Long-Distance Swimming

An excerpt from Gu Xiong — The River, the catalog from an exhibition at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria:

Gu Xiong has installed The River, his meditation on modern migrancy and displacement, twice.[1] On both occasions, the piece occupied an entire room. At Artspeak Gallery, in Vancouver, the installation comprised three components: a trail of bleached-white socks winding its way across the floor of the gallery; a suspended school of plaster-white salmon hanging by nylon threads from the ceiling above the flow of socks; and four bright red walls. It was a reduced, spartan installation.

In the second installation, at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, Gu Xiong expanded the configuration to include Chinese art and artifacts, in addition to autobiographical photographs and consumer detritus, along the path of bleached cotton socks. In this room, a temple bell of cast iron from the Ming dynasty (1641) stood in the artist’s metaphorical river near a postcard of Andy Warhol’s Mao;[2] an earthenware model of a farmhouse with pigs, from the Han dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE), kept company with a photograph of the artist and his family posing an tourists at the top of the World Trade Center, New York; and embroidered silk shoes designed for the bound feet of young women, from the Qing dynasty (early 20th century), were juxtaposed with a child’s plastic toy, Snoopy flying an airplane, made in China for export to the American Market. [3] The rest of the room was the same; the plaster-white salmon and the four red walls were unchanged from the first installation.

Red and white, white and red. Intense red, intense white. Gu Xiong’s extreme juxtaposition of colour, like that of a flag, served to draw spectators into the installations, at the same time that it disturbed their field of vision and agitated their emotions. Was that intense red the red of caution, like a STOP/ARRÊT sign in Western culture, or the red of celebration, the symbolic colour of happiness in the Chinese tradition? If the red did not signify one way or the other with any precision, viewers might ask, then how did it signify? Was there a range of possible bi-cultural meanings they should be identifying? In the red-white dialectic of The River there are more than a few unsettling tensions. The work oscillates between extremes of eros and thanatos, it seems, creating a strange economy of desire.[4] The River presents the prospect of pleasure, certainly, but it is a prospect of pleasure underscored by death. In Chinese culture, white is a funerary color; salmon fighting upriver to spawn do not return to the sea.

When I first visited the installation, it occurred to me that the red of the salmon and the white of the walls had somehow exchanged places, that the red had leeched out of the fish and migrated to the walls of the gallery interior. Or, possibly, vice versa. What was once salmon red was blanched dead white, and what was once dead white was saturated with living red. The whiteness of the cotton socks was equally unstable in its potential meanings, offering viewers no more cause for comfort and security than the red of the walls and the white of the salmon. At first glance, the socks might seem to offer the spectacle of immaculacy – clean white socks! – but on closer consideration they also carried an appearance of incipient menace. The menace was part racial and part chemical. One could imagine the socks soaking in bleach, participating in some ritual of ethnic cleansing. If the socks were intended to represent a river of people, as the artist has suggested, the river was not necessarily clear and pristine.[5] It could also be read as a river that whitened everything it touched, spreading its deadly dioxins.

Intimations of the death drive are never far below the surface in The River. But nor are intimations of hope and possibility. The work focuses on “the restless movements of peoples and things,” to borrow a phrase from James Clifford’s recent books, Routes.[6] Water, fish, artifacts, socks, people – all are caught in the push and pull of an unfinished modernity.[7] I want to say that The River addresses the flotsam and jetsam of modernity, like a Molson’s beer bottle (there was one in the Victoria installation) caught in a backwater eddy. But that is not quite accurate, for such a reading misses the degree to which the water and the salmon and the other ingredients of the piece are compelled to move. They are going places. The river is flowing to the sea, the salmon are going upriver to spawn, the historic works of art are travelling from China to Canada (in an act of cultural translation) to enter the collection of the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, the Mao postcards and Snoopy toys are being shipped to consumers. The River is a narrative of movement.

Clifford has argued that “travel” and its various forms, not least those of exile and displacement, are among the defining conditions of a heterogeneous modernity. He also argues that in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, human travel and displacement have increasingly occurred within the force field of “the West.” This includes imaginative journeying as well as physical travel. Gu Xiong’s experience as a child growing up in the city of Chongqing, on the Yangtze River, and his exile within China as a young man during the Cultural Revolution, accords with Clifford’s observations. “When I lived in China, I always dreamed romantically about ‘Western’ culture and thought there was a limitless amount of freedom in North America,” he stated recently in an interview. “I wanted to live there and have freedom right away.”[8] But when he immigrated to Canada in 1989, his hopes for China “crushed,” he discovered that Western freedom is a more elusive commodity than he had imagined.[9] “My dreams of this culture were broken by [my] strange new found reality. I lost everything I had once possessed. I even lost the comforts of my inherent culture. I wandered back and forth between two cultures not knowing which one I belonged to.”[10]

