An artist’s prickly journey

Hand, by Gu Xiong, photo inkjet 24” x 33”, 2016.| Photo by Gu Xiong.

Language is not only important for survival but is crucial to communication. Gu Xiong, a tenured professor at UBC (Department of Art History, Visual Art and Theory), showcases in R Space his solo exhibition of new works, Pins (Feb.11–March 31).

“If you couldn’t express your ideas, you might lose your position in mainstream culture. Immigrants should have their own voices, so [they] should learn how to speak English,” says Xiong.

The language barrier wasn’t the only problem. None of his achievements in China mattered once in Canada.

“A little pin, a little pain”

Light, by Gu Xiong, photo inkjet print 36” x 49”, 2016.| Photo by Gu Xiong

Inside the R Space, several works have been hung on the wall. One of them shows a pin, placed in the middle of a tongue. The mouth is wide-open.

The pin, says Xiong, represents the pain new immigrants suffer daily because of insufficient language skills and a lack of knowledge of the new culture.

“The pin is to symbolize that we (as immigrants) live between two cultures. When you know something very well, but you couldn’t fully express your ideas well in English, which would make you feel painful and uncomfortable,” says Xiong.

Like many immigrants, the multimedia artist and former instructor at the department of visual arts at Sichuan Institute of Fine Arts had lost his status.

Xiong’s turning point came in 1990 when Xiong worked as a busboy at a cafeteria on the UBC campus.

“Working as a busboy at the cafeteria actually helped me to understand more about the society I reside in,” says Xiong, “I started struggling to rise from the bottom of the society. I decided to rebuild my cultural identity. My work is closely associated with garbage, but in my eyes, they are not garbage, instead, they are the fuel of my life.”

After students finished drinking soda and left empty cans, he crushed them under his feet.

“My past has been crushed just like the cans, but my new identity was formed. It’s impossible to find two crushed cans [that] look exactly the same, I needed to be myself and rebuild my cultural identity,” says Xiong. “Common objects made alike come to life when they are killed.”

One day while crushing the cans as usual, the sound suddenly awoke in him the feeling that a new identity was in the making.

“When I crushed the cans, the process is as similar as giving life and meaning to an object, but the process might be really painful.”

The inspiration that came from crushing cans turned into an exhibition, Gu’s World, that was exhibited at Diane Farris Gallery in 1991.

Another challenge was to make a living in an unfamiliar country working up to four different part-time jobs at times. Among them, one required to get ready before dawn.

“I woke up at 5 a.m. and went to massage training schools to wash bed sheets. Then around 11 a.m., I rushed to car wash places to wash cars, later from 6 p.m. until 12 p.m., I went to pizza restaurants on Robson Street to make pizzas. Those working experiences took me closer to the community I live in,” says Xiong.

Life in China

Gu Xiong, artist.| Photo by Wenjie Shen.

Born in Chongqing, China, at the age of five Xiong began showing interests in drawing. During the Chinese Cultural Revolution, Xiong was sent to live and work in the countryside where he made up his mind to pursue arts as a career.

“During that time, I couldn’t see any hope in my life,” says Xiong, “I have no idea if I even have got a future or not, maybe I have to work as a farmer for the rest of my life.”

He started using sketchbooks as a way to record his daily life, recalling the most meaningful thing he did before sketching the scenes.

“Drawing is a tool to figure out the connection between the land I live in and me. Back [then], I decided to keep drawing and doing art for my lifetime,” says Xiong.

Xiong, who exhibits internationally, feels lucky to be able to turn the past into art to share it with everyone. Looking forward the artist stays true to his path.

“My future is my present, I want to keep doing the art I love.” he says.

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A little pin
A little pain
It always follows me
Wherever I go

When I cannot
pronounce a word
My tongue feels pain
When I cannot understand
what people say to me
My ears feel pain
When I do not understand
the world around me
My heart feels pain.
by Gu Xiong