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Unpacking spatial politics: a conversation with Guanyu Xu

Luke Chapman

Aug 25, 2023


HI-11182013-06302023 (Series: Resident Aliens), 2023
Archival Pigment Print
Presented in two sizes
101.6 x 127 cm (40 x 50 in.), Edition of 5 plus 2 AP
142.2 x 177.8 cm (56 x 70 in.), Edition of 3 plus 2 AP
Courtesy of the artist and Galerie du Monde, Hong Kong



In a world saturated with imagery, Guanyu Xu stands out as a visionary whose work transcends boundaries. This interview dives into the creative mind of the Chicago-based Chinese artist, exploring the inspirations, challenges, and revelations that have shaped his artistic journey. Identity, belonging and immigration remain central to the vocabulary of the artist, who elaborates on the intersection of these themes with his interrogations of systems of power. Unpacking the essence of his long term project, Resident Aliens, Xu invites readers to explore the new series, titled Traversable Landscape, among other works on view at the show Duration of Stay, at Galerie du Monde, Hong Kong.



Luke Chapman (LC): Guanyu Xu, thank you for agreeing to this interview. Your exhibition, Duration of Stay, at Galerie du Monde in Hong Kong was at once visually striking and deeply informative. How was your stay in the city? 


Guanyu Xu (GX): I still cannot believe I visited Hong Kong three times in the past two months. I was so excited to go back to Asia after being away for four and a half years. I would land in the morning, and in the afternoon, I would already be shooting for my project, Resident Aliens. My stay in Hong Kong was packed with working on new art, preparing for my show, reconnecting with friends, and meeting new people. It was dazzling, with the tropical heat, and the jet lag. Galerie du Monde did an amazing job of hosting me, introducing a Hong Kong that I had never experienced before.


LC: Your show in Hong Kong approaches a plethora of themes and the gallery cites your personal history as one of your main sources of inspiration. Can you tell us a little about your background? Is it connected to the question of personal freedom which resonates in your work?


GX: I grew up in a traditional family in Beijing. Both my parents work for the government. My familial environment, as well as my education, was always heavily ideological. It was really difficult to confront my sexuality. In a way, I was homophobic myself because of societal conventions. My parents still don’t know that I’m gay. When I was working on my previous project, Temporarily Censored Home (2018-19), it became very clear to me that social norms and ideologies are connected to personal, familial, and political realms. 


As I moved beyond the subject of my earlier work - confrontation with my own sexuality - I decided to look at a broader condition: that of being foreign and being an “alien.” Similar to thinking about how governments control sexuality, my project Resident Aliens highlights the conditions of immigration. Reflecting on my own experience with immigration, I want to unite various stories to bring this issue to light.


LC: During your residency in Hong Kong, you profiled an eclectic group of people. Was the residency itself instrumental in terms of research for your Resident Aliens series?


GX: I’ve always wanted to extend Resident Aliens to a new location after working in the American Midwest for three years. The immigration issue is not unique to the U.S. It is a complex economic and political system around the world. I was really excited when Galerie du Monde presented me with the opportunity to take my project a step further. Growing up in mainland China, Hong Kong was a legendary place for me. It has a rich history, cultural production, and a privileged economy. I remember during summer break when I was a student living in Beijing, I would secretly watch Phoenix Movies Channel while my parents were gone for work - though, later on, the channel disappeared. 


Migrating my practice from the U.S., I created three photo installations within three temporary residents' homes during my three visits to Hong Kong. They are a Filipino helper, a mainland Chinese scholar, and a forcibly-displaced Egyptian asylum seeker. To a degree, they represent the complexity of this region: a highly-developed international city with a colonial past and shifting contemporary politics. Constructing installations within dense spaces in Hong Kong is a drastically different experience from my U.S.-based work, especially given the wealth inequality of the place. This compressed living condition encouraged me to build complex and disorienting constructions, echoing the sense of foreignness and precariousness that I also experienced in this city.



