Poppies in Without Mountains or Water: Vancouver’s Opium Roots Remembered Through Landscape

Without Mountains or Water, 2011 by Rebecca Donald. Photo courtesy of Maurice Li (@maurice)


I was invited by Rebecca Donald to write an essay on her new installation, Without Mountains or Water. It is currently on exhibition at Gallery FUKAI located at 602 E. Hastings Street. It opened April 1, 2011 and walk-in viewings are on Mondays and Wednesdays from April 4-30, 12–4 pm.


Poppies in Without Mountains or Water:

Vancouver’s Opium Roots Remembered Through Landscape

By Zoe Li

April 1, 2011

In Rebecca Donald’s installation, Without Mountains or Water, there is a stillness that attracts movement. At first sight, you are compelled to step into a space defined by innumerable blue-black poppy seeds, to pick up the wooden rake, and begin altering your surroundings. The resemblance of poppy seeds to gravel on floors of Zen gardens creates a sense of tranquility, encouraging contemplation of space, movement, and material. The poppy is a potent, multifaceted metaphor that recalls the violence in the Opium Wars; the peace on Remembrance Day; the relief of morphine; the euphoria of drugs; the hunger of addiction; the innocence of ornamental flowers, and more. These are some impressions that may surface while you are raking patterns on the ground. As you walk around, some seeds will inevitably stick to the soles of your shoes, and when you leave, these seeds are carried out of the gallery, into the neighbourhood, and beyond.

Gallery Fukai is located on the outskirts of Chinatown and in the overlapping neighbourhoods of Strathcona and the Downtown Eastside. These areas have a long history of racism, social and economic conflict, drugs, and violence, but it is precisely because of this history that Rebecca chose to exhibit at Gallery Fukai.  Strathcona was where successive waves of immigrant labourers would settle because of the proximity of housing to industry. Without Mountains or Water is a work that speaks to the history and culture of Chinese and Japanese immigrant communities. It draws upon the form of the Japanese Zen garden, and emphasizes its link to Chinese landscape painting. The poppy as a subject assists in the recollection of forgotten history in these neighbourhoods.

The title of Without Mountains or Water comes from the direct translation of karesansui, the Japanese word for dry garden. Popularized during the Muromachi period (1392–1573), karesansui were expressions of a minimalist, austere Zen aesthetic; they were intended as aids to mediation by means of viewing and through maintenance. Zen monks composed landscapes of abstracted mountains and flowing water using only gravel, rocks, and on occasion, sparse moss and simple shrubs. Dry garden landscapes are designed to assist the visualization of movement through space. Painstakingly arranged rocks, and gravel raked into patterns of ripples evoke distant mountains and rivers of water. Through contemplation of rock and gravel compositions, a visitor can envision distant landscapes, follow water from its mountain source, down waterfalls, along streams, and finally, ending in undulating pools.

Japanese medieval gardens were influenced by imported Song dynasty (960-1276) ink landscape paintings from China. Song landscape paintings are characterized by sophisticated compositions of fluidly integrated multiple viewpoints. Transitions from foreground, middle ground, and background are eased through skillfully positioned forms of trees, boulders, and cliffs or light washes of atmospheric mist.  Dry gardens use white gravel to represent the voids in paintings; rocks are carefully chosen for their resemblance to particular types of angular brushstrokes. Landscape paintings and dry gardens share common principles and goals. Both practices use the composition of forms to convey a sense of infinite depth and multiple perspectives.

In Without Mountains or Water, there is a point of view not immediately apparent: the top-down perspective as seen by the person raking seeds. This bird’s eye view turns the floor into a canvas, the seeds to pigments, and the rake into a brush. The rake gives you agency to modify your surroundings, and if it is perceived as a brush, that agency is specified to the role of painter. Considering the rake as a brush activates a shifting of space, and a recalibration of dimensions, bringing you closer to the canvas of the floor, and situating you inside a landscape within a landscape.

Without Mountains or Water leans on the concept of the Zen garden as a site of contemplation but offers forms of engagement beyond visual stimulation.  Zen gardens are meant to be viewed from a static position, and multiple viewpoints are supposed to be visualized. You are not permitted to enter or disturb the space. Without Mountains or Water can be approached from all directions, providing infinite points of visual interest, and then it goes one step further: it offers total immersion. There is a chance to feel the sensation of seeds shifting underfoot, and to hear sounds of a rake tracing patterns on the ground. Without Mountains or Water differs from the concept of the Zen garden because physical movement and interaction with its elements are anticipated and necessary.

