Guanyu Xu is an artist working with photography and cultural iconography to create compositions that deliberately disorient the viewer. His project Temporarily Censored Home has reached international acclaim, currently showing at the International Center of Photography in New York. In this work, he visits his family home in China and creates elaborate photo installations by mining images from his personal photographic archive, printing them out, and physically placing them within domestic settings. Many of these photos are from his life in Chicago and draw on aspects of his queerness - a part of his life that he does not share with his family - in order to reclaim this space.
When I first saw these images, the temporality of the spaces he created really stuck me. I could feel the rush of Xu arranging all the images, fixing the lighting, making sure everything was perfectly placed, snapping the images, and taking down his immaculate construction before anyone was the wiser. There is a meticulousness and a fluidity to his compositions; They are fixed in time, yet there is the sense that everything can change in a moment. The alternate hiding and revealing which runs as a current through his practice.
When Xu tried to exhibit his work in Shanghai, his photographs were censored. We spoke about how this reality shaped his thinking about policing, censorship, borders, and state surveillance, and how similar policies are employed in both the U.S. and in China. These ideas led him to create works such as Homebound and Resident Alien, foregrounding the precariousness of citizenship and belonging.
We spoke about family, and although he is not able to share many things with his parents his film Complex Formation does centre a conversation about art and nationalism he had with his mother. In the film, Xu’s mother says that she is proud of him for becoming an artist, but that he should not make art that is political. To her dismay, Xu does not shy away from being critical in his work; it is something that he embraces and is embedded in all that he does. After experiencing being questioned by ICE officers, his new work hopes to tackle notions of borders and state surveillance and the constant feeling of being watched or needing to toe the line that is familiar for those with temporary resident status in western nations.
As a person who works with images I'm always trying to think about different ways to work with them as a material, so I’m actually thinking about using [my personal collection] of photos to make something new.
I want to start with something I read in your bio that interested me:
Influenced by the production of ideology in American visual culture and a conservative familial upbringing in China, Xu’s practice extends from examining the production of power in photography to the question of personal freedom and its relationship to political regimes.
What imagery defines American visual culture for you?
Mainly Hollywood films and TV shows that are produced in the United States. I grew up watching those things and at the time I was thinking about this idea of freedom and democracy that's embedded in those films. I was also thinking about themes of individualism and heroism that were part of the films I watched, all of which are really different from the culture I grew up in.
Looking at the idea of freedom while also trying to figure out my sexuality lured me to believe in all these myths in a way, so I feel that's part of my background. When I finally moved to the U.S. and started studying here I became engaged in a more critical understanding of what's going on in this media.
There's always this comparison between the U.S. and China. I have to understand both places and both cultures, I cannot choose either one. But, in a way, this has given me a more critical standpoint. It’s not this or that; I have to question both and try to find the similarities and the differences.
People tend to think the two cultures are in opposition, but in reality, they’re pretty similar, so that’s always in my mind when I work. I think it's also really useful to find connections between the two countries. As a visual artist, popular culture is part of what I consume every day and visually, it is a material that I can use.
Are there any specific films or anything that really stuck out to you from your youth that were influential?
In my project Temporarily Censored Home, there are a lot of torn pages from magazines I collected when I was in high school and middle school and they are mainly about industrial Hollywood films. Mostly from the U.S. but also Chinese films, and the Chinese film industry looks up to Hollywood.
I went to a film school for two years called Beijing Film Academy. If you want to be a filmmaker in China, that's the place to go. I learned about Hollywood films from that school but there was no criticality at all. If you look at all the pages that are torn from the magazines in the work, there are superhero films or films that won Oscars.
One film I watched when I was in China is Gran Torino by Clint Eastwood. When I started studying here in the U.S. I finally started to understand the toxic masculinity in the film and the idea of assimilation of Asian immigrants. It's this really interesting white saviour story, but when I was watching it in China I was so intrigued. That's one example I feel really sticks out in my mind; I liked the film and it was touching, but when I actually learned more about it afterward it became so disgusting for me.
That makes sense. When we're young and consuming this content we don’t think as critically, but when you're studying images and you gain that more critical perspective you start to question who's making the decisions about how these characters are portrayed and what the larger implications of the way that the story is set out are.
There is a certain fascination with the still life and layered composition that is so canonical in Western art history. When I see your work, I can’t help but think of Dutch vanitas, and the layered viewpoints in your work remind me of Cubism. Works with multiple viewpoints that create a whole representation of a subject.
