Posted by: | 18th Oct, 2010


Lightning Tours
Most Wednesdays
12:05 – 12:15pm
Join us for a 10 minute tour of the exhibition.
Free admission. Richmond Art Gallery

Up the Yangtze
Film Screenings

Wednesday October 20, 1:30pm
Thursday October 25, 7pm

Up the Yangtze, is a dramatic, award winning documentary that follows a luxury cruise boat down the Yangtze River. It looks at a young family (among over one million people who were displaced) whose lives are changed forever due to the building of the Three Gorges Dam, the largest hydroelectric dam in history.
Free admission. Richmond Cultural Centre.

Swimming the River:
Panel Discussion with Gu Xiong

Thursday October 28, 7:30pm

This discussion looks at what happens when large numbers of people move around the world. What are the implications? What are some of the local and global transformations that are taking place?
Free admission. Richmond Art Gallery.

For more information, see

[The following essay by Jennifer Jihye Chun is included in the exhibition catalogue for “Waterscapes,” which will be available from the Richmond Art Gallery after October 28.]

Mainstream narratives commonly portray the experience of migration and settlement as a profound break from the past, compelling one to either adopt unfamiliar values and customs or fiercely protect an ethnic culture under siege. The everyday lives and sensibilities of immigrants, however, often defy such dualisms. While there are certainly ruptures and discontinuities, the migration experience is characterized as much by a joining together, as by a tearing apart, of lives, histories and affective attachments.

This joining together is a constitutive feature of place-making; it reflects a point of intersection among a vast, intricate and complex array of social processes and interactions. For the migrant, there is no “pure” place from which one leaves or to which one goes: “displacement occurs between contexts which are themselves already complex constructions.” The challenge, then, is to conceive of migration not simply in terms of a linear trajectory but as a dynamic and historically-contested set of meanings and practices that gain traction and resonance through space and time. In other words, it is through one’s experiences, aspirations and interactions with other people and the environment – not just the fixed geographies of national and geopolitical borders – that we learn what migration means and the forms it takes.

Gu Xiong’s connection to and experience of the water as a “metaphor of moving life” provide an alternative framework from which to construct a sense of place and belonging. Rather than illustrate the disjuncture between his life in Vancouver and his life in Chongqing – a distance separated by over 15,000 kilometers of oceans and rivers, Gu Xiong chooses to emphasize the points of fluidity and connectivity. It is in this “new space,” where boundaries are transgressed and new geographies are invented, where the possibilities of forging a new politics of place and migration are palpable and present.

To bring the multiplicity of these changing forces in dialogue with the everyday experiences of migration, Gu Xiong’s art highlights the uneven relations of power, inequality and ecological destruction that profoundly shape our lives. Flanked on both sides of the seemingly endless procession of small white boats in Becoming Rivers, the first Waterscapes exhibit (UBC Museum of Anthropology, 2009-10), are photographic scenes of industry and manufacturing. While there are no images of people’s bodies or faces, they are hauntingly present in the images of the heavy, hazy fog that hang over the Yangtze River and the large piles of forested tree logs and cut timber that float on top of the Fraser River. Who lives and breathes in the polluted airs of Chongqing, a city that has grown from 8 million people in the 1980s to almost 32 million today? Who labours in the sawmills and pulp mill factories of British Columbia’s vast forestry sector? Which lands have been appropriated and from whom?

To begin to make sense of this haunting and bring migrants’ lives directly into view, the second Waterscapes exhibit shifts from the epic scene of 2000 identical boats floating through the large gallery spaces at UBC’s Museum of Anthropology to the more intimate setting of the Richmond Art Gallery. The arms of the Fraser River surround the city of Richmond, which has been transformed from a predominantly white European community to one of the most diverse and vibrant Asian communities in North America. In addition to providing an opportunity for Richmond residents to directly participate in the installation by folding and hanging their own white paper boats, this exhibit will feature video interviews with various people whose lives have been affected by the “changing forces” of the Fraser and Yangtze Rivers. Following are three vignettes from the video interviews:

Vignette 1: “Living in a basement”

Gu Xiong and his wife, Ge Ni (Jenny), his wife, experienced severe underemployment after migration. Ge Ni gave up a “very good job in China as an accountant” to work as a food and beverage server. She is still employed as a cashier and server at a food vendor at the Vancouver international airport – a job that gives her the opportunity to get out of the house and meet new people as well as brings her face-to-face with intolerant customers that berate her English accent. The hardships associated with low-paid work are not devoid of joy, but they recast the meaning of migration from a universal experience of opportunity and upward mobility to a vexed moment in one’s lifecycle when external conditions create pressures to uproot oneself and one’s family. Ge Ni’s response to Gu’s question about the natural beauty of Vancouver captures this experience: “It’s just like a basement. It doesn’t matter how beautiful [Vancouver] is, it doesn’t belong to us.”

