Gu Xiong spent 4 years in a Chinese labour camp — his nightly sketches brought him hope
The Vancouver artist's painful journey from China to Canada unfolds in every piece he creates
At the time there was no hope for us. Every night I was doing sketches. I was trying to find hope from inside myself. I found art is meaningful to my life. I could get through the very difficult time.
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"When I was in China I dreamed about freedom. After I landed here, I understood the real meaning of freedom. It is not something given — it is paid for through pain and suffering. Pain is a state of transition from one culture to another."
Artist and University of British Columbia professor Gu Xiong came to Canada from China in 1989 seeking freedom for his art. "I came to Canada because I want to make the artwork I like, because I couldn't do it it in China," he explains. Xiong lived through Mao's cultural revolution and was forced to spend four years in a labour camp.
In the video above, he shows us a photo of where he spent these years at the labour camp and the rice grass shoes he walked hundreds of kilometres in.
"At the time there was no hope for us," Xiong says, reflecting on the experience. Art helped give him meaning and get him through this time: "Every night I was doing sketches. I was trying to find my hope from inside myself. I found art is meaningful to my life. I could hold myself. I could get through the very difficult time."
I came to Canada because I wanted to make the artwork I couldn't in China.
How crushed Coke cans helped Gu Xiong understand his new life
In 1989 Xiong left China and its increasingly repressive climate. He left his artistic practice and his job as a university professor to come to Canada so he could freely pursue his art. "I came here for freedom, looking for a better life, but I ended up as a busboy in the university cafeteria. It was a big shock."
But in that job he saw something that helped him conceptualize his new experience in Canada. "Every day I was mopping the table, picking up garbage bags...I saw students crush Coca-Cola cans. From that moment I had my inspiration."
"I suddenly understood I was [crushed] between two cultures. My old life was gone, but my new life was reborn. That unique shape inspired me to build up my new life here — to build up my new identity in this new culture."
I came here for freedom, looking for a better life, but I ended up as a busboy in the university cafeteria. It was a big shock.
Xiong went on to produce a series of work featuring crushed cans, exploring his experience between cultures. After this, he says people started to recognize him and his work.
Cultural transition takes a lifetime
Xiong's latest exhibit is an installation called Pins which places mementos of his experience among a sea of sharp pins, retracing his painful journey as an immigrant. He shows us one of the objects in the installation — a voicemail machine — and tells us its story: "This was the first electronic device we bought in Vancouver. At the time, my wife and I had to go out to work so my daughter had to stay home by herself. We told her: only pick up your phone when you hear your parents' voice."
"Every break time, the first thing [I did] was to call home to make sure she was fine."
When I was in China, I dreamed about freedom. After I landed here, I understood the real meaning of freedom. It is not something given — it is paid for through pain and suffering. Pain is a state of transition from one culture to another.
For Xiong the countless pins represent "every minute, every second, every hour, every day, every year" of his experience coming from China and how it has always come with a pain. He sees this as a process that is and will be ongoing.
While his work powerful represents the ongoing pain of his life, Xiong has an infectious attitude of hope from it. "Cultural transition is not just five years, ten years...it's for a lifetime. There's always something you have to do — you have to always keep going." He shows us the back of his phone case, where there's a message to himself. "That's why on my cell phone I have the logo 'GO GU GO.' Keep going. You cannot stop."
Art Is My Country is a CBC Arts series that explores the singular worlds of artists who consider themselves bicultural. Seen through the eyes of 10 Canadian artists who have either immigrated to Canada or felt the need to reclaim an identity they thought they had lost, the series examines how each artist uses their craft to navigate, explore and adapt to their new reality and shifting identity.
Each portrait will highlight one artist's story of rupture, displacement and ultimate rebirth as a new artistic voice contributing to the narrative of Canadian culture and experience. Watch the full series now.