Digital Wondering 20

Digital Wonderings are a series of online speculations around the curatorial theme of TRUST. They can take any form, from a conversation, a short statement, a film or a photographic series. Invited contributors come from a wide range of disciplines and can respond and react to the theme and the format as they wish.

Artist Portrait: Guanyu Xu (CN)

Pictures from Guanyu Xus series ‘Resident Aliens’ (2021) will be shown alongside ‘Temporary Censored Home’ (2018 – 19), and the video ‘Complex Formation’ (2018). These works all consider the outsider in a complex investigation of personal and political history and identity. Xu highlights the disparities and connections between the USA where he lives, and China where he was brought up.


In a zoom with the curators at the end of May, Xu elaborated on his work: ‘I think about how authority has the power to use images to produce/construct norms, desires, and ideologies. Thinking about both Chinese political propaganda but also Hollywood films constructed my desire of the US and the ideology of „Land of Free.“ These cultural productions are embedded with the norm of masculinity, heteronormativity, and nationalism.’


There is a deeper trust that exists in his work: ‘Especially of the recent work that is produced in this pandemic with the collaborators, they invited me to their space and showed me their vulnerable state. In ‘Resident Aliens’, I find participants who hold different visa statuses in the United States’, he writes about the work. ‘The series presents the complicated condition that immigrants experience in the US. I want to ask: In this interconnected world, how do we define citizenship and the legality of a person?’


When Xu had a conversation with an asylum-seeker, the latter was going through the paperwork process with his partner (a US citizen) ‘He had to find images of them together to PROVE they were in a real relationship. In addition, they had to find a US citizen to write a letter to PROVE he had good morality. I thought it was fascinating how producing images for personal use suddenly becomes politicized and becomes a duty for immigrants. And how these images should be „good“ and „trustworthy“ to be believed by the State. Will he ever be able to produce an image for himself instead of constantly performing for the authority?’


In ‘Resident Aliens’ Xu names each piece as a numbering system: ‘The system is their first and last name initial, and also the date they first entered the US with a long-term visa. I was thinking about how in all those immigration documents, or if you file an application, you become a number. The immigration officer needs to make sure that all the paperwork is matched under this number. So I guess they don’t really think of them as a real life people, they think of them as this reductive paperwork. So, I am using the image to subvert that notion’.


Xu’s previous work is also connected to trust as he can’t be sure that his parents know about his project. In ‘Complex Formation’, Xu juxtaposes cell-phone images taken by his mother during trips to the US and Europe, along with 3D animations he has made. ‘The video is accompanied by my monologue and my conversation with my mother on our varying ideas about art, cultural influence, the American Dream, the ideal life, safety in both the US and China, and the potentiality of the future. My mother has not seen the final piece. Whatever I do, she supports.’


‘Trust exists in their love of me’, Xu explains of his parents. ‘They believe I’m doing a project in our home, but they are okay that I don’t show them exactly what the work looks like. They believe all my images are landscapes. That’s their trust in me.’ His parents have seen small images online through Chinese news media: ‘The images they saw were a blur because of the nature of the screen and the compression of the images. So they just believe what they already believed. ‘


In ‘Temporarily Censored Home’, Xu covertly situated photographs in his teenage home in Beijing to queer the normativity of his parents‘ heterosexual space. ‘Through positioning, layering, and recontextualising images, I aim to juxtapose, contradict and collapse space and time, disrupting my teenage home. It bridges the relationship between personal and political in the context of the oppressive systems of both China and the US.’


This also leads to how an image can represent someone for Xu: ‘Especially if you just label this person an immigrant or with different labels. For me, it’s really important to show both their space, their temporary state of being, but also include images that they offered me. I think about how to represent their personal history, and what they are doing right now. I take photographs in their space, thinking about how we trust the image, and trust the authority of an image representing someone. It’s really important to actively remind the viewer that these images are constructed. The identity is constructed, and the identity is also constantly in flux.’



Guanyu Xu was born in Beijing and is currently based in Chicago. He lectures at the University of Illinois, and is the winner of the Hyéres International Festival (2020). His works have been exhibited and screened internationally, including at the Aperture Foundation, New York; ICP Museum, New York; Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; New Orleans Museum of Art, and Fotomuseum Winterthur, Switzerland. He is represented by Yancey Richardson (USA) and Gaotai Gallery (China).