Vignette 2: The “Iron Woman”

Dr. Ying Ying Chen is an archeologist from China who has spent every summer since 1991 in Barkerville, BC.   She calls herself an “iron woman” for she is the only female archeologist who has dared to spend each hot summer in British Columbia’s interior, not only as a committed researcher but also as a public historian.  Ying Ying runs daily tours about the Chinatown section of Barkerville. She warns tourists: “Our tour will be different from the European tour. On that tour, all the guides are professional actors. On this tour, I will talk about Chinese history.” Her emphasis on genuine historical depiction, as opposed to historical fiction, is part of her political intervention into the telling of BC’s history – a history that has not only systematically erased the presence of Chinese Canadians but has largely misrepresented them.

Vignette 3: The Bang Bang painter

Tian is a rural migrant who has struggled to survive for 21 years in the city of Chongqing as a porter (bang bang) and nude model. Tian’s daily wages are meager, allowing him to rent an apartment that functions mainly as a “shelter” from the harsh elements of wind and rain. He talks about the extreme loneliness he feels living apart from his wife and children with only a mouse and the sound of water to keep him company. Although he never had any formal art training, after twenty years posing as a nude model for aspiring young artists, he began to paint. His tiny one room apartment is crowded with large canvasses and brushes as well as a few simple pots and pans and an extra change of clothing. The pride he feels about his work is evident in the sense of confidence and satisfaction he has gained from receiving critical recognition for his paintings, including being chosen as a candidate of the “10 Most Inspirational People of Chongqing.” Tian asks, “Who would have ever thought that a bang bang would become associated with art in any sort of way?”

As vignettes these interviews are necessarily limited. Yet, as encounters mediated by the motivations and interests of the artists and scholars involved in Waterscapes, they are a central part of crafting an alternative politics of place, informed as much by our social interactions as by our efforts to transform the symbolic and material worlds. It is through one’s work and labour that we begin to see the inequities and inequalities that are so pervasive to the migration experience come into focus as well as the sense of self-worth and dignity that people cultivate to prevail over them.

Posted by: | 18th Oct, 2010

What is a Waterscape?

[The following essay by Chris Lee is included in the exhibition catalogue for “Waterscapes,” which will be available from the Richmond Art Gallery after October 28.]

In recent years, multimedia artist Gu Xiong has been exploring how rivers shape the economic, cultural, and imaginary lives of migrants in China and Canada. This work, writes April Liu, offers “a deep meditation on constant mobility in the physical and virtual realms of contemporary life.”1 Waterscapes is the latest version of this ongoing project. It features a gigantic flotilla of paper boats hung from the roof of the gallery as well as images that depict the two rivers that have shaped Gu’s life: the Yangtze River, the lifeline of his hometown of Chongqing, and the Fraser River that flows past Vancouver where he is now based. Rivers epitomize change, for as Heraclitus famously observed, “You cannot step twice in one river.”2 They create endless rhythms of movement and environmental change through erosion and flooding, reshaping landscapes as well as the lives of those who live on its shores. Rivers have always been necessary for human survival and as such, have provided rich metaphors and images that help us understand our own movements through time and space. The term waterscape encompasses all these processes, natural and man-made, concrete and imaginary, past, present, and future.

With a population of over 31 million, Chongqing is the largest city in the world (but rarely noticed in North America). Chongqing has experienced exponential growth in recent years, not the least because of the Three Gorges Dam that has been built 360 miles downriver to the east. Building the dam has flooded the homes of 1.5 million people, who have had to be relocated, and irreparably damaged the ecosystem of the Yangtze River basin, already one of the most polluted riverways in the world. The environmental and economic side effects of the dam have affected the lives of many more. Gu offers a snapshot of these changes by including two Chongqing residents in this exhibition. Waterscapes features an imageof a porter who has carried backbreaking loads along the cliffs of the city for over 20 years. Gu also includes a video interview, conducted this past summer, with a bookstore owner specializing in contemporary art, whose business serves a clientele deeply invested in the transformation of the city into a modern metropolis. Both men derive their livelihoods, albeit indirectly, from Chongqing’s relationship to the Yangtze River, and their stories reveal how they make sense of their waterscape. Together, they exemplify the economic, cultural, and social disparities of China today.

