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Massy Interviews / Laiwan

December 21 @ 12:00 pm December 31 @ 11:30 pm PST

Dec 21st – Feb 1st, Massy Arts will host a new window installation by Vancouver-based interdisciplinary artist, writer and educator Laiwan.

In Phase 1 of “How Water Remembers”, the artist collaborates with Karlene Harvey, Yao Xiao, T’uy’tanat-Cease Wyss, Angela Danyluk, and Sean Cao in a project that explores the path of water and future rising sea levels, with a relation to cultural stories, and includes a socially engaged, site specific exploration through 2022 in Vancouver’s Chinatown, to build imagination and consciousness for a return of possible False Creek mudflat inhabitants to find home among us.

In the gallery’s window, Laiwan presents 4 large posters that introduce viewers to the exploratory piece.

The Massy Arts Gallery is located at 23 East Pender Street in Chinatown, Vancouver.

The gallery is open Tuesday to Saturday, 12pm to 5pm.

Click HERE to know more about the exhibition

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To celebrate the artist’s piece at the gallery’s window, and understand more about the extension of the project, Community Engagement Coordinator Rafael Zen interviews Laiwan for Massy Arts, questioning art made on the borders of history, biology, and politics.

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Laiwan: Art and memory against hegemonic imagination

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Rafael Zen – How Water Remembers, to be presented at the Massy Arts Gallery in December, includes socially engaged & site-specific explorations in Vancouver’s Chinatown, imagining the possible False Creek mudflat inhabitants who find home amongst the neighborhood. How did you come up with this research project? What have you found out, as an artist, being able to conduct an art project on the borders of history, biology, and politics?

Laiwan – Thank you, Massy Arts, for hosting How Water Remembers! It is a great pleasure to be able to collaborate with you in the windows of the historic Ming Wo Building.

My process often begins with slowness, listening and to open spaciousness to see what arises and what arrives. In 2014, I found myself curious and haunted by an archival online image of a bridge over water. I don’t know why that image was haunting especially because I didn’t know where it was.

At that time, with the help of curator Joni Low, I proposed a project, Fountain: the source or origin of anything, to The Wall at CBC Plaza on Hamilton Street. It was accepted, and that included access to the CBC media archives. I found there, with the help of outgoing archivist Colin Preston, that the image was of the original Georgia Viaduct, perhaps when it was first built around 1915, and when the water of False Creek flowed beneath it and right up to behind the Dr Sun Yat Sen Gardens on Keefer Street.

It is now paved over, many of us never knew water flowed there, and it has changed the habitat for both humans and for biodiverse creatures. That project explored hidden water, hidden streams, and the fixity of how humans imagine our urban environment, prioritizing human exceptionalism, and where such exceptionalism may in the end be fatal for us and for the planet. Seeing such paving continuing each day, I’m fascinated to find how to change such habitual thinking that feels free to pave over or bulldoze the habitat of others. I wondered how could we open up to more flow and this to me translates into a sense of generosity.

So How Water Remembers continues from those explorations and my continued interest in the False Creek waters, its health and how we can in general contribute to planetary health through local initiatives.

I have found that imagination is pliable. We can be dominated by a hegemonic imagination, or we can create interventions that act like palate-cleansers, where something can interrupt regular programming. If more of us shift our imagination, where, say, more of us can imagine the return of the False Creek waters, the return of biodiverse habitats, the return of salmon streams, and in becoming present to urban environments, its designs (including political designs), and civic decisions that often benefit some more than others.

We can remember that in 1968, Chinatown community members led by Mary Chan, fought off the freeway that was planned to run through and destroy this heritage neighbourhood. We see this historically across North America, a monocultural vision that prioritizes highways and pipelines over ecological biodiverse habitats, human lives and the fate of the planet.

Becoming present to these injustices is creative as well as political. It is in the everyday. When we eat salmon, we can wonder where was this salmon’s home, where was their salmon home, and where is that home today. We learn to listen to the lives of salmon, and thus all living things. This is something Indigenous peoples have done for millennia, and it is also the teaching of the Tao and of Buddha.

