Xu is the winner of this years Grand Prix prize at the Hyères International Festival Fashion and Photography. Here, we revisit an interview originally published in March 2020
Guanyu Xu’s ephemeral photographic installations are potent. Secretly installed in his childhood home, unbeknown to his conservative parents, they speak to Xu’s experience of being a gay man in China and now the US — “two systems that are limiting my freedom differently”. In one image, copious images clutter an empty drawer. In another, large scale prints lie strewn across his parents’ neatly-made bed. “It is a project that reclaims the space, that queers the space — it explores how images create desire and influence us, and how we can confront that influence,” he says.
The installations, collectively titled Temporarily Censored Homeand currently on show at Yancey Richardson, New York, comprise images drawn from a range of sources — “a clutter of things I care about”. They include intimate portraits of Xu and other gay men, from his project One Land to Another, which interrogates the intersectionality of race, sexuality, and citizenship — specifically Xu’s experience of homosexuality in the US where queer aesthetics still privilege the quintessential white male. These nestle among his artwork, images from family albums, and torn pages from western film and fashion magazines, the white male protagonists of which Xu idolised as a teenager growing up in Beijing, China.
“It is a project that reclaims the space, that queers the space — it explores how images create desire and influence us, and how we can confront that influence”
Collectively, the images embody many facets of Xu’s identity exploding out into a place that has historically repressed him. Not only his childhood home but, beyond that, China, with its strict censorship laws and restrictions on LGBTQ+ content. The photographer grew up in a conservative family — his father a military office and mother a civil servant. Both are still unaware that he is gay, and that he has constructed and photographed these installations in their home. It was only after moving to the US to study at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2014 that Xu felt able to come out. The photographer’s parents support his studies, however, they are only aware of his most innocuous work. “My parents always ask me what I am working on … I just show them images of landscapes,” he explains.
Sara Ahmed’s book Queer Phenomenology partly inspired the work, encouraging Xu to reflect on how space can influence an individual’s identity, and the power structures latent in it. The project enabled the photographer to disrupt an environment that had always restricted him: Xu was prevented from decorating his room, bound to the strictly organised layout envisioned by his father. Infiltrating his childhood home, and adorning it with expressions of his sexuality, allowed Xu to reclaim it — “to queer the normativity of my parents’ heterosexual space”.
The quasi-protest Xu enacts via his installations is not confined to the space in which it takes place. From the Hollywood movies he watched as a child and adolescent, the photographer envisioned the US as a land of freedom and democracy — a place markedly different from his home. Relocating to the country was liberating in some respects. However, he discovered that different forms of discrimination pervade the US, a reality increasingly exacerbated by the Trump administration. “Here, I am not represented by the mainstream media — cultural production, movie production etc, only represent white men,” Xu reflects. The work is also a comment on that, exploring how photographs and visual media construct a certain narrative, often divorced from reality.
“My parents always ask me what I am working on … I just show them images of landscapes.”
The photographer muses on how his rigid upbringing contributed to his identity. By temporarily throwing his childhood home into disarray, the Xu unsettles that side of himself. “My home and the images I was exposed to influenced my desire and made me the person I am today,” he says, “in releasing that history and releasing those archives, I can influence my future; I can understand how to change”.
Hannah Abel-Hirsch joined British Journal of Photography in 2017, where she is currently Assistant Editor. Previously, she was an Editorial Assistant at Magnum Photos, and a Studio Assistant for Susan Meiselas and Mary Ellen Mark in New York. Before which, she completed a BA in History of Art at University College London. Her words have also appeared on Magnum Photos, 1000 Words, and in the Royal Academy of Arts magazine.