Pin It
Opened Closets_Guanyu Xu
Opened Closets, Temporarily Censored HomeCourtesy Guanyu Xu

Photographer Guanyu Xu on queering his traditional Chinese family home

The Chinese photographer’s series ‘Temporarily Censored Home’ and his wider works evoke a yearning to connect two worlds

There are few freedoms greater as a teenager than being left home alone for the day. Liberated from the watchful eye of adults, the absence of authority opens up space for exploration, like a portal unto another world – the start of a coming of age.

For photographer and artist Guanyu Xu, this seminal experience evaded him. Growing up in a “really traditional family” in China, he walked the fine line between hiding and revealing his true identity as a gay man.

It wasn’t until moving to Chicago in 2014 at 21 years old to study that he was able to come out, and he began to channel these experiences through his work as a then-budding photographer. An early series titled One Land to Another addressed a lack of queer Asian representation, as well as the fetishisation he experienced in the community. But it was when he started thinking about ways to create work that connected his life in China with his one in the US that he broke new ground with what is now his most-renowned series Temporarily Censored Home.

In 2018, Xu visited China, and, while his parents were at work, he meticulously built new worlds within the home he spent some of his childhood in. He used portraits he’d taken in the US of men, or shots of places and protests he’d been to, his family archive photographs, and images he’d torn from the pages of magazines – not unlike the ones he collected as a teenager seeking queer representation. These resulted in large-scale, all-encompassing installations that he called Temporarily Censored Home. This collapsing of time and space allowed his two lives a place to coincide – albeit fleetingly, as the installations were deconstructed before his parents returned home, none the wiser.

Temporarily Censored Home has connected so deeply with audiences globally because, despite it being about Xu’s own search for himself, there’s the universal desire to piece ourselves together in a world that tries to pull us apart.

Below, the photographer talks us through his work, and, specifically, the ideas that led to creating Temporarily Censored Home.

I know that you live in the US now, but growing up in Beijing. How were you able to express yourself in terms of sexual identity?

Guanyu Xu: I grew up in a really traditional family. My parents both worked for the State; one a military researcher and the other a civil servant. I was constantly performing as a really good kid by my parents’ definition – following what they wanted me to do. I didn’t really express my sexuality, I was afraid to do that.

I read in a previous interview that you bought film magazines as a way to feel connected to your identity and sexual expression.

Guanyu Xu: Hollywood productions and movies really influenced my early ideas: the US, the idea of democracy, freedom and queer representation. There was a more traditional sense of homosexuality. I rested on those representations because I wasn’t taught how to accept my identity. I also collected a lot of fashion magazines, and I wanted to be a fashion photographer, but that never happened. [Film magazines] had a cultural pull that really influenced my ideology. They definitely helped me understand my sexuality. Now I look at those film and fashion magazines in a more creative and critical way. I revisit them and can understand that there's this fixed normalcy that they had.

Temporary Censored Home feels like your breakout work – it’s a series of incredible interventions in your parents’ house. How did that series come about?

Guanyu Xu: I always ask myself how I communicate my work both in the US and in China, and Temporary Censored Home is one response to that – the gesture of bringing images I made in the US back to China. I print them in Chicago, and then fold them and put them in a cardboard box. Then I put a copper box inside of my luggage and clothing on top and bring it back to China. I was really afraid [customs] would find them, but that didn't happen. 

Tell us more about the images we see.

Guanyu Xu: There are basically three components of the work: photos I take, including portraits and the environment of US and China, some of Europe, but also three-dimensional artworks I made. Then there are torn magazine pages that I collected that reflect on my history of influence from images produced in the west. Then, there are archive photographs, like family photos. 

The work is also this convergence of time and space. You can see a photograph of me having a birthday party, and then [in another] you see my mum putting my father’s military hat onto my head. The work is about how we form these identities through family relationships, objects, and what in the household we see. It’s about how I negotiate my identity.

[The images] also connect personal experience to a more societal governmental moment. Like, the kind of government you have, and how will they make decisions about immigrants, about poor people. I wanted to talk about those issues by bringing my parents’ relationship with the state, revealing that, and connecting it to a moment in the US, for example, with a photograph of me with other gay men that I’ve been with, and with photographs of different protests that I've been to. There are a lot of those moments in different photographs that are meaningful to me. Of course, they are less talked about because most people know the project as this gay kid subverting a conservative Chinese household. I think that’s one of the reasons that the work is the breakout work, that it challenges China, but also it's universal of the experience of children with their parents.

I’m fascinated by the collapse of worlds. Are you longing to bring your world and your parents’ world together?

Guanyu Xu: The work has multiple sides, and I think that’s definitely one. One part of it is that somehow, maybe, I was hoping my parents would catch me, and then I’d have to reveal my identity. I was definitely thinking about how to use my images to transform the space physically so that it felt different, but also mentally, and in my memories.

How I experience a space is different after I finish a project. It's even weirder that I haven't been able to go back to the space for three years [due to COVID]. Most of my memories of these spaces are just constantly looking at these images I created about the space, and that's just strange to me because I don't have a clearer memory of the original space, I just have this new version that I created because I've been constantly looking at these images for three years.

Tell me about how Temporarily Censored Home evolved into the box series, Homebound?

Guanyu Xu: I started to reuse and renegotiate my work and put it in new places and look at it to try and make it do something else. It's really important for me as an analogy of the fluidity of identity, constantly redefining the identity of oneself, as an artwork as well. 

I printed the photographs from Temporary Censored Home onto boxes and shipped some of my personal belongings to China last year. I was supposed to show Temporarily Censored Home as a solo show in Shanghai and the work ended up getting censored and didn't happen. So I was thinking what if I just put my works on a box and ship it back to China, and they wouldn't probably see it as art, but just the outside of a shipping box. I wanted to reveal the absurdity of the censorship office that represents the state’s power, which says it can’t be shown in China. I was afraid of them taking the boxes and destroying them, but eventually, they all got in. It's a work that helped me send a version of me back home, because I haven't been able to go back home for three years at this point due to the pandemic, and also my visa status in the US. When the work was made, I was on an artist’s visa. So the work is this multifunctional object, not only using my personal objects as a reverse Trojan Horse to send my images back, but also it asked questions of how the state limits one’s freedom, how states can control an individual’s freedom both in art production, but also travelling. So that's this new life of the images of Temporary Censored Home as exhibited on the cardboard boxes.

The interview has been edited for clarity. See Guanyu Xu’s work in The Intimate Revolt, Goethe Institut, Beijing, China until 10 July 2022 and Retrograde, Galerie du Monde, Hong Kong, China until August 13, 2022