Like anyone who has crossed a cultural boundary, Gu Xiong was forced to unmake and remake his identity in Canada. The process of unmaking and remaking is an on-going one, of course, especially for an artist caught between the demands of cultural adaptation and those of cultural transgression. The River reflects the strain, as do many of Gu Xiong’s other installations. Enclosure (1989) was executed after the artist had completed a residency at the Banff School of Fine Arts, and then returned to China, but before he had moved permanently to Canada. In this piece, an installation-cum-performance staged for the infamous China Avant Garde exhibition in Beijing, he covered the walls, the floor, and the clothing he wore with chainlink-fence patterns, breaking the “fence” in strategic places.[11] Here, There, Everywhere (1995), a large installation mounted for the Vancouver Art Gallery, charted the artist’s journey from being an avant-garde artist in China, to cafeteria busboy at the University of British Columbia, back to avant-garde artist.[12] Border crossing does not stop at the border, anymore than a crisis of subjectivity stops at the self, and border crossing and the rupture of the self are constitutive features of Gu Xiong’s experience, on the one hand, and of modern subjectivity, on the other. In the current era of globalization, writes Arjun Appadurai, “few persons in the world today do not have a friend, relative or coworker who is not on the road to somewhere else or already coming back home, bearing stories and possibilities.”[13] Gu Xiong is one fo those on the road.

I have called this essay “Long-Distance Swimming” for reasons that must be clear. I might just as easily have titled it “Bathing in Dioxin” or “Swimming into Exile,” however, for reasons I have touched upon but which I now want to explore more fully.[14] The Rivers not only raises matters of identity and displacement in a general way, it seems to me, but also refers in a specific way to the cultures in which the “swimming” is done. These cultures are represented allusively by Gu Xiong in his installation, with the Fraser River standing in for Canada and the “West” and the Yangtze standing in for China and the “East.”

Xiaoping Li, a Toronto writer specializing in Asian Canadian cultural practices, has written about the place of “river culture” in The River, “The meeting of the Yangzi River and the Fraser River bridged by the Pacific Ocean,” she observes, is “the intermesh of two different cultural geographies through the artist’s imagination.”[15] In other words, we should pay close attention to what meshes and what clashes in The River. I cannot comment extensively on the cultural geography of Jiangnan in China, the large area south of the Yangtze that reaches out to the Pacific Ocean, for my knowledge of the region is limited to what I learned at Jiangnan, the symposium and contemporary art exhibition held in Vancouver in 1998.[16] (It should be pointed out that The River was Gu Xiong’s contribution to Jiangnan.) I can, however, comment on the cultural geography of the Fraser River in British Columbia, the watercourse that describes as S-curve through the southern half of the province before reaching the Lower Mainland and spilling into the Gulf of Georgia.

Close to two and one-half million people live in the area drained by the Fraser River and its tributaries. It is a working river around which much of the economy of the province has been built. It is also a living organism under threat. At Prince George, a short distance south of a swing in the river that marks its northern extremity, the Fraser is joined by the Nechako River, once a salmon-rich tributary. No more. In the early 1950s, the Aluminum Company of Canada (Alcan) was allowed to dam the Nechako and divert water through a tunnel to its hydro-electric plant at Kemano. The operation ruined the river, and because of low water levels and increased water temperatures, also caused huge fish kills in the upper Fraser. In spite of the evidence of damage, Alcan still hopes to expand its operations, if-as-and-when government gives it a necessary green light.[17] This is the same international corporation whose business practices around the world and elsewhere in Canada provoked the artist Hans Haacke to make Voici Alcan (1983), an installation of photographic panels and text, and Alcan: Painting for the Boardroom (1983).[18]

Meanwhile, the pulp and paper mills around Prince George were booming, using a chlorine bleach to manufacture their products. The industrial effluents left over in the manufacturing process, containing compounds of the chemical dioxin, were dumped into the Fraser. Not only does dioxin stay in the environment for years after it has been released, but it is also proven to be carcinogenic in rats. The Fraser River and the inhabitants that live along its shores, not to mention the salmon swimming up it and the fry swimming down it, are required to digest tons of toxins every year.[19] In the language of Gu Xiong’s piece, that means “you and I” are required to digest tons of toxins every year.