Interior Border Checkpoint, Niland, CA (Series: Traversable Landscape), 2023
Archival pigment print mounted on dibond
Each: 201 x 109.5 cm (79 x 43 in.) | Overall size: 201 x 328 cm (79 x 129 in.)
Edition of 3 plus 2 AP
Courtesy of the artist and Galerie du Monde, Hong Kong



LC: Your Traversable Landscape series is quite enchanting to look at. We are interested in the way you approach the topic of power in relation to political regimes in this series. Could you elaborate on that?


GX: I always feel so small when thinking about political issues. Since high school, I have often  had conversations/debates with my father regarding politics between China and the U.S. (At the time, I was secretly considering the freedom of my sexuality.) I am constantly looking at governmental decisions regarding the two nations. After studying in the U.S., I gained a more critical understanding of both of them. 


Traversable Landscape takes on “landscape photography,” which I haven’t explored much before. It deals with my own experience of passing through an internal border checkpoint in Niland, CA, in 2018 during Trump’s presidency. Unlike the Resident Aliens series, which focuses on interior locales, I use this work to examine the exterior space of being an immigrant. Using personal visa paperwork and cellphone photos of the California landscape, I attempt an overtaking of the brutal, disciplinary space of the border architecture. In a way, my approach uses the most insignificant thing to strike at the hardly contestable system.


LC: From photography to mixed media, you use a variety of mediums in your practice. Could you tell us more about your process and how it assists in your artistic, perspectival exploration of certain themes?


GX: I always end up thinking about my projects “photographically” and photography is a medium that produces knowledge and power. Even though a few of my works are devoid of images, they still relate to photography. For instance, last year, I made a neon text work, absence of (2022), for a solo exhibition in the Chinese American Museum of Chicago. It drew upon the premise that light is essential to photography and to register memory in our brains. In Resident Aliens, I continue my exploration of “spatial collage” to construct layered imagery. It is also a project embedded with performativity. In Suspension (O1 Visa and Censored Exhibition) (2021), the dazzling digital drawing was constructed in a 3D software and eventually, I had to use the virtual camera in the software to capture the image. The shift of medium, or the various ways I use photography, very much relate to my queer identity. It’s complex, shifting, translatable and interpretable.


LC: Speaking of Suspension (O1 Visa and Censored Exhibition) and layers, how do you envision the role of your art in addressing topics such as fractured identity and belonging?


GX: Suspension (O1 Visa and Censored Exhibition) is a project made during the pandemic, focusing on the situation in both China and the U.S. It comparatively reveals the ways in which state power controls citizens or immigrants. I layered 144 out of 558 pages of my United States O1 visa paperwork with a digital drawing of the streets of Shanghai created for a solo exhibition there in fall 2020. The exhibition was censored, and the reason remains unknown. The two layers of Suspension (O1 Visa and Censored Exhibition) each represent one superpower. The drawing transforms the document into a new space without clear borders and orientation, imagining the freedom of mobility. Their impossible coexistence leads to them not only contradicting, but also obscuring and dissolving each other. This work expresses my powerlessness as an alien in the U.S. during the pandemic, my inability to travel back to my home country, the suspended experience of the deadlock created by political powers, the overwhelming preparation for a visa, and the reaction to my censored exhibition. 


LC: Do you have anything new in mind for future projects, be it in terms of themes, mediums, ideas?


GX: I just started my residency at Pioneer Works in Brooklyn. I will continue to expand my project, Resident Aliens, in New York. Meanwhile, I will explore more on the idea of “border architecture,” or broadly speaking, spaces that control and discipline immigrants.   


LC: Finally, what advice do you have for aspiring artists who are also navigating questions of power and freedom on the personal and political levels?


GX: It’s always tough to deal with this topic. I can only say that we are in this together, and we will march one step at a time. 



Guanyu Xu: Duration of Stay is on view at Galerie Du Monde, Hong Kong from Jun 7 - Aug 31, 2023. For more information about the exhibition, please click here.