Gu prompts us to consider how a waterscape is not only shaped by nature, but also by unequal power relations. On the Canadian side, the shores of the Fraser River are sedimented with histories of settler colonialism and the destruction it wreaked on the First Nations living in its basin. While Waterscapes does not reference this history directly, it traces another set of migrations made possible by settler colonialism, those of Chinese migrants who arrived starting in the mid-nineteenth century. In summer 2009, I accompanied Gu on a road trip to trace the Fraser River from the Lower Mainland to its headwaters near Jasper. Along the way, we stopped in the Gold Rush town Barkerville, once the largest city west of Chicago and north of San Francisco, and now a popular tourist attraction during the summer. There, we met Dr. Yingying Chen, an archaeologist who immigrated to Canada from China in the early 1990s, and has since dedicated her life to studying the history of the Chinese community in Barkerville (an interview with Dr. Chen is included in this show).

Dr. Chen told us the moving story of a Chinese man who came to Barkerville and stayed there for the rest of his life. In fact, he never left Barkerville again except for one trip, on foot, to the banks of the Fraser River (an hour and half drive these days by car). Having reached the river, he turned around and went back. Why didn’t he go further? Was he trying to go “home” (or just trying to reach the larger Chinese communities in Vancouver or Victoria?)? Or did he decide that after so many years in Barkerville, he no longer had a reason to leave? We may never find the answers to these questions because much of his story belongs to a past that has now been forgotten. Having grown up in BC, I vividly remember learning about the Barkerville gold rush in elementary school. But only after visiting the town with Gu did that I learn (to my surprise) that during its heyday, almost half of the population was of Chinese descent. This fact was never mentioned in school. Flipping through a stack of books about the Fraser recently, I found very few references to the history of Chinese migration. Only mentioned in passing as labourers, their presence is rendered ephemeral and inconsequential. (Another aspect of this show is Gu’s exploration of Chinese pulp mill and sawmill workers along the Fraser River, another largely ignored history in this waterscape.)

Today, Chinese account for about 45% of Richmond’s population and the growth of this community has transformed the city in ways that seem concrete and permanent. Yet despite differences in context, the history of Barkerville suggests that a thriving community can indeed be forgotten and erased from historical memory.3 Could we, even as a thought experiment, imagine writing a history of Richmond a hundred years from now in which the Chinese community is reduced to a passing sentence about shopkeepers on No. 3 Road?

Rivers teach us that nothing is static and even the most permanent can be washed away. But maybe memory can be more powerful than forgetting. Gu’s work confronts the injustices that have accompanied migration and recover the neglected histories sedimented in our own waterscape. The sight of thousands of folded paper boats hovering in the space of the gallery reminds me of the haunting photographs of confiscated fishing boats moored in Steveston after their Japanese-Canadian owners were incarcerated during WWII. They also recall the instant demonization of the Tamil migrants who arrived on our shores this past summer. All waterscapes are saturated with painful pasts. But Gu reminds us that boats are also a sign of hope: they carry our dreams down the river, towards a world that has yet to come.

1April Liu, “Karaoke Hyperspace: Gu Xiong’s Red River as a Study of Place-making.” Yishu: Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art 7:6 (2008), 85

2Quoted in Matthew D. Evenden, Fish versus Power: An Environmental History of the Fraser River. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004, 4.

3To be sure, many efforts have been undertaken in recent years to recover, preserve, and display the history of Chinese in Barkerville.

Posted by: | 18th Oct, 2010

Waterscapes at Richmond Art Gallery

The latest installment of our project is currently on display at the Richmond Art Gallery. The centrepiece of the show is large-scale hanging mobile of boats, but unlike the previous show at the UBC Museum of Anthropology, the boats at RAG are made of paper. They were made at various workshops held in Richmond this summer as well as through the last minute efforts of Gu’s friends. As Gu recalls, he folded many boats as a child and floated down the river bearing his dreams for exploring the world. In a similar way, each boat at the RAG represents a distinct person, with distinct stories and dreams. “Waterscapes” is much more of a community effort and also a reflection of Richmond as a crossroads of migrants and cultures.

The images on display are, again, taken from both Rivers in our project. But the RAG also includes four video interviews, including one with Gu and his wife Jenny, of people whose lives have intersected in some way with these two rivers. Finally, the RAG has also included a space for visitors to fold their own boats.

The boats start in the lobby and take us....

...into the gallery (the photos on the wall are all taken along the Fraser)

...into the gallery (the photos on the wall are all taken along the Fraser)

...around the bend (the photos on the wall are taken along the Yangtze and the painting was displayed in Becoming Rivers at MOA)

....around the bend....

...into the swirl of the gallery atrium....

...and out into city.

....and out into the city.

Four interviews give a human face to the place of rivers in our lives.

....and guests are invited to join in.