The Fraser River is named for the Vermont-born explorer, Simon Fraser. At the time of his “discovery,” Fraser was working for the North West Company, which was employing him to find new fur-producing regions in the North-West and to secure profitable trading posts and supply routes. In 1807, he established a post at the junction of the Fraser and the Nechako rivers, calling it Fort George (Now Prince George) after the reigning British monarch George III. The following year, he moved downriver by canoe, accompanied by two native guides and nineteen French-Canada voyageurs. Despite warning from the First Nations of the Cariboo and Chilcotin, Fraser was unprepared for the deep canyons and turbulent rapids he encountered. The river, he wrote in his journal, was “a dreadful chain of difficulties apparently insurmountable.”[20] When he reached one part of the river, possibly Iron Canyon, he wrote “it is terrible to behold the rapidity and turbulency of the immense body of water that passes in this narrow gut.” After a particularly arduous portage – “incredible it is to relate the trouble and misery the people had in performing that office” – he reported that “we found the horns of that animal the Tahawteens call the Sassian, and the Mayatué of the Crees, or Rocky Mountain ram.”

I quote these passages from Simon Fraser’s journal because they demonstrate he was a traveler watchful of the territory in which he found himself, alert to the possible dangers confronting him. The story related by him, not unlike Gu Xiong’s representation in The River, is a narrative of uncertainty. It is both fragmentary and disquieting. Moreover, it is a story that involves the constant intermeshing of cultures. The Tahawteens and the Cree mentioned by Fraser, a Euro-American accompanied by French Canadians, of whom some were undoubtedly Metis, are just two of the First Nations that provided him with assistance along the route of the journey. Fraser was scrupulous in recording native names of flora and fauna, a punctiliousness not shared by the majority of Euro-Americans following after him.

I also quote from Fraser in order to emphasize that activities of mapping, town planning and naming imprint the land with ideological and cultural meaning.[21] Fraser’s choice of names for rivers and settlements were not neutral acts of denomination. More often than not, they were politically charged acts of cultural erasure. Centuries before he traveled down the so-called Fraser, the various parts of the river had been labeled and named by the people who fished the river and lived along its banks. And long before he named Fort George, for a king living half way around the world in London, the site had been accorded a local designation. The imposition of rationalized order onto nature, which is nothing more than the Western idea of landscape, has no precedent in First Nations cultures. There is not even an equivalent word for landscape in the languages of the aboriginal peoples of North America.[22] The act of naming, it bears repeating, is not innocuous.

The First Nations were not the only marginalized peoples whose claims on place and whose histories were suppressed by acts of naming. Alan Haig-Brown reports, as a “well hidden fact of BC history,” that from the 1870s to the 1890s half the people living in the area of Quesnel were Chinese.[23] In 1859, at the peak of the Fraser River gold rush, ten thousand miners came to the region. After most of the gold had been removed and gold fever had subsided, a number of Chinese stayed on to mine the ore that remained on the gravel bars of the river. The remnants of their cabins may be seen today, though nothing else-no monument, no marker, no place name—records their working presence in the landscape. This lack of recognition is repeated lower downriver, in the region around Lytton, where nine thousand of the thirteen thousands workers building track for the Canadian Pacific Railway in the 1880s were Chinese.[24] That was fully seventy percent of the work force. And it is repeated again at the mouth of the Fraser, where thousands of Chinese worked in the salmon canneries, that is, until “the invention of a mechanical gang knife eliminated them from the industry.”[25] The canning companies and white factory hands called the machine the “Iron Chink.” Few written or photographic documents record the involvement in British Columbia of this migrant labour force from China. The size of it puts one in mind of Gu Xiong’s migrating salmon in The River. In both, the numbers are too great to count with precision.

The Chinese labourers who traveled across the Pacific Ocean to find jobs on the CPR line, ironically, found themselves working on behalf of the unfinished project of Western colonization. British Columbia was one in the final sites of the westward push of Euro-American expansionism. That was the historical context for the Chinese coming to Canada, a context explored by Gu Xiong in a subsequent multimedia installation employing train tracks and video, called The Mountains. The colonial context has caused the Chinese to be doubly displaced within the social fabric of the province, for they were part neither of the dominant white society, nor the non-white native society. Their position was “invisible.” The River helps to contest these effects of erasure and colonization. It helps to unmake cultural meanings that have become rigidified. In the ongoing business of “decolonization,” The River helps us to see what has been obscured.

John O’Brian


Department of Fine Arts

University of British Columbia

[1] This essay is for Katherine Hacker, a professor of Asian art and culture in the Department of Fine Arts at the University of British Columbia, and a catalyst in East-West relations. For their help, I would also like to thank David Gooderham, another catalyst in East-West relations, and the Diane Farris Gallery, Vancouver.

The first time The River was installed, it bore the title “You and I.”

[2] The circulation of Mao as a pop icon was not only a Warholian gambit. It was prevalent in China, too.

[3] The Chinese works of art used in this installation are largely from the permanent collection of the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria.

[4] Briony Fer, who has written extensively about sculpture and contemporary installations – for example, about the work of the London-based Lebanese artist Mona Hatoum – has argued that the scopic field is always more on the side of pleasure than the death drive. See her “The Work of Art, the Work of Psychoanalysis, “ in Gender and Art, ed. Gill Perry (New Haven and London: Yale University Press 1999), 240-251.