We are fighting homelessness in Vancouver, and it is not just for us humans, but for many biodiverse creatures. To be listening and present to our urban environment, we can hear many voices, just as we do when we go into the forest or into ‘nature’. We think ‘nature’ is out there, but it is right here also in our cities. Sometimes that ‘nature’ is asking to return, sometimes it is asking for space, and that space can arrive with a sense of compassion, a sense of spaciousness.

The heat dome in BC from summer with the wildfires, the atmospheric river with the flooding and mudslides of the last few days, the pandemic — all of these phenomena are remembrances of what industrial capitalism has neglected and failed to listen to. But we can learn to listen, and as artists we are trained to wait, see and listen to how phenomena surfaces.

This pandemic is an interruption. It provides an opportunity and opening to bring new imaginations, from other cultural worldviews and other cultural values — including age-old practices and values of Indigenous epistemologies and stewardship — along with interventions of poetics, improvisation and creativity.

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RZ – Your work’s synopsis addresses a quote by Toni Morrison: “Occasionally the river floods these places. Floods is the word they use, but in fact it is not flooding; it is remembering. Remembering where it used to be”. What discussions do you hope How Water Remembers may start, by placing it in the traditional window display where the Ming Wo store was located? Is it also a statement on remembrance?

L – There are a number of interests I hope the work will ignite. First, I wonder how do we live with the more-than-human world, beyond human exceptionalism and its extractive exploitation of natural resources. How can we increasingly live with fauna and flora who have been deprived of their habitat? We pave over their homes for our convenience, yet many of them have lived here for many generations and as part of their hereditary migratory routes.

We can look at how the hundreds of hidden streams under the streets of Vancouver were once ancestral spawning birthplaces for salmon. Without an ability to return to their hereditary homes, the place where they were born and where they return to die, we see the long-term devastation of salmon populations and in turn affecting the larger animals, like whales.

How Water Remembers aims to begin, like a seed, imagining a return of creatures and plants into our everyday, for these creatures remember these places, but do we as humans remember them as we sprawl taking up land and water. In each moment, can we ask, are creatures able to survive here with us and are they welcome?

I’m interested in how we can make space for them, welcome them, walk the earth with a sensitivity to their lives and their homes. How to live collaboratively with all the many other inhabitants of these lands? Without them our lives become increasingly impoverished. A city void of biodiversity, only marked by industrialism’s designs and its instrumentalization, is deathly. And by doing so, as scientists note, we increase the probability of future pandemics.

So, we need to rethink how we design and live in cities. It cannot be as if solely for humans and how we separate ourselves as humans from other creatures. These are questions of equity, ethics, sustainability, justice, and the future of our planet and all who are alive today. It’s not just about us, humans.

Global warming promises a rise in the sea-level. This too is where water will return, where water remembers and where land remembers.

Surprisingly, westerners have built cities where water floods (I think Winnipeg is such a city, built on the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine rivers), and humans have felt powerful enough to divert mighty rivers. In the name of Industrialisation, innumerable rivers have been straightened to become superhighways for transportation. But we know straightening a river destroys habitat for many critters, like phytoplankton, frogs, newly hatched fry, etc. with no nooks and crevices to live in, they are washed away by a thundering highway of water.

We can see this as a correlation of cultural survival, where minority cultures, cultures not valued within Western hegemonic capitalism and colonialism, get swept away by the highway of monoculturalism. Colonialism and capitalism create deliberate impoverishment among cultures foreign to itself, and we see this across Indigenous unceded territories and in ghettoised neighborhoods such as Chinatowns across what we are calling North America.

So yes, all biodiversity as a returning, all that we make space for return, is remembrance.

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The image of 龍母 [Dragon Mother] is inspired by the background map “showing the areas, in dark blue, that are vulnerable to flooding due to a major storm (1:500 year storm) today, and areas in light blue that are vulnerable to flooding due to a major storm and 1 metre of sea level rise by 2100 without flood management measures in place” (quoted from Vancouver’s Changing Shoreline, City of Vancouver, 2018.)

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RZ – Your work addresses a return to ancestral worldviews, traditional knowledge and stewardships, highlighting other ways of knowing that were once turned into invisible underground networks. How does the concept of systems of knowledge connect with the theme of the show – memory and destruction? Is it also a critical point of view on our colonial-capitalist societies’ methods of understanding and categorizing our identities and bodies? 