In the technique that you use for a lot of your images in Temporarily Censored Home and Resident Aliens, were you trying to use a language that would also appeal to a Western audience, or where did that approach come from?
It's something I cannot avoid because I've been fully trained in Western art history. The films we are watching every day are already informed by those aesthetics, and popular culture as well.
Everything I know about contemporary art is from studying here in the U.S., but there's also this really interesting shifting perspective in traditional Chinese landscape painting, which is multi-perspective, instead of showing one single perspective. Western painting is also influenced by Eastern styles of art.
When I was constructing the images in Temporarily Censored Home and Resident Aliens, I was creating a space that allows the viewer to enter from different viewpoints. . I was definitely also thinking about Cubism, but Cubism is influenced by Eastern arts. The flatness was influenced by Japanese woodblock printing, so I feel that the Eastern aesthetic and influence has always been there. Western canon claims it is theirs, but they were always influenced by other cultures.
That's a really good point. There has always been this hybrid approach, even if it wasn't addressed or credit wasn’t given to other cultures before. Was there anything specific that stood out as a trigger for you in thinking, “Oh, this is how I want to approach these sorts of compositions” when you were coming up with the visual strategy that you use?
It was really important for me to create a sense of disorientation because being foreigners from a marginalized group, we always have to navigate the world more consciously in comparison to people who are in dominant positions. The sense of disorientation you get when you have to figure out your life in this new place was something that I wanted to create for the viewer.
It's about creating a layered space that speaks to the complexity of identity, allowing viewers to travel to different places at the same time.
I think that as artists, researchers, and scholars we approach things in a more nuanced way. You have to look back to the history of events while also trying to understand contemporary implications as well as what's potentially going to happen next.
It's also a way of thinking: the method becomes part of the art. It’s a way to invite viewers to look and study or make them be more interested in the work and allow them to think in a more complicated or a more diverse way.
In Temporarily Censored Home you used images from your personal archive to create elaborate installations in your parents’ home while they were out, in order to disrupt and queer the heteronormativity of the home you grew up in.
I'm curious about the planning process; how long did you think about doing this? And you were under a really tight time constraint for when you could shoot; how was that process?
I made the project over two trips. The first time I went to Beijing for less than a month, and the second time I went back, I think I only stayed for two weeks. The first time I was more nervous to do the project, but the second time I felt that I knew the space better.
I tried to finish constructing and shooting each work within one day. But there were also pieces where I had to do a more simple version; take a photograph and take them down, re-do them and then add more so they could be more complex. I also planned which photos should go where. For instance, a photograph of the dining room goes into the dining room, the actual space, but sometimes I worked more intuitively and just went crazy and put everything up.
The second time was more precise. Since I had already taken some photos, I knew I could get away with it and I didn't need to worry too much. But still, each time I was pretty nervous during the process. My parents also knew that I was doing a project at home, so that probably made it a bit easier, now that I'm thinking about it.
So, the second time, your parents knew that you were making a project but they gave you some privacy and let you do your work without asking too many questions about what the work is about?
Yes, because I showed them some of the prints. Both times I showed them the prints of landscapes and stuff, so they thought that's what I do as an artist. They still mostly think I’m making generic landscape photographs; I think that's also usually what parents think photography is.
Right now the work is pretty well known internationally; have your parents seen it or are you able to control the parts that they can see?
It's funny. So, the work was made in 2018 and 2019. It started to gain exposure in 2019, and then I got the show with Yancey Richardson right before the pandemic, in February 2020. Then, during the pandemic they saw this Chinese media post about my work. I think that a family member found it and shared it in a family group chat.
The lucky part is that they posted a photograph that's really low resolution and it's also on the phone so they actually don't know what's exactly in the photographs. I think that was also the time they realized I'm doing well; I have a show in New York, and they are really happy about that even though they also probably don't understand what's going on, maybe it looks weird to them. They know that it’s artwork, but they still don't know exactly what it’s about.
Did you feel that intersecting your parents’ home with these parts of your life that you’re trying to keep hidden from them gave you a new relationship with your family? Or a feeling that you can reclaim that space in some way?
I think the process of making all of those images was at least transformative for myself, I definitely experienced the space differently. I think it's slightly similar to the new work, Resident Aliens, that I’m making in different immigrants' homes. People have told me that it's emotional to see all their photographs installed in their own space because they've never had their own personal art up. Seeing their images printed out and installed in their space, even temporarily, is a transformative experience.
