Canada 150: Gu Xiong turned garbage into art after leaving China following Tiananmen Square

May 14, 2017

By Kevin Griffin, Vancouver Sun |

Gu Xiong has known many low points in his life. One of the lowest was shortly after he moved to Canada from China following the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989.

Before emigrating, Gu had been a well-respected professor of art. He was also a well-known artist.

In Vancouver, while he was working at the University of B.C., it wasn’t as a professor or an artist. He was cleaning tables as a busboy in the cafeteria.

“The first time I wore the busboy uniform, I couldn’t hold my head up,” he said in an interview in 2003. “I couldn’t look at anyone. I started to question myself.”

Gu, however, was resilient. It didn’t take him long before he was looking at garbage differently. He started to identify with the trash — he imagined he was getting rid of his inner garbage every time he cleared a table and threw leftovers in the bin.

“He began to think of his life like a crushed Coca-Cola can,” wrote Yvonne Zacharias in the profile of the artist.

Gu turned his job working as a busboy into art about garbage. Two years later, Gu’s World opened at the Diane Farris Gallery.

It didn’t take long for Gu to live up to the immigrant dream of success. Nine years after working as a busboy, he was hired by UBC, where he is now a professor in the department of art history, visual art and theory. He is also a multimedia artist and writer.

Gu doesn’t play down how difficult it was for him to adapt to a new life and learn a new language in Vancouver.

Born in Chongqing, Gu came from a family that suffered because of the Hundred Flowers Campaign in 1956. His father was imprisoned in a labour camp for nearly 30 years. Later, during the Cultural Revolution, because of his father’s legacy, Gu was sent to the countryside to work up to 16 hours a day as a farm labourer.

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