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Installation view of GU XIONG’s I sit on stone, 2020, sand and fabric, dimensions variable, at “The Remains of a Journey,” Centre A, Vancouver, 2020–21. Courtesy the artist and Centre A.

The Remains of a Journey

Gu Xiong

Also available in:  Chinese

At Centre A, Vancouver-based artist Gu Xiong’s exhibition, “The Remains of a Journey,” told a history of Chinese migrants, predominantly from Guangdong, who traveled to the west coast of Canada over a century ago to prosper from “Golden Mountain.” Working as miners, railroad builders, and bricklayers, these indentured laborers helped to fulfill the aspirations of Canada’s nationhood, playing a critical role in the extraction of resources and the unification of the country by building the Canadian Pacific Railway. Gu’s show posed questions about how one comes to understand the history of Chinese migration to Canada, but for an exhibition centered on the theme of land, it seemed absent of the complicating fact that the land was never ceded by Indigenous peoples in the first place.

The exhibition’s three sites of investigation, Cumberland, Harling Point, and D’Arcy Island (traditional territories of the Coast Salish peoples), were divided into three immersive multimedia installations. Imagery throughout the exhibition places emphasis on the oppression faced by Chinese migrants and the fading of this memory from Canadian history. Between projected video works on opposite walls, one was transposed to Chinatown and the Chinese cemetery in present-day Cumberland. Cobwebs lie undisturbed on weathered fire hydrants while overgrown shrubbery frames interpretive signage educating the reader that Chinatown was lost to a fire. A rusted aluminum can, once a vase, suggests that the tombs in the cemetery have been left unswept.

D’Arcy Island, colloquially known as “The Island of Death,” was once the site of a Chinese leper colony. In the installation Isolation and Memory – D’Arcy Island (2020), clues to this history are found in the vestiges of concrete buildings. Scenes of scattered driftwood, white as bones, remind the viewer that apart from these structures, all that remains from this history are the bodies of the men buried on this island. Viewed against the accompanying archival photographs of Chinese leprosy patients, the video’s shots of fallen trees with bark, gnarled and peeling, draw an uncanny resemblance to the lesions and disfigurements of these bodies under the disease’s regime.

The pain of leaving China in 1989 to immigrate to Canada has been a constant theme in Gu’s career of more than 35 years. The artist often grapples with the sense of being “between cultures” and the push and pull of his Chinese identity as it is recontextualized in Canada. The centerpiece of the exhibition was a poem inscribed in sand on the gallery floor. As if written by one of the marooned patients, I sit on stone (2020) speaks to the limbo one endures while in a constant state of longing for home, even in the afterlife.

The Harling Point section featured photos depicting the wrapping of skeletal remains, part of a process where migrants were exhumed after seven years to be sent to rest in their ancestral burial grounds. In 1937, sending remains back to China became impossible due to the Second World War and 900 bodies were buried in a mass grave with sparse headstones, now crumbling and broken apart. The sight of unkempt Chinese tombstones is well-known to me. As a third-generation Chinese-Canadian with a familial story rooted in agricultural labor, I am intimately aware of these narratives as I am a product of its history. In a plea for remembrance, Gu asks that Canadians not let these stories deteriorate like their unmaintained cemeteries.

In this exhibition, Gu points to a narrative repeated through communities across the province, one of hardship and the struggle to be considered human. However, Chinese diasporic positionality becomes complicated under the implication of being both oppressed and complicit in Canada’s colonization. While Gu asks that Canadians preserve these narratives in our cultural memory, I raise the question, to whose history do these narratives ultimately serve? In the pressing movement to support Indigenous rights, land acknowledgement feels ever more important in addressing the retelling of Canadian history. I am left to wonder how one may reconsider this work knowing that the lands these bodies are buried in were stolen to begin with, and how this might complicate the idea of being “Chinese-Canadian.”

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