Q&A: Guanyu Xu

By Hamidah Glasgow | August 29, 2019

徐冠宇 Guanyu Xu (b.1993 Beijing) is an artist currently based in Chicago. He was the recipient of the Fred Endsley Memorial Fellowship and the James Weinstein Memorial Fellowship. He is  the winner of the Lenscratch Student Prize and the Runner-up of the Aperture Foundation Portfolio Prize.

His works have been exhibited internationally including the Aperture Foundation, New York; ICP Museum, New York; Athens Photo Festival, Greece; Format Photo Festival, UK; The Union League Club of Chicago, Chicago; Mint Museum, Charlotte, and others. His works have been featured in numerous publications including The New Yorker, W Magazine, Aint-Bad Magazine, Musée Magazine, Der Greif, and China Photographic Publishing House.

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HG: I’m interested in talking about three of your projects, One Land to Another, Complex Formations, and Temporarily Censored Home. They build on each other and explore issues of identity, nationality, nationalism, sexuality, and displacement. In Temporarily Censored Home you bring in aspects of the other two projects. Please tell me more about that?

GX: In Temporarily Censored Home, I covertly situated photographs in my teenage home in Beijing to queer the normativity of my parents’ heterosexual space. These images taken in the past four years consist of portraits of me and other gay men in their domestic settings from my project One Land To Another; prints of my artwork made in the U.S.; photographs of landscape and built environment taken in the United States, Europe, and China; torn pages from film and fashion magazines that I collected as a teenager; images from my family photo albums. Through positioning and layering images, I aim to juxtapose, contradict, and collapse space and time, disrupting my teenage home. It bridges the relationship between personal and political in the context of both China and the US. Even though these installations were not permanent, I reclaimed my home in Beijing as a queer space of freedom and temporary protest.

These non-hegemonic interventions in my parents’ home not only capture the disruption of the norms of sexuality, cultural hegemony, and nationalism, but also create constellations of differences, comparisons, and contradictions. This allows me to convey my ceaseless search for a better place in both China and the U.S. I offer my contemplation on the formation of identity in my past, criticism of present political climate, and hopeful desire for the future. Is it too difficult to think about the co-existing presence of differences? Can we jump out of our comfortable borders, the borders of sexuality, race, and nationality?

HG: What inspired you to create the environments in your parents home?

GX: They are inspired by Sara Ahmed's book Queer Phenomenology, where she talked about how the family home form's one's identity. The project also came out as a piece to express my frustration of not being able to communicate my difficulty in the US to my family/homeland as well as the situation of double-bind.

The Dining Room

The Dining Room

HG: Please elaborate on your frustration in communicating with your family?

GX: Since I cannot talk to them about my sexuality, I cannot communicate to them the complex intersectionality of race, sexuality, and citizenship. Of course, I only want to let them know the things that make me happy in the US.

It also puts me in a position to consider both the socio-political issues in China and the US. This shifting perspective is also difficult to communicate with my father. We talk about politics a lot. He always firmly believes in the Communist Party/Chinese government. Specifically, from his position as a benefactor of the state as well as an intelligent person who has been researching and studying logistics of the US Army.

He had an impoverished childhood and worked hard to go to college and find a job. He witnessed how the economy grows, and life becomes much better under the government of the communist party. He also understands the Imperialism of the U.S. These make him to have a nationalist view. But I am different. I want to understand in the way that how can the two countries both reform themselves as well as be careful about their influence on international communities.

HG: Are the installations a way of communicating yourself to your family. By creating the installations being there in the house, your family might pic-up on what is going on inside of you?

GX: I think there was always a slight desire that I hope my parents suddenly come home and I have to confront them and tell them what's going on with me.

The installations act both occupying and transforming the space. They also map out an expanded/relational/spatial way of thinking. This to me is really constructive and critical when thinking about socio-political issues.

HG: Your images have gone from relatively stark and simple scenes to very elaborate and complex ones. How did that evolve?

GX: I've received a lot of feedback about the performative aspect of my projects. This new project is influenced by my appreciation of work by Wolfgang Tillmans, Sarah Sze, Thomas Hirschhorn, and Jon Kessler. I'm also thinking about the complexity of the world, one's identity, politics, time, and space.