And I feel my approach makes me experience my parent’s home differently, but I don't think it does anything to my relationship with my parents. It's just a sad fact that I still cannot be honest with them both about the project or my sexuality, and that's really difficult.
I wanted to also thank you for sending me the film Complex Formation. In it, you're talking about a lot of really interesting and important issues with your mom, topics like socialism, class structure, and wealth distribution in China.
You asked your parents if you should stay in the U.S. and they said yes, because in America they respect artists. But then they also say they don't think there's anywhere in the world that's safer than China.
Your parents seem really proud of you and really happy that you're an artist, but they do say at one point that they want you to make art, but they don't want you to make art that's political.
The film is about many things. I'm definitely direct in my relationship with my mom and I feel it's also about trying to understand her. My aesthetic is influenced by her, we would watch Hollywood films together when I grew up.
But, she's in the Communist Party and she works for the local government. Similarly, my father is in the military: he’s a military researcher. So, they are supposed to believe in this idea of socialism or communism, but nowadays that doesn’t exist. It’s just a different form of capitalism.
It’s really funny that in China, at least for my generation, our education was really about collectivism about sharing equality. We learn Mao’s philosophy and Marx’s philosophy in high school and we have to do exams about them, but nobody actually believes any of they stand for. Everything is more about nationalism and capitalism.
So, it’s really funny to think that I believe more in socialism than my parents, but they somehow don’t understand that. My mom also understands me in the way that she knows I'm more, from her perspective, radical. I always argue with my father when we're together back home. We talk about politics, both about China and the U.S. So my mom knows what I think about everything, but in the conversation she's also trying to persuade me. I'm persuading her and she's also persuading me.
We travelled within the U.S. for a month when she was here for my undergrad commencement, and we also went to Europe afterward. It was the first time she had been out of China. It's also really interesting, again, to think about her viewing Hollywood films and then being so excited to finally be in the U.S. We saw Angela Davis and Gayatri Spivak talk in Berlin. She didn't know who those people were, but she knew I was really excited about it and you can see the footage from the talk in the film. That's my mom's video footage actually, but she doesn’t understand English at all, so there's all those caring moments that are part of the film, but that's also the place for me to talk about desire and all those difficult topics. It was also a moment for me to poke my mom in the way that we talked about all that radical stuff but we never talk about my sexuality.
Your archive is interwoven in all your work and even in Complex Formation, you've made this 3D rendering of the spaces that your photos inhabit.
How do you feel about the lifespan of the image of your images? I imagine your personal archive is something of great importance to you and it shows up again and again in your work.
I’ve never thought about it. I think all the prints I’ve made, I still have. I'm a hoarder in that way. I work with different people I photograph here in Chicago and I have all their personal photographs as well. After the installations, I offer that if they want to keep any of the photographs they can. Some people keep all of them, some people pick one or two, but then all the rest, they’re still with me.
As a person who works with images I'm always trying to think about different ways to work with them as a material, so I’m thinking about using those photo [archives] to make something new. As for my personal archive, I’m a still photographer so I take a lot of photos. Nowadays I just take photographs with my phone when I go out. I’m actually thinking about using my own pictures to make new work in a more studio-based project. For me, being able to renegotiate or reinterpret an image is really important. Maybe after many years, I’ll reuse them. They could mean something else, right?
I'd use photographs that I’d taken in the U.S. and then, when the subject migrated to a new space they become something new. The negotiation of images is part of the way I work. It becomes an analogy to the ways of thinking about identity in a more complicated way, instead of isolating things, which I think is less productive.
That's powerful, what you said about renegotiating and interpreting images and having the flexibility to do that. One thing’s meaning doesn't need to be fixed and can change with time, making space for multiplicity and growth.
You mentioned that Temporarily Censored Home was censored when you went to Shanghai. Could you speak a bit about what that experience was like?
It was really sad because I received this award, which was supposed to be a solo show in Shanghai and it was during the pandemic. At the time, everyone was depressed because all the art events had been cancelled, so I was really happy that I got the chance to show in China.
It was going to be the first time I had a solo show in China, but different cities have different censorship offices and they have to review art exhibitions. Usually, you don't have to report if you are a Chinese artist. They are more concerned about foreign artists in China. They don't want anything that's sabotaging the Communist Party or critiquing China in any way. But somehow, someone reported my work to get reviewed and it didn't pass. The curators asked me if I wanted to propose something new so I proposed a new show without Temporarily Censored Home. I made some new work that's more abstract within one or two months.
