Beijing-raised, Chicago-based Guanyu Xu’s latest series, Temporarily Censored Home processes the complexities of living and working as a queer artist across cultures of freedom and restriction.
A recent graduate of School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s MFA program, Guanyu Xu is free to pursue projects that examine his intersectional experience of race, sexuality, and citizenship when in the United States. In Beijing, however, where Xu grew up and where his parents presently live, revealing these significant personal details and their importance to his creative practice gets complicated. It invites unwanted attention from both family and a repressive political regime that prides itself on controlling the lives of its citizens.
In his latest series, Temporarily Censored Home, for which the artist was recently shortlisted for Aperture’s prestigious 2019 Portfolio Prize, Xu covertly creates installations in his parents Beijing home when they are unaware, and photographs them. Straddling a line between installation art, sculpture, and photographic document, he combines images from his childhood and adolescence with portraits of his present-day self and other gay men, forcing an otherwise censored space to recognize his humanity.
After a productive portfolio review at SPE National in March, we communicated about his latest work ad the experience and ideas driving it. He wrote at length about how desire is shaped, the tension of mounting and breaking down clandestine installations while his parents are out of the house, and the varied media and textual sources that influence his practice.
Roula Seikaly in conversation with Guanyu Xu.
Roula Seikaly: Could you describe the process of installing and de-installing Temporarily Censored Home? Over how many visits to your parents Beijing apartment have you installed this project? What limitations or constraints (temporal, physical, psychological) are you managing as you transform their house into a temporary exhibition space?
Guanyu Xu: I have gone home twice to produce the project so far. It was full of struggle. I had to print a box of prints before leaving the US. The prints were different sizes, and the mural-sized piece had to be folded to fit in the box. The folding left marks on the prints as traces of travel and migration. I spent lots of money on printing, and paid an overweight fee at the airport. Once I to Beijing, I had to hide the box of prints in my room. Every time I finished shooting, I have to put them all back and tape the box.
I told my parents that I will create installations at home with images I took in the US. Showing them lots of landscape images I took made them less curious about the sensitive prints in my box. However, it’s really stressful to think about all the images I took with men in the US sitting there in my bedroom with the possibility of my parents discovering them. Every time I left their apartment, I was nervous that they would go through the box.
During installation, sometimes I had a clear vision of what I wanted to construct. For instance, the piece The Living Room, I thought about how media and image influence one’s desire. It’s one interest in my practice. Other times, I had to map some of the prints up first in maquettes. I tried different combinations to see if they make sense. If I couldn’t figure it out, I had to take a picture and do it another time. But in general, my body photographically filled up the space, altered the space, and became the space.
In terms of space limitation, I think gravity was my biggest obstacle. As you can see in the images, lots of prints are hanging from the ceiling. I had to use artist tape and fishing wire to hang them, that usually took a lot of time and the constructions were never strong enough to hold for long periods of time.
The project itself is essentially violating my parents’ space. The most nerve-wracking part of the installation was that I had to complete it in a limited time. My father’s office is really close to where we live. The apartment is military housing. Both my parents are close to retirement, so if they wanted to come home early, they can definitely do that.
Seikaly: Are there any spaces in your parent’s home that you won't install this work? If so, why?
Xu: I haven’t done anything with study and the guest bedroom, which is basically used as storage spaces. Both of them are smaller spaces and I haven’t figured out how to use them yet. Maybe I will figure out something next time.
Seikaly: In its early days, photography was celebrated as a "factual" medium that was untainted by human interpretation. We've known for awhile that the medium is, in fact, based squarely on interpretation, or some would say "lies." What are your thoughts on using a medium that manipulates truth to convey facts about your life and sexual identity?
Xu: The production of power in photography is another theme that pursues in my practice. Most of the images are produced in a unilateral relation between viewer and producer that convey certain “normality.” It’s been used as propaganda, or as a tool for the privileged to control the underprivileged.
How I conceive of images really comes from understanding the production of ideology in popular media such as Hollywood movies, specifically, racism towards people of color. For instance, the stereotypical dragon lady, yellow peril, black face, white-washing, and so on. I think photography is similar. Most of the time, it’s taken out of context and I feel really ambivalent about it.
I always reveal my photographs as “constructed.” My project One Land To Another uses staged self-portraiture while Temporarily Censored Home involves images within images. I drew from my own work in addition to personal archives and popular culture. The materials and sources are merged, which destabilizes notions of time and space. This convergence reflects the complexity of how the final image is constructed. These photographs are signifiers of what is inside of the frame, and they are also clearly situated in a particular context. This reciprocity is more productive for me when I understand the image and the “truth.”
Seikaly: For Temporarily Censored Home, you were on the shortlist for the 2019 Aperture Portfolio Prize. Is there any concern that the more recognition you and this series attract, the more difficult it may become to pursue this project when you visit Beijing?
XU: Not really. Aperture is an American platform which my parents probably won’t find out about. I am definitely not famous in China. So, I try to not stress myself out with the thought that they may see the news. Also, it’s a risk I have to face…
One thing that worried me when I went back was the possibility that Chinese customs agents would check my prints in the airport and confiscate them. I am not sure how much trouble I would get into for producing such work.
Seikaly: You mention Sara Ahmed's Queer Phenomenology, and specifically the materiality of images and physical space, as informing one's desire and identity. How does the immateriality and image pervasiveness of the internet inform your work and your desires?
Xu: I was particularly interested in my parents’ construction of a middle-class, heterosexual space that contains a mix of Chinese and Western design, as well as my father’s sense of orderliness that derives from his military career.
Growing up, I was never allowed to put up a poster or be creative in decorating my own room. I was always told how the order of the room should be. Naturally, I rebelled against it. Sara Ahmed’s book really got me thinking about how one’s body is situated in space, how space is constructed by power structures or dynamics, and what defines “the norm.” A statue of Mao Zedong, a small Christmas tree, a family portrait with grandparents, the order of seating at the kitchen table, the hidden men’s fashion magazine, the hanging military clothes… these are part of the space I grew up with, and eventually become parts of me. My body, my desire, and my notion of the norm were oriented towards them and the environment they created. However, it does not have to be this way. In this case, what I wanted was disorientation.
In terms of the pervasiveness of internet images, I am particularly thinking about the materiality of that. I am also thinking about a Hito Steryl lecture I watched last year online in which she described the image as a force that comes out of the screen to change the real world. Images are manipulative and believable. It is troubling to know that there is always a dominant ideological narrative that at least influences if not controls perceptions of “the Other”, i.e. people of color, queers, etc. Is it impossible to understand the existence of complexity and the co-existence of differences?
Seikaly: Did you install Temporarily Censored Home as your SAIC graduate thesis? How did a relatively long installation period register for you, as opposed to the very brief installations of the project in your parents home? Do you see or relate to it differently?
Xu: Yes, I did. My work is about the comparative examination of the systems of oppression in both the US and China. The staged domestic portrait with gay men in the US that speaks my intersectional experience meets my conservative familial and societal background. I am happy that my work may be a productive and complex way to think about freedom.
As an overall visual statement, I think the photographs are the manifestation of limited freedom. I was granted freedom for a short time, and only the photography captured it. The exhibition invites viewers to come closer, to discover something themselves in a complex visual, psychological, and physical narrative. The work really becomes its own thing.