Into the Flow

We left the hotel in the early morning, walked through the outdoor market, bought fruit, and headed up the mountain. We took the road but soon abandoned this route to follow a narrow dirt path that skirted a few houses. Through thick drizzle, beneath a heavy cold gray sky hovering between rain and fog, we climbed a steep hill. After some aimless wandering and a stop for directions we found our destination, the “Old Chinese Cemetery.” Almost hidden, on a sandy hill across the valley from the new university, it was surrounded by new homes. The cemetery overlooked a river heading towards a pulp mill. But it also overlooked something else, some thing more potent, a vanished past, the space of the Chinatown that once lined the main street below.

We entered the cemetery through iron gates guarded by two stone lions. Newly restored, the cemetery had a clean air about it, an air of respect and pride. Its plan echoed that of an amphitheatre. We stood on the “stage” at the base of the hill by the altar as the “audience” of graves fanned out across the slope. Separately, Gu Xiong and I roamed. Fresh wooden markers adorned with simple painted text populated the cemetery. Not able to read Chinese, I took the text to be the names of the deceased, but Gu Xiong informed me otherwise. There were no names, just poems and prayers. We took some pictures, left fruit on the altar and then climbed back down the hill to photograph the space where the Chinatown had once stood.

The cemetery on the hill is the faint trace of a previous flow of the Yellow River in to Canada, those who came to “Gold Mountain” to survive, to make money to support their families back home. Many intended to go home themselves but never did. They rest, nameless, unknown, a Yellow River consumed by Blue Culture. It is this fate that much of Gu Xiong’s work speaks to. Back in the early 1990s, Gu Xiong and his family fought against a fate of anonymity and the potential of being engulfed, of having their lives newly defined through cultural imposition rather than a dialogue. They feared their history and identity would be erased in the transition from China to Canada. Theirs is the classic immigrant experience: trying to find their place in a new country through a balance of old and new.

I have written in the past that one of the things drawing me to Gu Xiong’s work is the museological thread running through his art. Early on, during his initial years in Canada, his work was primarily a personal museum project, the recording and collecting of images, objects and stories about his own experiences and those of his extended family. Then his focus shifted to engage a broader history of the presence of Chinese people in Canada. But in both cases, the subject was often a victim, an individual or community struggling against odds. With Yellow River/Blue Culture, Gu Xiong speaks from a more confident position. He is no longer the busboy at the University of British Columbia cafeteria he was in the early 1990s, but an assistant professor at the same institution and a significant artist who has exhibited across Canada and internationally. He is also a Canadian citizen and free to travel to China. It seems that this shift in his own circumstances is reflected in the stories he now tells in his exhibitions.

Now when Gu Xiong walks the tragic terrain of the early Chinese communities in Canada, a terrain haunted by the lost souls of railway workers who were not given their promised passage home, the segregated Chinatowns, the head tax and the imposed employment limits of laundry, restaurant and servant, he moves with the hard-earned confidence of one who is not only witnessing these histories but can inscribe these stories in public memory. And when he goes “home,” back to Chongqing, he can move with the same confidence in recording and retelling the stories imbedded in the landscape of his past, a past filled with the ghosts of Chinese Cultural Revolution. Gu Xiong is now more in a position of choice than he has ever been and this is, ultimately, the precarious position which his project Yellow River/Blue Culture engages. He does this, as he has so often done in the past, by mapping a landscape that is both poetic metaphor and living space.

Water flows and is unstable. It is constantly shifting and in a state of flux. Unpredictable and chaotic, it can be a force of erosion and transformation, of movement and dilution. As a river, water can divide and transform. It can be a destructive or nurturing presence. The river can define a landscape and be a source of power. Blocked, it will search for a release, find another path or take another form. This is Gu Xiong’s vision of culture.

Yellow river is the culture of China, Gu Xiong’s country of birth. It flows throughout the world through ever-spreading tributaries. The Yellow River has spread primarily through people, in the migrations of many Chinese out of their homeland and into new homes in cities around the world. In China, Blue Culture always meant that which comes from away, from across the water, over the deep blue sea. Often, Blue Culture has been an aggressive force of colonization and subjugation, typified in recent history by the British Empire and Imperial Japan. Today, it is Western corporate expansion that dominates the flow of Blue Culture throughout China. Unlike the flow of the Yellow River, this new Blue Culture is not about the movement of people; it is defined by the availability of Western popular culture and products (primarily American) and the Starbucks, Kodak, IKEA and many other corporate outlets that now reside in China.

In Yellow River/Blue Culture, Gu Xiong provides a personal view of the dialogue between two powerful cultural forces. It is, in the truest sense, a contemporary view as Gu Xiong’s subject is one that is very much “of the moment.” The world he has recorded is fleeting and in a state of flux. Much of what he presents here may no longer exist or may already have dramatically changed. But this should come as no surprise. Cultures are constantly in a fluid state and are inevitably flowing into each other. This has always been the case. Today, however, the speed of the flow appears to have dramatically increased to the point where it is rare for there to be periods of stasis when it is possible to clearly define a culture or place. Constant change, ironically, seems to have become the fixed point. Raised in China during the Cultural Revolution and a recent immigrant to Canada, Gu Xiong’s world has constantly been in a state of overt change and this has become, not surprisingly, the primary focus of his art.

The dramatic cultural overlap that Gu Xiong engages here has and will result in new cultural forms. The question is will cultural forms of major significance and influence result? The urban historian Peter Hall has convincingly argued that significant cultural changes have most often been the result of the influx of new ideas brought from outside a defined community or environment. The Chinese immigrants who have flowed into Canada over the past century have clearly contributed to the defining of Canada’s major urban centres and the country’s ever-changing sense of identity. The new Blue Culture Gu Xiong observes is very different, it is defined by the influx of commercial ventures into China, not people. While it remains to be seen whether this Blue Culture will drown or flow into the Yellow River, it should be remembered that China has a long history of absorbing that which penetrates its borders. There are signs that this tradition will continue. According to Gu Xiong, “ The Yellow River is mixing with Blue Culture and now it flows green.”

Like the exhibition it responds to, this publication brings together a series of images taken by Gu Xiong over the past two years, in China and across Canada. As in the installation at the Kamloops Art Gallery, the flow of the selection of images is determined by geography. Moving through this publication, one moves from China to Canada (East to West) and from Vancouver to Montreal (west to east). But this is not a documentary project in the traditional sense. The images here, as in the installation, are not labeled with precise dates and locations. This would be too specific. The Yellow River/Blue Culture dialogue is ambient and hard to pin down. There is no single picture that will sum it all up. It is, rather, the accumulation of imagery, scenes recorded by an individual moving about the world, participating and observing, that gives the clearest “picture.”

Andrew Hunter, Curator
Dundas, Ontario, Canada