Cultural revolutionary

Artist Gu Xiong continues the struggle for his art in Canada

by Gavin Wilson
Staff writer

Picture Like millions of others, Gu Xiong was a victim of the Chinese Cultural Revolution.

At 17 he was taken from his family, blacklisted because they were educated and outspoken, and sent to the remote countryside to work dawn to dusk in the fields.

Hungry, weary, he picked up a pencil and by the light of a kerosene lantern started to draw the people and objects around him.

The drawing became an obsession -- he filled 25 sketchbooks -- and it gave him strength.

"My hope rose from within through my art," he says now.

Twenty years later, Gu was making a painful adjustment to a new country, Canada. And once again he threw himself into his art. But this time, it was not hidden away in sketchbooks -- it was filling some of the country's best galleries.

The story of how Gu, a printmaking technician in the Fine Arts Dept., and his family left their lives in China and forged new identities in Canada is the theme of his recent book, The Yellow Pear.

"Chairman Mao said, `If you want to know the taste of the pear, you have to bite into it.' We tasted the pear of the Cultural Revolution through our sufferings in China. When we moved to Canada, we tasted another pear -- culture shock," Gu says in the book's introduction.

His story can be bleak, the situations dire, but Gu is amazingly light-hearted for someone who has undergone a series of personal trials. In person, he frequently bursts into fits of laughter. And his smile is a personal trademark.

Gu's formal art training began when the Cultural Revolution ended in 1977. He completed bachelor's and master's degrees at the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute and immediately began teaching there.

A year-long exchange in 1986 as an artist-in-residence at the Banff Centre for the Arts introduced him to Canada and to his mentor, Alvin Balkind.

Gu, meanwhile, had joined the burgeoning Chinese avant-garde movement. Their seminal show at the Beijing National Gallery caused an uproar. It was closed twice by the police during its two-week run.

Gu's performance piece at the show had him bursting through con torted metal fencing. Like all of his art, it was intensely personal -- "I've found that most enclosures are inside of ourselves" -- but the political message was plain.

Tiananmen Square brought an end to all of this. The Banff Centre, which had been urging Gu to return, now asked him if he wanted their help immigrating to Canada. He accepted.

At first, with a full scholarship and a place to live, life was good in his adopted homeland. But then reality came crashing down.

He moved to Vancouver, where he was joined by his wife and daughter. They lived in a dreary basement suite while he struggled to earn a living. The only windows faced a concrete wall and the people upstairs were often drunk and noisy.

"It was then that I started my real Canadian life. It was difficult. I worked washing cars and making pizza, and finally I got a `good job' -- busboy at the UBC cafeteria," Gu says.

It was a low point. Once a university teacher, he now cleared tables and collected garbage. He was so embarrassed the first day on the job that he went through the motions with a red face and downcast eyes.

"In China, I dreamt about freedom and democracy, but when I arrived here, I found I had lost everything. No one could even understand what I was saying. Reality had totally overcome my romantic dreams about this culture."

Building a new identity for himself would not be easy, but typically, Gu found a way to work through his hardships.

He found inspiration in his surroundings. The empty pop cans students crushed became a symbol for his struggle and a motif for a major installation piece.

"My old life was crushed in China, my dreams were crushed here. But a mass-produced can looks the same as any other; only when it's crushed does it become unique," he says.

In 1991 Gu had his first show in Vancouver at the Diane Farris Gallery, one of the city's most prestigious private galleries, and others quickly followed.

A tangled mass of 400 bicycles recalled the street barricades of Tiananmen Square in a Victoria Art Gallery installation. The National Gallery of Canada bought Gu's ink-drawing mural of the piece.

Another installation -- this one at the Vancouver Art Gallery -- fea tured paintings, real objects, drawings and video about Gu's efforts to establish a new identity in Canada.

The piece was also shown at the Kwangju (South Korea) International Biennale along with the work of 100 artists from 51 countries. Only three other Canadian artists were invited to exhibit.

Gu's family is often a subject of his art, but in recent months his 14-year-old daughter Yu has taken a more active role. She joined him in a multimedia performance piece that featured video, music and narrative in which she told the family story in her own words.

Gu was hired as a printmaking technician at UBC in 1992, but he wants to return to teaching full-time. Currently he teaches part-time at the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design, Simon Fraser University and Kwantlen College. Next term, he will also teach at UBC.

With a family and several jobs, Gu struggles to find time for his art.

"I work harder now than I did in China during the Cultural Revolution," he notes wryly.

This summer Gu and family are returning to China for the first time since 1989. And as he has so often in his life, Gu plans to document the experience with photos, video and drawings.

The Yellow Pear is published by Arsenal Pulp Press.