Xu Guanyu

© Guanyu Xu, Reanimated Bedroom, 2019. Courtesy of Gaotai Gallery (Urumqi)

When we announced the 2020 Exposure Award winner Xu Guanyu from Gaotai Gallery last September we caught up with the photographic artist to discover more about his intriguing works. To celebrate the 2021 Award now being open for entries, we look again at our interview with Xu.

Please give us a brief description on the creation process of In Temporarily Censored Home. How did the project evolve from your initial concept to how we see it today?

I printed out the photos taken in different places, put them in my suitcase and took them back to Beijing. Then, when my parents were not at home, I taped them on the walls, furniture, different objects, some of them I hung from the ceiling. I tried to change the appearance of the house and reclaim the space. At the same time, I tried to re-examine my memory of my teenage years by juxtaposing my childhood family photos, the movie posters collected during my youth, plus images in fashion magazines, to further explore how I was influenced by these pictures.

Inspired by Queer Phenomenology by Sara Ahmed, my project is situated in-between performance, installation and sculpture. The book addresses how marginalized groups have to negotiate their position within the familial space and how they have to succumb to what we call the norm. Before this project, I was experimenting with 3D software, so this work was also influenced by a kind of thinking in-between 2D and 3D. By installing the printed images in reality, I explore how image and space influence our body, desire, and memory. Every time when we recall a piece of memory, we have a chance to recreate it.

It must have been interesting to have to work so quickly: in eight hours you arranged the photographs in each room and then took the final pictures. What was it like to work at such speed?

Indeed, creating the installation in a limited time was very interesting and it also became part of the performative aspect of the work. This feeling of urgency was also recorded by photography. In many cases, it is photography that gives people the ability to capture things that exist temporarily, or things that the naked eye will ignore. For me, this is almost an analogy: the time that the shutter opens and closes is the time of freedom I could have.

© Guanyu Xu, My Desktop, 2019. Courtesy of Gaotai Gallery (Urumqi)

What does “home” means to you?

The home is generally regarded as a private, safe and comfortable place where you can be yourself. For example, when we are thinking by ourselves, our mind could be home for us. Usually, home is required to be a physical space. My work looks at home through physical photographs by reclaiming my ownership and personal memory of a space. For those who keep moving to different places, the notion of home will become more and more blurred, and at the same time it will become a place he/she is constantly looking for. When we think of traditional notions of the individual home, maybe we shouldn’t be shackled by heteronormativity and patriarchy; when we think of a collective home, we should be cautious of nationalism.

We can see a strong element of performance art and art installation in this series. What fascinates you about this approach?

My previous projects have a certain degree of performativity, whether it is photographing my staged death, to endure the icy and cold environment, or shooting images similar to movie stills. In my opinion, performance can help me to remind the audience that the images circulated around us every day may come from a certain ideological influence. For example, films like “The Avengers” received investment from the US government. The high-tech equipment and splendid CG effect you see have political interference behind them. I hope the audience can think harder when they look at images. The images could be fictitious, unilateral, and embedded with agendas.

© Guanyu Xu, Rooms of Convergence, 2019. Courtesy of Gaotai Gallery (Urumqi)

This body of work contains a huge amount and range of imagery. Some are from your magazine collection while others are from your personal creation. What’s the relationship between these two types of images? Did you edit the images as you set up the environment? 

The pictures used in the work have not been modified, and the entire work has not been created in Photoshop. For me, the performative aspect and the site-specificity of this work are really important. 

The pictures I collected represent the norm, such as Hollywood-style heteronormativity and masculinity, or the idea of freedom, individualism, and heroism. They are propagated in the mainstream. These kinds of images also contain certain national ideology and cultural output. In contrast, my self-portraits confront and subvert this as I believe under normal circumstances we don’t see films or TV series, even artworks, showing Asian faces as the leading character. Not to mention the images depicting Asian LGBTQ groups. 

When I juxtapose these two types of images it creates an opportunity for them to collide with each other. My works consider the instability and diversity of identity against the instability and diversity of images. For example, I come from China and live in Chicago, am Asian and gay. At the same time, I’m also a “migrant worker” in the United States. Therefore, there are many entry points to the work: economy, culture, race and sexuality. 

© Guanyu Xu, Space of Mutation, 2019. Courtesy of Gaotai Gallery (Urumqi)

What you create is relevant to your life and experience, but it is not a reproduction of life. So, what distance is appropriate? Does photography have the power to change people’s opinions on issues of identity, nationality, nationalism, sexuality, and displacement?

Yes, most of my works are autobiographical, but I also directly associate the individual with the society. As for the relationship between personal life and the art, I don’t think there should be a standard to decide what’s appropriate or what’s not. After all, every artist works differently. As far as my work is concerned, I feel that at least it can convey the information that I want to express, and whether it can change the opinions of others or not, I think this is what would happen during the discussion. For instance, I will never be able to persuade a radical Trump supporter or I will never be able to persuade a local urbanite who resists the migrant population. But this does not mean that I will stop creating works of art to discuss these issues. Because to a large extent, art is a medium of discussion, it can be about vision, history or humanities. Only tyranny will hinder the freedom of artistic expression, questioning, and thinking.

Has anything interesting happened in your career since you received the Exposure Award?

I am very grateful to PHOTOFAIRS Shanghai for granting me with the Exposure Award. After winning the award, I received several media interviews, which made more people pay attention to my work and the issues that I want to discuss. I look forward to seeing sincere and thoughtful works from the future applicants.