Xiangmei Su at Canton-Sardine, Vancouver

By Lin Li

The Chinese-Canadian artist Xiangmei Su recently transformed the space of Canton-Sardine into an intertwined and captivating labyrinth with two immersive site-specific installations. The solo exhibition Here—-There is curated by the gallery’s director, Steven Dragonn. With these works Su primarily uses cotton threads, a material deeply intertwined with the artist’s family history and her birthplace, to narrate her journey from China to Canada. It also offers visitors a deep sense of introspection and an unwavering exploration of her evolving identities, as well as a celebration of multiculturalism in Vancouver – a place where she has lived and worked since 2001.

Xiangmei Su, Into A River, 2024, installation view (photo: Steven Dragonn)

The first installation, titled Into a River, consists of a salon-styled wall and two interview videos. The wall showcases forty-six works created by participants of workshops led by Su during the autumn and winter of 2023, where she taught how to use cotton threads to create paintings. Crafted with red cotton threads and needles on white canvas, these works take the shape of geometric 3D paintings. They are joined by sixteen canvas photos taken by the artist, which showcase rivers across the greater Vancouver area, arranged on the wall in a vague semblance of streams converging. During a gallery tour, the artist emphasised water as a universal symbol of inclusivity, harmony, and equilibrium across cultures, which inspired the installation’s thematic focus. The flowing nature of a river mirrors individuals like Su who traverse borders, fostering interactive, multidirectional exchanges of cultures, knowledge, and perspective. In addition to the installation wall, the interview videos share the narratives of two immigrant families residing in the city, adding a storytelling dimension to the installation and complementing the visual impact of the works on the opposite wall.

Xiangmei Su, Here—-There, 2024, installation view (photo: Steven Dragonn)

The second installation, titled Here—-There, originates from the centre of the exhibition space on the first floor and spans the entire second floor of the gallery. Su brings visitors back to her childhood memories through a traditional wooden weaving machine replica accompanied by a small pile of textiles crafted by her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother. These symbolic artefacts serve as the foundation of the installation. From the replica weaving machine, multicoloured cotton threads extend outward, forming a labyrinthine, geometric structure that traverses the whole second floor.

Xiangmei Su, Here—-There, 2024, installation view (photo: Steven Dragonn)

Su intentionally employs threads of varying colour palettes throughout different sections of the installation. The closer the threads are to the starting point, the simpler are the colours. Red, navy, yellow, and white are the typical colours used in textile making in China over the last century. As the threads extend further, the colours become more vibrant and diverse. This transition from classical, but plain combinations to dynamic neons serves as a visual metaphor for pluralism in the era of globalisation. It also reflects Su’s personal journey. In a conversation with the artist, she described herself as embodying multiple identities on her journey from Suzhou, a city rich in history and heritage, to Vancouver, a city known as a “mosaic of newcomers since 1867” (according to Dragonn’s curator’s statement).

Su has embraced the changes brought by the diverse communities she encountered in the multicultural environment of Canada, while also maintaining her cultural heritage and memories from her birthplace. These experiences are foundational sources of inspiration for her artwork. Growing up amidst the industrialization of Suzhou’s textile industry, cotton threads have consistently been Su’s preferred medium. In Here—-There, threads are prominently featured throughout the gallery space. Beginning with the exhibition title, where a red cotton thread links the two words in the title, “here” and “there.”

For both installations, the artist extended invitations to the local community, including gallery volunteers and participants of her workshops, to actively participate in the hands-on creative process involving cotton threads. This collaborative engagement process, as well as Su’s intention to make the community participation in her works visible through the exhibition texts and her documentation of the creating process, was integrated as a fundamental component of her artistic practice in this exhibition. The active collaboration between the artist and individuals and groups of the general public, representing diverse ages and cultural backgrounds, underscores the artist’s commitment to celebrating diversity and multiculturalism. These themes serve as the central focus of the exhibition and align with Su’s enduring interests in the artistic expression of pluralism and exploring her identity as a global citizen.

Xiangmei Su: Here—-There continues until March 30.
Canton-Sardine: https://canton-sardine.com/
The gallery is not accessible.

Lin Li is an independent curator and writer based in Vancouver, on the ancestral and unceded territories of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), and səlilwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. Her curatorial interests encompass a variety of topics, such as the decolonization and decentralization of Asian art, the identity crisis in an age of globalization and digitalization, and the contradictory, interconnected relationship between art and technology. She holds a Master degree in East Asian Studies from the University of Alberta.