They still wouldn’t approve that. We realized they just didn’t want to approve my work. I was flagged somehow. It’s tricky, and sometimes even though you don't report your art, there are still people who go to the physical exhibition to check it and then if they decide to shut down the exhibition they can just do that. So, it's different from how Western countries give space for artists
The ideas for your project Homebound came after this experience of being censored. In this project, you mailed your personal items back to China and then you cover the shipping boxes in photos from Temporarily Censored Home.
I print on the cardboard so the images are part of the cardboard, and so, in a way, Temporarily Censored Home had the chance to exhibit in China.
But of course, it is a different project because it’s really difficult for Chinese individuals to go back to their country nowadays because of how strict the travel restrictions are. Even if they weren’t so strict I still cannot go back because my visa here can be compromised if I go back to China.
Homebound is about this really strange process of who's deciding what is art and the absurdity of how the state controls citizens. The censorship office is a representation of state power. The customs in China are also representing the power of the state because they can decide what can go into China. They also review suspicious books or any cultural products. If you send back a hard drive, they want to know what's on it. . But my boxes eventually got in safely and even though some of them were tagged, they moved from one custom to the other custom and though they took a longer time to get through, eventually all the boxes got in.
So, it's absurd to realize, “Oh, another state representative decides that they are okay to go into China and into the public sphere.” Even though they are weird shipments of my tiny things in a large box, most of the boxes are just stuffed with bubble wrap. The boxes also look weird because they have pictures on the outside of the box, but they still got through.
It’s interesting that having the photos on the outside of the boxes would make them somehow less suspicious than having them inside the box. It's almost like a decoy; you have the thing that has already been censored upfront, and then inside is just household objects.
It was surprising for me that everything eventually got in because there are also rules that you are not supposed to send used stuff back to China if you are not moving back. Usually, you have to move back and then receive your things. So, I had to say that they were all new things, that they were a commodity. But also, you cannot ship a large number of commodities, because that's illegal, or you’d have to pay tax on it.
So, the household objects are a reverse Trojan Horse in a way. The products represent my life, but also, they are protecting the images that are on the outside.
Homebound is also about having my work in China. Because I was hoping to have Temporarily Censored Home exist in the public sphere in China, and they moved from customs to different cities in China, so that became part of its journey.
Now you've shown the shipping boxes as pieces in gallery spaces as almost sculptural items on their own, and they bear the marks of travel. They have stickers and scrapes and dents on them. Do you keep the boxes empty when you show them in the space?
The items are usually in there. The work is called Homebound, partially because I’m sending my life back to China, where I haven't been able to go back for three years now.
But it's multifunctional in the way that you can also take everything out and then flatten a box. Then you will have an almost full image from Temporarily Censored Home and it's double-sided. One side of the flattened box is one image and the other side of the flattened box is another image.
Your project Resident Alien is super relevant to this whole process of not being able to go back to your country and sending your things back. Did you find a community of people in Chicago who are dealing with some similar visa and immigration issues that you've used as participants for this project?
The work I've been making here in Chicago in the past year is called Resident Aliens, which is a project in which I install images of people who are still dealing with different visa statuses. I will create photo installations using both photographs I took in their spaces, and also their own personal photos that they provided to me.
I was thinking about the idea of immigration and the precariousness of the experience when you temporarily stay in a place, both inside of a country, but also in an apartment where you’re not sure how long you can stay. For instance, when the pandemic broke, I had friends that had to move back to their countries and I also have friends that could not move back. Or if they do leave, they cannot re-enter the U.S.
I was thinking about that precariousness that they are dealing with, but I was also thinking about China at the same time. In my film, there was this discussion with my mom where I asked her, “Do you think the U.S. should welcome immigrants?” and she said yes, and when I asked her if people from rural China should move to Beijing, if that should be encouraged she said, ‘I don't think so.”
So that was in my mind when I made Resident Aliens, and I was also thinking about a specific law called Hukou. It directly fixes where you belong to where you were born, and if you decide to move to a new city you have to figure out how to transfer your Hukou. It is really difficult for people to move across two different provinces; you have to gain a temporary resident card if you move somewhere, especially if you move to a bigger city. If you are there to study or work, you're not supposed to be there for a longer time, you cannot just stay there. In a way, this is an internal border that's within the country itself and is controlling people's lives. Similarly, here in the U.S., there is the Border Patrol of the national border. They are similar, so there's no way politicians don't look at other countries to learn from each other.
