Preface: What is the Meaning of Tomato?

“Tomato” (in Chinese Xi hong shi西红柿) is an ordinary object. To make ordinary objects unordinary, one of the methods is adopting the method of pop art. Through pop art, mundane daily objects are endowed with meanings, meanings in art history. “The medium is the message,” and the medium is the extension and broadening of human kind. Pop art – as a turning point in contemporary art – starts with the perception of new media and the acceptance of new standards for knowledge.

“Xi hong shi西红市” is a self-mocking term native Chongqing people used to have for their city. It is a homophone to “tomato” that means “a city in western China that still sings red songs.” This coined new word is so witty, and it also adds a layer of political meaning to the sound of “tomato.” Pop art itself is an art format that carries political meanings. Therefore, to adopt tomato as an object of art would naturally give the art work a touch of reality regarding its location and makes its presence relevant.

I know that Mr. Gu Xiong created this piece of art work out of sensitivity towards migration issues. As a mature artist, his art works have a coherent logic behind them, and he adopted different media at different phases, exhibiting unique art creativity. This is an extraordinarily important point. It is the basis of how contemporary artists should establish themselves with cultural concepts, and we should not ignore this.

Apart from “Xi hong shi,” tomato is commonly referred to as “fan qie番茄.” Any thing that has “fan番” in its name usually are not native to China, and must have come to China through migration. Wild tomato is native to South America. At the beginning, because of its bright color, no one dared to eat it. It is said that a French artist who likes drawing tomatoes couldn’t resist the temptation and became the first person to eat it at the risk of his own life. Since then, the word has spread and tomatoes become a fine choice of food in the world. We can see that the tale of tomato is also connected to artists who initiate new fashions.

Mr. Gu Xiong is such an artist himself. He graduated from Sichuan Fine Arts Institute as a famous native painter. He later immigrated to Canada and lived there for nearly 30 years. Many of his art works are related to his family’s life as immigrants, and he pays special attention to individual’s cultural identity in the globalized world today. Gu Xiong once told me: “Immigrants’ life is hard. To immigrate with wife and child is harder. On top of the two, if one persists in doing art, it is the hardest.” Nevertheless, Gu Xiong dares to do what others dare not to and he is tenacious and unyielding. More could be learned about Gu Xiong and his art through two sentences – the first one is “One must possess the courage to cut off all means of retreat,” and the other is “the reconstruction of cultural identity is accomplished through living up to the challenges presented by tedious, mundane daily life, and constantly change oneself.”

Gu Xiong’s artworks speaks from a personal perspective, meanwhile they are rich in survival struggles and life experience. The contrasting internationality and Chineseness, the globalization and localization merge in his works harmoniously, and his works are full of spiritual adventure and a yearn for freedom. I couldn’t help but applaud his art. Looking back at the time when we were sent-down youths in the rural Daba Mountains, we both felt helpless because of the spiritual emptiness and the dim future. It was at that time when Gu Xiong started painting and me started writing poems. Art calls for the pursuit of freedom in one’s heart, something that cannot be restrained. Gu Xiong’s installation titled “Invisible In the Light” speaks many unknown stories, those of international temporary migrant workers’ hard laboring. When Gu Xiong, who’s present at the scene, extracts and strengthens the action of “crushing,” this action becomes symbolic of humans, of body politics, and it represents an individual’s spiritual journey from silence to exhibition, from repression to liberation. It has a beauty that is both dismal and solemn, and becomes a fact that audience could no longer overlook. Here, it is not the intact or mutilated beauty of the tomatoes that is important, rather it is the realities exposed by the art work that is important. When it comes to contemporary art creation, only through exposing and witnessing, could we eliminate the false and retain the true, could we present the reality as a reality visible to the eye and tangible to our body.

When I look at Gu Xiong’s multimedia installation in his hometown Chongqing, the thing I want to do the most is to crush that one tomato, that batch of tomatoes, that pile of tomatoes called “Xi hong shi” or “fan qie,” so each of our invidual’s behaviors would become unstrained by conventions, free and beautiful.

– Wang Lin, 4 June, 2017
Written at the old campus of Sichuan Fine Arts Institute.