meaning and accuracy of Xiong’s work as can be seen with his communication with Councillor Fred Hulbert of Kwikwetlem First Nation. It is integral to his process—to delve into the history of place, to explore the landscape, to meet the people who live in the area who are currently helping to create the diverse social fabric and to understand personal connections community members may have to the Fraser, Yangtze, and Coquitlam Rivers as well as to waterways that have helped them on their own personal immigration journey. Without these connections, Xiong would simply overlay his understanding of the area without true context and story or meaning.

To better understand the specific immigration stories of Coquitlam citizens, Xiong linked with Immigration Services Society of British Columbia and interviewed several members of the Coquitlam Chapter. With their stories, Xiong connected current immigration stories with broader stories of struggle, of hope and freedom and to his vast research that was undertaken to reveal the history of Chinese immigration in British Columbia. The personal stories shared with Xiong where not made explicit in the gallery but were shown through portraits of each interviewee. These stories were meant to create the skeletal structure for the installation, one that is vital for the strength of the exhibition, but not immediately apparent to the naked eye.

Of immigration in Canada, Xiong remains optimistic and strongly believes that the movement of people creates an opportunity to expand methods of thinking and change for the good. Interview with Gu Xiong, March 2013. Quoting Canadian theorist, Marshall McLuhan, Xiong speaks of the Global Village and Canada as being representative of such a future— a true mixing and reciprocal flow between cultures. He contrasts the Canadian experience with the Chinese, stating that in China, money flows in and out, not people; therefore China has not been broadly influenced by diverse cultures due to a lack of reciprocity and flow of immigration. Interview with Gu Xiong, March 2013.

In response to possible criticisms of collaborative practice, it can be stated that Xiong does not operate as Hal Foster describes as an “Artist as Ethnographer”— he does not make those he interviews intangible or decontextualized and remains self-reflexive. Hal Foster, “The Artist as Ethnographer,” in The Return of the Real (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1996). He stands not as an artist of authority, but as one who is positioned within the story of migration and as an individual who seeks not to create importance in one story over another, or to overlay context in the hopes of finding the authentic or even to empower. Xiong does not see community as a whole entity to be easily defined and depicted, but many things coming together and as something to be seen as unsettled and unfixed.

With his collaborative approach he showcases cultural pluralism in Canada by sharing our stories. He emphasizes the history of early Chinese immigration in BC coupled with current immigration stories from BC citizens and current life struggles and joys of Chinese citizens living in communities along the Yangtze River. He challenges homogeneous history and readdresses traditional narratives and seeks forgotten, bypassed histories from individuals in the community.

In addition, education and valid pedagogical methods which Xiong undertook, in partnership with Evergreen Cultural Centre’s pedagogical approach to curation and educational programs, further validates Xiong’s approach. For example, for school field trips visiting the Art Gallery at Evergreen during Coquitlam Waterscapes students were brought into a world of contemporary installation that was accessible and relevant in that it was immediately connected to their community, and perhaps to their own experiences. Museologist Hooper Greenhill states, “museum visits [show] pupils a world beyond their everyday experience, and successful learning within this new cultural world [enables] pupils to begin to find ways to claim this world as their own.”Eilean Hooper-Greenhill, Museums and Education: Purpose, Pedagogy, Performance (New York: Routledge, 2007) 200. It is in the gallery space, faced with such an exhibition that can create incredible embodied learning experiences and can create what gallery pedagogue, Ellsworth describes as “being radically in relation to one’s self, to others, and to the world.” Elizabeth Ellsworth, Places of Learning: Media, Architecture, Pedagogy (New York: Routledge, 2007) 2.

— Astrid Heyerdahl, Curator