Artist Gu Xiong was first invited to The Banff Centre for a year-long residency in 1986 through a cultural exchange with China. He remembers being lonely when he first arrived here. “I came without English and I was isolated here,” he says. “I was hard-working, but depressed. Then, later in 1987 I started to open up, and I did some smaller work, and then some larger work, installation and performance. So that turned out to be a great year for me.” He created a work called Enclosures, which he installed outside what was then Donald Cameron Hall.
Gu returned to China after that residency, and soon found himself swept up in the student protests in Beijing that led to the riots and killings in Tiananman Square. The Banff Centre stepped in again, sponsoring a move to Canada in August of 1989, and he created another work here, now in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada. “This shows how people used their own bicycles to try to stop the army tanks on the street. But the tanks just drove over the bicycles, and I stood there and watched it happen. I promised to make a piece about that time.”
This spring, Gu was back at the Centre for the first time in 24 years, working with a group of artists on a project called Immersion Emergencies that’s all about water. A professor in the Visual Arts department at the University of British Columbia since 2000, he’s been working on water- and river-themed installations for the past few years, linking the Fraser River delta with the Yangtze River (and the gigantic Three Gorges Dam) in much of his recent work.
In Banff, he started work on an ambitious installation to bring attention to a recent environmental disaster – 16,000 dead pigs were dumped in the Huangpu River, a tributary of the Yangtze near Gu’s home city of Chongqing. “The government tested the water and said it was fine to drink,” he says about the story, which made international news. “I wanted this work to link to a larger vision around the world about water, pollution, and urban issues.” When it’s finished, the installation will include 16,000 ceramic pigs in 1,000 commercial water jugs.