Removal, 2018

Removal, 2018

HG: Can you talk about the performative aspects of your work from the early work up to your recent work?

GX: In project One Land To Another, I stage and perform with other gay men for the camera and the viewer. They are both autobiographical and fictional that actively reflect upon the influence of western dominated visual culture through TV, Cinema, and the Internet.

On the other hand, my project Temporarily Censored Home is also performative in the way that I create a dangerous situation for myself to test the idea of freedom. And my freedom was documented only by the camera. The second of the camera opening and closing its shutter becomes the analogy of my limited and short period of freedom.

HG: In the video, Complex Formation, the conversation with your mother is both reinforced by the images on the screen and subverted by them. The images of what I suspect is your room in the family home goes from a simply decorated space to a sophisticated layered space full of images and is somewhere between a real space and an animated space. Very much like your images. What is your goal with the video?

GX: I consciously examine my mother's photos as representations of her desires of beauty, class, and heteronormativity that were influenced by Euro-American mass culture.

Through actively sequencing, manipulating, or using my 'mother's images to interrupt her words, I question the visual hegemony that perpetuated my mother's vision and also her influence over myself while I grew up. I constructed five 3D animations to express my reflection and disruption of these images of normativity. The bedroom you mentioned was constructed in Maya, and I used my 'mom's images as the wallpaper of the room. In a way, 'it's the reverse of my project Temporarily Censored Home.

The fluidity of images and the migration of spaces in the video speaks to my desire to understand the meanings of images in connection and context.

I also use our conversations to find moments that reveal my mother's influence by authoritarian ideology, conflicted arguments of equality, and societal double standard towards politics between the U.S. and China. For instance, she blindly believes the U.S. government will make the U.S. a safer place even after she saw that people in San Francisco physically attacked me. She also wants me to stay in the U.S. but thinks China is always safer. Finally, she encourages the mobility of migrants to the U.S. but wouldn't want migrants to move to Beijing.

HG: Don't you think that we all hold conflicting beliefs? I know I do.

GX: Yes, but it is still restricted by the limitations of knowledge as well as our selfish desires as human beings. I don't think a dictator or a white supremacist is conflicted about their beliefs. Or, at least they know how to use other people's ambivalence as their access to power.

HG: I'm thinking about how half the world is made up of women, and those women give birth to and nurture their children and yet most women the world over have very few rights and must bow to patriarchal rule. Isn't that one of the most prevalent conflicting beliefs? That women are precious individuals, mothers, daughters, and wives, yet they are subject to violence and have little agency the world over. I'd say those conflicting beliefs are pervasive. Now, the beliefs that you are talking about with your mom and dad are different but no less common, don't you think?

GX: Thank you for stating the fact.

The point of my work is to point out the conflicting ideas that my mom and even me have, which can be ignored by lots of people (like the fact of patriarchy.) I'm not saying people do not have a conflicted ideology, but most of the time we won't notice or are disguised by hegemonic power, or personal desire. To reveal these ideas through my video work is my job as an artist. Similarly, I also want to reveal the seemingly trustworthy imageries we consume and reproduce every day (images my mom took in our trip) that can be part of the same problem.

I use this video work to channel many times and spaces to present a possibility to think outside of both personal/physical/regional boundary. Then, we have to encounter the conflictions. But we also have to stay with them and work with them. We cannot avoid them or use them as a tool to gain power and privilege.

HG: Do you have an expectation of how your parents will react when they discover that you identify as gay?

GX: My father will be probably furious, and my mom will be probably sad for the most part.

HG: I hope that when your parents find out that you are gay, they embrace you as you are as that is only one aspect of the total person that they love.

HG: What is next for you as an artist?

GX: I'm working on EXPO Chicago for black puffin + For Freedoms. I just started an adjunct teaching job at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. I have a solo exhibition in Philadelphia in December. The announcement will be out soon. I'm also trying to figure out what my next work will be. Time and funding and funding are limited. We will see.

HG: Thank you. I look forward to seeing more of your work in the future.

Mirror, 2014

Mirror, 2014

All images © Guanyu Xu