Gu Xiong: A Journey Exposed connects the local to the global

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At the Gordon Smith Gallery of Canadian Art until August 23

When you enter the gallery and walk into Gu Xiong’s exhibition, A Journey Exposed, you see a pale pink “river”, winding away from you across the floor. A closer view reveals that this river is composed of thousands of miniature ceramic pigs, lying on their sides. It ends at the far wall with an orderly stack—a kind of reservoir—of half-filled, blue plastic water containers. Apprehension hangs in the still air.

The reference is to a shocking incident in China, the country of Gu’s birth: in March 2013, some 16,000 dead pigs, infected with porcine circovirus, were dumped into the Huangpu River, one of the sources of drinking water for the city of Shanghai. Eventually, the origins of this massive contamination were traced to an industrial farm in Jiaxing; in the meantime, government officials insisted that the water, filled with rotting pig carcasses, was safe to drink.

While alluding directly to the Huangpu events, Gu’s work also tells us that the problem is global. Industrial farming, mass food production, and government-corporate complicity imperil our water systems and our well-being, worldwide. (They’re not so great for the sentient creatures we eat, either.)

A Pig’s River is not the most beautiful installation Gu has ever produced. (I still hold in my head the gorgeous image of one of his earliest Vancouver exhibitions, another winding river, this one composed of hundreds of ceramic salmon swimming through the air at Artspeak.)

It may, however, be the most community-involved. Through a series of Artists for Kids classes and workshops, Gu collaborated with schoolchildren and adults to produce the installation’s nearly 10,000 little clay pigs. This manner of working ensures social engagement with the ideas behind the installation, from its inception to its exhibition.

It also reinforces an aspect of Gu’s practice that curator Astrid Heyerdahl, in her catalogue essay, calls “global interconnectivity”.

This artist, who arrived in Canada in the late 1980s and who is a visual-arts professor at the University of British Columbia, is well-versed in social, political, and cultural theory, she writes. At the same time, his art is highly accessible and informed by his transcultural life. Heyerdahl attributes to Gu the role of a “dialogical artist [who makes] work that is participatory, deliberate, democratic and pedagogical”.

Concerns about overconsumption and excessive waste inform the earliest works in Gu’s show, a series of silkscreen prints he made in 1993, when he was working as a busboy in a cafeteria at the University of British Columbia. At this time, he was in a difficult period of transition, having surrendered his position as a successful artist and fine-arts instructor in Sichuan for a new life in Canada. This move promised freedom of expression and the exercise of democratic rights but delivered, at first, social isolation, poverty, and the loss of professional stature.

Still, Gu was able to translate his experience into art that is both visually engaging and socially astute. The prints, distinguished by his characteristic thick black outlines and flattened perspective, depict the garbage he picked up every day in the cafeteria. Half-eaten food, crumpled napkins, disposable plates, cups, and cutlery, drink containers, and crushed pop cans speak volumes not only about North American consumer culture but also about culture shock.

Waste as a function of corporate food and drink production also informs Gu’s lively yet frightening paintings and prints of crushed Coca-Cola cans. And his recent colour photographs of stacks of processed food—from potato chips to pasta sauce—sitting in their original containers on pallets in local warehouse stores, furthers his exploration of the ways multinational corporations dominate control of our food supply while seducing us with branding and packaging.

Again, these works express beliefs that Gu states in the show’s catalogue: our obligation as individuals to maintain our critical thinking and to make choices that benefit rather than imperil our natural environment.

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