Posted by: | 18th Oct, 2010

How many boats can you fold?

In August, Gu and I (Chris) put on workshop for kids from the Richmond Chinese United Church Daycamp as well as community members in preparation for the Waterscapes Exhibit this fall at the Richmond Art Gallery. Kids were invited to fold boats that would later be used in the exhibit. Gu and I also interviewed some parents and daycamp leaders. One participant told me that she made many paper boats as a child in Hong Kong during the 1960s. We were poor, she recalls, and there weren’t many things to do, so whenever it rained, we’d take newspapers, fold boats, and play in the puddles. Some fifty years later, she’s taking part in our workshop and contributing her stories to a new Waterscape.

The Waterscapes team is grateful to all the participants of playing a vital role in this project. Special thanks to Joanne Poon and Saintfield Wong for facilitating our workshop!

Setting up

Learning how to make the model (the first one is always the hardest!)

Here they come!

Thanks to all the wonderful daycamp leaders for their help and patience!

Parents and volunteers try their hand at boat making

Let's see how many we've made....

"I made one THIS big...."

Posted by: | 18th Oct, 2010

A Last Look at Becoming Rivers

Gu, Jenny, and April at the opening of Becoming Rivers

Thanks to everyone who visited Becoming Rivers!

After Herculean efforts by Gu and his team, “Becoming Rivers” as well as the entire Border Zones exhibit is finally up and running. The final step was to install the boats outside and thicken up the indoor portion of the installation. The final product is visually stunning — two streams of boats seem to emerge from the ocean and pass through the walls of the MOA. These two rivers then join into one in front of a wall-sized painting of the Yangtze and Fraser Rivers as seen from satellite images. At the centre of the painting is the Pacific Ocean, but the continents have been pressed together, resulting in a turbulent strip of water that reminds me of a waterfall (see below).

The image of blue waterways – Gu describes the rivers and tributaries as being like veins in a body – is especially striking given the absence of water in the rest of the installation. Is a boat separated from its river like a fish out of the water? One of the questions that our team has been grappling with is the elusive meaning of water, the ways in which it functions simultaneously as an abstract concept (signified perhaps most prominently by the iconic formula H2O) as well as the most material everyday “object.”

At first glance, the boats imply the existence of an underlying waterway, but as one “immerses” oneself in the stream, they turn eerily into a metonymic reminder of the missing water. I found the experience of walking among boats outside the museum – as well as under the hundreds of suspended boats swaying in the gentle air flow of the museum – both jarring and peaceful. The flow of a river is one of the oldest metaphors for the flow of time, but there is something vaguely out-of-time about this installation.

A completely different idea came to me, though, as Gu, Jennifer, and I were walking through the outdoor installation at night. Boats and rivers carry a wide range of cultural meanings, but every few years in Canada, the image of racialized subjects from Asia arriving in boats evokes a kind of panic about unstoppable waves of migrants and renewed calls for tighter regulation of immigration. Indeed, the notion of the Yangtze joining into the Fraser and vice versa – while on one level a utopian vision of cultural interchange – is, on another level, implicated in fears about the Yellow Peril overrunning the settler colonies of British Columbia.

If we approach “Becoming Rivers” in this manner, then the installation turns into a reenactment of those fears (the boats aren’t just arriving our our shores, but they’re also crashing through the walls of our most cherished [educational] institutions!). Is it perhaps any surprise, that the boats look the same and interchangeable? But what is haunting is precisely their emptiness — they carry nothing, yet they signify much. Is “Becoming Rivers” a euphoric vision of cultural translation on a global scale or a critical encounter with a deeply entrenched racial imaginary?

I’ll leave it for other members of the team to comment — or any reader of this blog for that matter: please write in!For now, I’ll post a few more preview shots of “Becoming Rivers.”

When will the work end?!?

Last minute details

An outdoor boat

An outdoor boat

Gathering Stream

Some want to turn back

Some want to turn back

Through the looking glass

Through the looking glass

Painting the final waterscape

Painting the final waterscape

Posted by: | 16th Jan, 2010

Border Zones: Art Across Cultures

Border Zones: New Art Across Cultures

Exhibition marking the launch of the ‘new’ Museum of Anthropology
January 23, 2010 – September 12, 2010

Curated by Karen Duffek, MOA Curator of Contemporary Visual Arts. Presented with Vancouver 2010 Cultural Olympiad

Border Zones: New Art Across Cultures is an exhibition of international contemporary art that will inaugurate MOA’s Audain Gallery on January 23, 2010. It brings together the work of twelve artists engaged in a dialogue about cultural boundaries –within and between communities, art practices, audiences, or institutions – and the possibility of translation across them.