L – I think I’ve become simpler as I get older, I don’t put a lot of focus into destruction, but instead how to rebuild, rise up, and even if from ashes. We see this of our ancestors. We are still here even after systemic discrimination, white supremacy, laws made against us.

We are still here.

Even when someone like me has been raised in another language, erased of ways of doing things that would have identified me as an outsider to the western world, when one’s parents raise me this way to protect me from being discriminated against (and still it happens, it didn’t work). What then is this thing we are calling ancestral and in remembrance?

For me, ancestral worldviews and ways of knowing are much deeper than I could describe in this language which isn’t of that worldview. To understand a culture with a philosophy that embraces balance and the responsibility to be balanced, to walk the middle way, of yin and of yang, of the Tao / the Way, where the treasures of ‘the ten thousand things’ of being live together, and where we are taught “to be like water”, we cannot do this through the western lens and its language of English.

So even though English is my first and only fluent language, I am privileged to have access to both worlds, to navigate the colonial settler and capitalist world with some familiarity while also as a spy, and I hope as an interruption.

While colonial capitalism has wreaked havoc and destruction on this planet, and western hegemonic industrial monoculture continues to want to dominate, all this is falling apart, it is unsustainable and it is not resilient nor robust. Other worldviews, including biodiverse values, along with older cultural ways that were attempted to be eradicated, are returning. How Water Remembers celebrates this return.

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RZ – In your work’s oneiric world, you adapt the story of 龍母 [Dragon Mother] – presenting it in alliance with Sínulhḵay̓, the two headed sea serpent who tunnels the areas of Skwachays, legendary among the Skwx̱wú7mesh peoples. You also present the 19 guardians of Chinatown. How do you think all of these stories relate and influence each other in your process? By bringing different cultures and memories together, what have you found out as a researcher?

L – I approach dreams as real and reality as dream. They are interchangeable, like logic and feeling, there is no separation, both are equally important.

While dreams we imagine can become reality if we work to further its vision with energy and practice. The practice of putting things we imagine into the world are like muscles — we build a vision and the vision becomes stronger, we bring people together and the muscles of people together get stronger, we build a Commons for many people and that muscle of the Commons gets stronger, we walk more together and the muscles without cars get stronger.

I see 龍母 [Dragon Mother] and Sínulhḵay̓ also as muscles. Collaborating together they describe a different body, one that is within us, with energies that are fantastical, speculative and liberational. Storytelling and the images that live in our bodies give us muscles, they are energy and dynamics, tactility and strategic tactics of intervention.

We can work with metaphors and dreams, and this can fire up synapses and muscle connectors, and such images and stories are the heart and soul of how ancient cultures survive and thrive. They are what help us get up out of bed in the darkest of winter.

Since the pandemic, there is a Great Blue Heron who has taken up a home in the Dr Sun Yat Sen Gardens. She is there, indifferent to humans, confident and graceful. As one of the guardians listed in How Water Remembers, I see her presence as a blessing, as a sign that encourages me onward. I see projects as having their own trajectory and I am simply to follow its path. A River Otter had appeared before the pandemic to hunt the delicious Koi, and he was discouraged to return. So what do we need to do to invite the River Otter’s return, knowing that his appearance too is a blessing.

I dream of a time, sometime soon I hope, where the dominance of concrete and roads will occupy less of our landscapes and less of our imaginary. Where are all these cars rushing to? The mudslides of the last few days show us we must not need to go everywhere. It’s time to stop. The pandemic too is telling us to stop.

We are being invited to imagine other ways we could be living — generously (give everyone homes and let them be nourished), sustainably (tread lightly while listening on these land and waters), sensitively (speak up when in suffering, speak up when you witness others in suffering), let go of individualism (the murmuration of birds teaches us there are many ways of being we have yet to learn as humans) … These are some things among many I continue to research.

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RZ – How Water Remembers addresses your respect on ancestry. Living in a world that constantly pushes us forward – why looking back?

L – I do not experience Time as linear, so it’s impossible to say ancestry is of the past. As both the philosophies of the Tao and of the Buddha teaches: there is no separation, there is no past and there is no future, both are constantly in process in presence.