The anticipated movement of poppy seeds out of the gallery is reminiscent of the dispersal of candies in the works by Felix Gonzalez-Torres during the early 1990s. Gonzalez-Torres began his ‘candy spills’ as a response to the impending death of his partner Ross Laycock who had AIDS. In Untitled (Loverboys), 1991, the floor is covered with an amount of cellophane-wrapped candies that equaled the combined body weights of the two men, serving as their portraits.  Over the course of the exhibition, the work slowly disappears as visitors eat these candies, and the inevitable separation of Gonzalez-Torres from his partner becomes more apparent as time passes.  Rebecca’s work is reminiscent of Gonzales-Torres’ candy spills because it needs the interaction of visitors to complete it, and like a virus, the poppy seeds are meant to travel outside, grow and proliferate.

The emphasis on seeds in Without Mountains or Water brings to mind Ai Weiwei’s Sunflower Seeds, 2010. Ai’s work is an installation of over 100 million porcelain sunflower seeds hand-painted by residents of Jingdezhen, China. The sunflower seeds, in the form of hand produced porcelain, and in that vast quantity, brings into focus elements in Chinese history and culture: production of luxury imperial goods, hardships of the Cultural Revolution; ubiquitous snacks of everyday life; sweatshop mass production; and, insatiable consumption. Ai Wei Wei’s work is powerful because sunflower seeds have a recognizable significance in China.

Rebecca has identified the opium poppy as a subject that is meaningful to Canada and, in particular, to Vancouver. The inception of Without Mountains or Water began with a ghost story told by renowned Vancouver-based artist Ken Lum. In one of his talks attended by Rebecca, Lum recounted the history of Admiral Seymour Elementary School on Keefer Street in Strathcona. This school was named after Edward Hobart Seymour, an admiral of the British Navy during the Second Opium War (1856-60). The Opium Wars represent an ugly era of brutal colonialism fueled by deep-seated racist attitudes. These wars were fought to force opium into China and to impose unequal commercial treaties.  As Rebecca listened to Lum speak of the school’s tie to the Opium Wars, an image of poppy seeds as gunpowder came to mind. She began reflecting on the connection between local history and the poppy, a subject she was already exploring in her painting practice.

One piece of local history linked to the poppy is that Canada’s first drug prohibition law is directly connected to a race riot. The proposal for the Opium Act of 1908 was in reaction to opium manufacturers asking to be compensated for damages sustained during the Anti-Asian Vancouver Riot of 1907. At the turn of the 20th century, there was an unprecedented influx of Asian immigrants into British Columbia. These years were marked by sporadic racial incidents and a mounting animosity that was openly expressed in newspapers and petitions. An Asiatic Exclusion League was formed and in the summer of 1907, a mob of 9,000 people swept through Chinatown and Japantown, destroying property owned by the Chinese and Japanese.

The future Prime Minister Sir William Lyon Mackenzie King was appointed by the federal government to assess losses and provide compensation to victims of the riots. During his investigation, King received two $600 claims from Chinese opium manufacturers. He was appalled to discover that there were no laws against opium production. At the end of his report, he implored the government to eradicate the opium industry. The Opium Act was passed in 1908, prohibiting the sale, manufacture and importation of opium other than for medicinal use. It was followed by the Opium and Drug Act of 1911 which further limited the circulation of drugs by outlawing the sale or possession of morphine, opium, cocaine.

Our neighbourhoods have stories waiting to resurface. Without Mountains or Water explores the subject of the poppy in relation to local history, and provides the means with which to contemplate it. The poppy is a multifaceted metaphor, sometimes it signals sleep and forgetfulness, and at other times, it is an emblem of remembrance. The cherished Canadian World War I poem, In Flanders Fields, by John McCrae is a testament to the complex potency of the poppy. It would be interesting to see an exhibition of Without Mountains or Water in another city or country to observe how other facets of the poppy relate to another time and place.


Rebecca Donald lives in North Vancouver. She received her MFA from the University of British Columbia in 2006 and currently teaches painting at Emily Carr University. She has exhibited at Balcone, CSA Space and the Morris and Helen Belkin Gallery in Vancouver. She combines installation, painting and drawing in her active art practice.

Zoe Li holds an MA degree in Art History from the University of British Columbia, specializing in Chinese Literati landscape painting. Her other areas of expertise include Japanese art from the Edo period, and contemporary Chinese art. She is currently interested in mixed media, installation and performance art.



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