[5] For Gu Xiong himself, however, the river affirmed regeneration. A poem, written by him about the time of the first installation, begins: “You are born in a small stream/You grow up in the river/And you gather strength in the ocean…”

[6] James Clifford, Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century C (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1997), 3.

[7] The push and pull of migrancy has been intensifying in recent years. Not only has there been increased legal travel and immigration, but there has also been increased illegal movement of people. The International Organization for Migration estimates that “four million people are ‘trafficked’ every year in a global trade worth $10 billion annually.” Rick Ouston, “Exodus,” Vancouver Sun, 4 September, 1999.

[8] Gu Xiong, “A Conversation with Gu Xiong, “ Gu Xiong: The Mirror: A Return to China (Whitehorse: Yukon Arts Centre, 1999), N.P.

[9] Gu Xiong, quoted by Peggy Gale, “Jiangnan Narrows the Pacific Rim,” Canadian Art (Summer 1998, 56)

[10] Gu Xiong, A Conversation with Gu Xiong, N.P.

[11] Jin Li, “Rediscovering Cultural Identity after Dislocation,” Here Not There (Vancouver: Vancouver Art Gallery, 1995), 13, discusses Enclosure in relation to Here, There, Everywhere. See, also, Tani Hansen, “A Taste for Freedom – China’s Avant-Garde Art & Artists,”Eastern Art Report, IV, No. I, (1992-93), 41-43.

[12] I ought to say “back to neo-avant-garde artist.” In early 1989, a moment of revolutionary potential in China, Gu Xiong was unquestionably part of an avant-garde cultural formation. By 1995, however, when he was living in the West, the possibility of his participating in any traditional avant-garde formation had become moot.

[13] Arjun Appadurai, Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996), 4. Appadurai places a strong emphasis on the way in which electronic media have transformed the wider field of mass media, and in the process transformed “the construction of imagined selves and imagined worlds.” 3.

[14] For some readers, “Swimming into Exile” will echo “Swimming to Cambodia, “ Spalding Gray’s reflections on cultural breakdown and modern warfare. The echo is intentional.

[15] Xiaoping Li, “Lifeblood,” You and I exhibition pamphlet (Vancouver: Artspeak Gallery, 1998), 3. Xiaoping Li interprets the installation as being “profoundly philosophical, “ concluding that it is “an unyielding assertion of the spiritual aspect of human existence.” Her view accords with that expressed from time to time by the artist. My reading of the work, on the contrary, is grounded more in material history than on the possibility for a transcendent individualism.

[16] Jiangnan was organized by Hank Bull, an artist at the Western Front, Xia Wei, a graduate student in Asian Studies at the University of British Columbia, Zheng Sheng Tian, director of the Art Beatus Gallery, Annie Wong and the Annie Wong Art Foundation, and a dozen Vancouver galleries and museums.

[17] In 1987, the governments of British Columbia and Canada gave Alcan a green light by signing an agreement allowing for an increased diversion of water. In 1994, under pressure from the Rivers Defense Coalition, the BC government halted the project. See Bev Christensen, Too Good to be TrueAlcan’s Kemano Completion Project (Vancouver: Talonbooks, 1995).

[18] For more information on these and other works by Haacke, see Brian Wallis, ed. Hans Haacke: Unfinished Business (New York: New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1986).

[19] See Geoff Meggs, Salmon: The Decline of the British Columbia Fishery (Vancouver: Douglas & Mclntyre, 1991).

[20] Simon Fraser, Letters and Journals, 1806-1808, ed. W. Kaye Lamb (Toronto: Mcmillan, 1960).

[21]Displaced Histories, an excellent exhibition of contemporary art organized by Carol Payne for the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography in 1997 addressed this issue. See, also, Lucy Lippard, “In a Word, “The Lure of the Local: Senses of Place in a Multicentered Society (New York: New Press, 1997).

[22] Robert Houle, “The Spiritual Legacy of the Ancient Ones, “ in Diana Nemiroff, Robert Houle, Charlotte, Townsend-Gault, Land, Spirit, Power (Ottawa: National Gallery of Canada, 1992), 61.

[23] Alan Haig-Brown, The Fraser River (Madeira Park, BC: Harbour Publishing, 1996), 33, 48.

[24] Haig-Brown, The Fraser River, 94.

[25] Terry Glavin, “From the Old Rice Mill to the Annieville Drift,” This Ragged Place: Travels Across the Landscape (Vancouver: New Star Books, 1996), 61. Jean Barman, The West Beyond the West: A History of British Columbia, rev. ed. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996), illustrates the “Iron Chink” and discusses ethnic and class developments in the salmon canneries.