My subjects for this project at the start were my friends; a lot of them are or were international students. Usually, we come here with an F1 visa, which is a student visa, and then if you want to stay here longer you have to change to an H1b visa, which is a working visa. But you have to have a sponsor from a company so it's really difficult, especially for artists, because it’s usually difficult to find a full-time job for artists or art historians.
Homebound is also inspired by that because at the beginning of the pandemic when every country was closing their borders, my friend decided to fly back to China without cleaning his apartment. I had to go to his apartment to pack for him and then send everything back. It was a really painful process for me, but then I realized I have all those items that I have here. How do I deal with them or who's gonna take care of them if, suddenly, I have to leave the country?
Usually, the process is I have to shoot at least twice; the first time I meet a person I photograph their space, talk with them and learn a little bit about their stories. Then, the second time, I will bring the printed images to make the installation, and then photograph that.
I also have friends that decided to stay here during the pandemic but eventually decided to leave as well. There is one image, you can see in their space that there are cardboard boxes they are packing to move back to their home. That’s another reminder for me, to work with cardboard boxes, so that's some connection between the two projects.
Resident Aliens is a sister project of Temporary Censored Home, but there's nothing secret and it's more open. It's more collaborative with the spaces and the people that I work with, but both of the projects deal with a sense of temporary-ness.
It was really important for me to create a sense of disorientation because being foreigners from a marginalized group, we always have to navigate the world more consciously in comparison to people who are in dominant positions.
In both of the projects, there's a sense of taking a confined space and trying to expand it. Especially in Resident Aliens, you get this sense of people living in a small apartment and not being able to leave to go home, wherever home is. Or they're trying to make this their home and you're bringing out these images from their archive to show the expanse of their experience and all the things they're going through.
I think for Resident Alien, I’m thinking about that contradictory feeling of temporarily living somewhere, both in an apartment but also in the country, and also thinking about that experience of the pandemic when we were in isolation. We were afraid to go out and suddenly everybody experienced that.
I know it's different because I’m not an illegal immigrant, so I shouldn't be afraid of what will potentially happen or that they will just expel me from this country, but there’s this constant fear that we've done something wrong, that you could just be kicked out.
I'm working on a new project that deals with this as well. I had an experience of being stopped by a Border Patrol Agent; I don't know if that exists in Canada, but in the U.S., within 100 miles from any physical border, there will be checkpoints to check your passport. You are supposed to have passports on you all the time because they can check your them and question your legality. I didn't know that existed before, and I didn't bring my passport at the time because you can fly to different airports in the U.S. with a state ID or a driver's license. . So, it was surprising for me, and it was scary. I remember seeing memes saying that, if ICE agents stop by your home and ask to come in you can just say no, whether you are illegal or not.
This is information that you are supposed to know because the state exploits the rights that you should have. You’re constantly worrying if you’re being safe or if you’re doing something illegal. So this fear is always there.
Can I ask how that experience relates to your new project?
I'm looking at more studio-based projects that deal with just the physical structure of the Border Patrol checkpoints.
At least this year, I want to spend more time in the studio. I’m tired of working with other people and bringing equipment to their space. It’s a long process of making each image, so I’m thinking of pausing Resident Aliens if I don't get funding because it's also expensive to print a lot of images.
I also hope that maybe Resident Aliens could be another long-term project that I could do in different places and different cities because there are different demographics, and there are different architectural styles.
What's inspiring you right now, or what are you looking at to research this project?
I’m trying to read more about the immigrant experience. Lisa Lowe is a scholar who wrote Immigrant Acts and Intimacies of Four Continents, so these texts are really great for my understanding of the issues and the connection between colonial history across different continents, but also, immigrant experiences here in the U.S.
Another book, which is not a scholarly book and is more from a personal experience is Conditional Citizens: On Belonging in America by Laila Lalami. That's a really informative book that connects many things, but there's one chapter that specifically talks about border patrol that she experienced, so it's definitely going to be part of my research for the new work.
As for art, I always look at artists who use images, and photographers like Wolfgang Tillmans.
Also, installation artist Sarah Sze is definitely one of my biggest influences, and Thomas Hirschhorn, in terms of the use of image and politics. Since I also teach I look at many things that definitely influence me.