Settling/Unsettling: Xia Gao at Waterloo Arts

Work of Xia Gao, installation view with perforations visible, courtesy of Waterloo Arts

Waterloo Arts rang in the new year with the opening of Settling/Unsettling, Daydream of Jiangnan. A solo exhibition featuring the works of Michigan-based textile artist Xia Gao, Settling/Unsettling was a multifaceted and thought-provoking exhibition that raised pertinent questions about modernization, adaptation, and the rapid socioeconomic changes taking place in China and beyond.

Gao, a Chinese immigrant and professor at Michigan State University, works primarily in textiles and assemblage. Gao’s body of work is heavily informed by her migration experience, touching on topics from assimilation and adaptation to the disconnectedness felt when observing your native country from afar. Since relocating to the United States, Gao has developed what she calls a “transnational perspective” on the land that was once her home. “The physical distance from the motherland intensified a nostalgia for connecting and revisiting Chinese traditions and current happenings,” Gao explains.

Work of Xia Gao, installation view with second image in light and shadow, created by perforations, visible on the wall behind. Courtesy of Waterloo Arts.

In turn, Gao’s complex mixed-media assemblages pay homage to tradition by adding contemporary materials and visual references to historical Chinese images. For instance, Gao translates Xia Kui’s thirteenth-century landscape painting Mountain and Stream, Pure and Remote for a contemporary audience by reformatting the image to be made entirely of Chinese currency signs (Yuan or ¥). Gao also superimposes Chinese stock market index graphics onto the Yuan-based reproduction. These symbols of commercial and material greed stand in stark contrast to the original painting, whose unpeopled landscape embodies what Gao believes to be the “universal longing” of people throughout history to escape daily life and commune with nature. Instead of being a refuge for the world-weary mind, Gao depicts the Chinese landscape as inundated with reminders of economic development and rapid Westernization. In this way, Gao suggests that the China of centuries past is now “the fantasy of a paradise that cannot return.”

Xia Gao, installation view courtesy of Waterloo Arts

The exhibition’s themes of tradition, fantasy, and cultural changes were augmented by overlap with the Cleveland Museum of Art’s China’s Southern Paradise: Treasures from the Lower Yangzi Delta, which ran through January 7th. The CMA exhibition admittedly inspired Gao with the breadth of historic objects it brought to a Cleveland audience. “The traditional cultural standards set by Jiangnan as its leading role in the nation have been stimulated by China’s modernization,” writes Gao. Though created in 2010, Gao’s reworking of the Xia Kui painting serves as a direct tie between the two exhibitions, as Kui’s work was displayed in China’s Southern Paradise.

Artist Xia Gao, discussing her work. Courtesy of Waterloo Arts.

Settling/Unsettling, Daydream of Jiangnan highlighted the intersections of what appear to be at first glance opposing identities: Eastern/Western, settled/unsettled, connected/disconnected, old/new. Still, Gao managed to find surprising commonalities between these opposites. Ultimately, viewers must have left impressed by Gao’s technical prowess and ability to create connections across physical and cultural boundaries.

Settling/Unsettling, Daydream of Jiangnan was on view January 5 – February 24, 2024 at Waterloo Arts.

The opinions expressed on CAN Blog are those of the individual writers. Art is somewhat subjective. Well, somewhat. But yes, everybody's a critic.

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