Through a surprising diversity of media and approaches, the artists selected for this show use the idea of a border space to raise questions about migration and identity, knowledge protection and access, and the permeability and construction of boundaries cross-culturally. Borders are considered not only as lines or markers that divide cultures, but also as uncertain spaces that are sites of encounter and transformation.

Participating artists include Hayati Mokhtar, Dain-Iskandar Said, John Wynne, Edward Poitras, Thamotharampillai Shanaathanan, Tania Mouraud, Marianne Nicolson, Gu Xiong, Prabakar Visvanath, Rosanna Raymond, Ron Yunkaporta, and Laura Wee Láy Láq.

Border Zones: New Art Across Cultures, which will be on exhibit through September 12, 2010, is part of MOA’s commitment to exploring, developing, and inviting new ways of representing understandings about culture in the 21st century. Join us for a special Exhibition Reception at 7:00 pm on January 26, at which two of the exhibiting artists, Tania Mouraud and Rosanna Raymond, will present performance pieces. Other artists will also be in attendance.

To give you inside access to the ideas behind the exhibit, an interactive online magazine,, is being created. You can visit the site now, while it’s under construction, but when it officially launches on January 26, 2010, you’ll discover personal and thought-provoking articles on each of the artists by distinguished contributors such as award-winning journalist Jan Wong, educator and activist Gerald Taiaiake Alfred, and filmmaker and artist Loretta Todd, among others.

You’ll be able to email your comments and questions to the site, some of which will be addressed by the contributors. You’ll also find video interviews with the artists, regular updates on artist files, artwork exclusive to the webzine, provocative reviews of the exhibition, and a blog devoted to the idea of borders.

Over the course of the exhibition, will become an archive about the idea of borders, particularly how new spaces of thought and meaning are created and contested at the boundaries of knowledge, language, art, culture, and politics.

Border Zones: New Art Across Cultures is presented with Vancouver 2010 Cultural Olympiad. Additional sponsors: The Vancouver Foundation, The Canada Council, Consulat Général de France à Vancouver, Audrey Hawthorn Fund for Publications in Museum Anthropology, and Alican Mould & Plastics.

This blog has been inactive since our trip last summer, but over the fall, our team has been working on parts of the Waterscapes project, including a panel presentation at the Canadian Asian Studies Association annual conference held in Vancouver this past October.

Gu Xiong is currently finishing a mixed media installation as part of a group show marking the opening of a refurbished Museum of Anthropology at UBC. The show is entitled “Border Zones: Art Across Cultures”, which opens on January 26, 2010 (opening performances from 7-9PM, free admission). I (Chris) have been dropping into the MOA occasionally in order to observe how an installation is put together in a practical sense.

Gu’s piece is called “Becoming Rivers”, and builds on a piece he did for the Beijing Center for the Arts last year (see the piece “Red River” in “Becoming Rivers” consists of some 2000 plastic boats hung from the ceiling of the museum, with more installed outdoors (stuck in the ground using metal rods). The boats are shaped into two rivers, which come together in front of a giant painting of the Yangtze and Fraser Rivers based on satellite photos. Panoramic photographs of both rivers are hung on walls around the two riversof boats. When you walk underneath the shimmering flotilla, the boats seem to be floating in mid-air. Although the installation is not finished yet, the effect is already quite striking.

This post, though, is about the process of putting this installation together. The boats took longer to make (at a local factory – ironically, these are NOT “Made in China”) than expected, but Gu and his team of students and assistants have, for past few weeks, been hanging hundreds of pieces of fishing line, weighed down with metals nuts. This week, the boats finally arrived. Each has to be assembled by hand, and then attached to the fishing lines and adjusted for height. One unique feature of the installation is the effect of having boats pass through glass, as if impervious to the imposing physical barrier of the museum building itself. As you can see from the photos below, this is a labor-intensive project. Indeed, I have been fascinated by the labor required to translate concepts into reality, a point that I will come back to in future blog posts.

For now, here’s a sneak preview of “Becoming Rivers” and a reminder to mark your calendars for January 26. For more information about this show, visit

Hanging up fishing lines

Fishing lines from the roof - where are the boats?

Getting ready to hang more fishing line (Keith, Gu's student assistant, is trying to figure out the hydraulic lif)

Getting ready to hang more fishing line (Keith, Gu's student assistant, is trying to figure out the hydraulic lift)

Assembling the boats (1900 to go....)

Assembling the boats (1900 to go....)

Tying the knot

Tying the knot

Hanging the boats (this is Gu's's become a family project!)
Hanging the boats (this is Gu’s niece…it’s become a family project!)

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