Just as our bodies are physically material, we are only made possible by many generations of interesting humans who came together because of some fluke, of some spark, something that drew one to the other — maybe it was because they were related to somebody in the village, or because one had read a poem of the other, or because a friend introduced them to a love of chrysanthemum tea…

Why humans get together is a mystery. It is of magnetics and electricity, sometimes someone new you meet can feel uncannily familiar, or someone you haven’t seen in over 30 years can fall back with you into easy conversation as if not a day had passed.

In today’s practices, as artists we research context, site-specificity, we map lineage (of an idea, of a material, of an influence, of what we love), and ethically there is accountability, reciprocity and respect. Ancestral paths are the foundation of my approach. It may be why I love poetry. It is what propels me, without me being conscious or intentional in regards to a career or in regards to ambition, in how I find myself today as an artist and as an activist.

What propelled me back then when I was 14 years old and without plan to leave my country of birth (apartheid Rhodesia now Zimbabwe) due to a white supremacist war, to encounter immigrant isolation upon arrival to this new country of Canada, with parents and my granny who were not fluent in English. One grows a different body and a different brain as suddenly I was propelled beyond myself; I did not know who I was nor who I could be. It was an unexpected rite of passage where even my parents could not help me as they were in the same boat.

What I discovered was poetry saved me and art saved me. And what I mean by this is that I had to listen deeply, I had to learn through my body to get me out of confusion as a new immigrant. Colonialism and capitalism abstract us from our bodily being, so it takes a long time to work through not knowing and to become comfortable in being unknowing, and this learning of being bodily continues. It’s like, how do birds know where to fly when they migrate? How did I know where to fly? I didn’t and I still don’t.

To learn to walk these foreign streets. To learn to become my own friend. To befriend my parents and my granny, to know that we had nothing, no ambition, but to spend time together, to wait. These remind me of this pandemic, also teaching us to wait, also a rite of passage.

In waiting, in listening, things arrive. Blessings arrive. Love arrives. Brightness arrives. This too is the teaching of the Tao, where we become attentive to small everyday things, to learn to flow like water. Suddenly there may be something propelling me toward something obscure, but which makes me brighten up even if it is a dark place, and with no obvious monetary benefit or reason to invest in for what we understand as the future.

So, whatever is propelling us, it becomes a future. It is the dream that is becoming real. Our ancestors are propelling us, they are all around us — they built my world, they made me. They continue to contribute to this future. They guide me to my next work. They passed a love of poetics and cultural work to me — maybe they worked in poetics and culture, even though white supremacist laws would only let Chinese people be store keepers, so my parents ran a grocery store, while my granny sewed t-shirts in a factory. How did poetry survive through each of us?

Ancestors teach me that love survives, just as poetics survived even while they laboured in the grocery store or in the t-shirt factory.

Ancestors teach me to love.

This is why they are central in my process.

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How Water Remembers is made possible by funding support from the British Columbia Arts Council.

Partial support for translation costs is made possible by the Goddard College Faculty Development Fund.

And thanks to the Canada Council for the Arts for continued support of my practice.

Illustrations & Image Research: Karlene Harvey (Tsilhqot’in/Syilx)

Chinese Translations, Researcher, Community Outreach & Engagement: Yao Xiao 蕭堯

Indigenous Consultation, Researcher, Storytelling & Ethnobotany: T’uy’tanat-Cease Wyss (Skwxwu7mesh/Sto:Lo/ Hawaiian/Swiss)

Consultation on Biodiversity & False Creek Mudflat Inhabitants: Angela Danyluk, Biologist, City of Vancouver

Chinatown Outreach & Participatory Facilitation: Sean Cao 曹碩.

Thanks also to curators Lam Wong and Sarah Ling for inviting me to take part in Rivers Have Mouths and to the Dr Sun Yat Sen Classical Chinese Garden for hosting the exhibition, Summer


Look out for further activities in 2022 for How Water Remembers, with upcoming community engagement and a ‘scavenger hunt’ with art collectibles coming to Chinatown, in collaboration with the Dr Sun Yat Sen Classical Chinese Gardens and Angela Danyluk with the Sustainability Group, City of Vancouver. How Water Remembers aims to build awareness and cultural value in developing sustainable ecologies for humans and biodiversity. I am partnering with the Sustainability Group to also build awareness about False Creek’s vulnerability to sea level rise and flooding, and how we can adapt as a community.

– Laiwan

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December 21 @ 12:00 pm PST
December 31 @ 11:30 pm PST