One day, while his parents were at work, photographer Guanyu Xu plastered every surface of their family home with imagery, effectively turning the apartment into his own gallery. On walls and door frames images of topless male models hung alongside photos of sunsets and oceans. On desks and tables, shots of Guanyu lying in bed with other men sat facing photos from family albums.
As a child, he wasn’t allowed to hang posters on his bedroom walls, and now, aged 26, he returned to those same walls and covered them head-to-toe in images representing gay male intimacy. His makeshift gallery was taken down before his parents returned home that day. They never knew, and still don’t know what Guanyu did to their apartment. And importantly, they still don’t know he’s gay.
Born into a traditional, military family in Beijing, Guanyu’s parents expected him to become a doctor or a lawyer, but they accepted his decision to pursue a creative career instead. The burgeoning artist went to Beijing Film Academy to study photography, and after a couple of years transferred to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, “to study in a more critical environment.” This move to the US affected him and his work significantly.
One might think that China and the US would be very different prospects for a young gay man, but Guanyu explains that despite their differences in structure and approach, there are ultimately plenty of similarities. “Chinese society sees homosexuality as taboo generally, but we don’t criminalize it and lots of younger people in the bigger cities actually accept it,” he says. “Meanwhile, the U.S. has a history of LGBTQ rights movements, but it’s mostly centered around white people, and there are problems with hate crimes against queer people.”
He highlights Trump’s presidency as strengthening racism and homophobia in the US, and mentions the deep nationalistic ideology that was embedded in him in Chinese schools. “Comparing China and the US makes me realize the simultaneous operations of nationalism and imperialism as a means of centralizing power,” he says. Despite more globalization than ever, the idea of the free expression of sexuality is still on a cliff’s edge. Having lived in both countries, Guanyu saw this project, titled Temporarily Censored Home, as a chance to bridge the gap between the two, and ask questions about two inherently oppressive systems.
A lot of the photos Guanyu used come from his long-term series One Land To Another, which explores his personal journey of self discovery in the US. In a form that’s half documentary and half fiction, he intertwines shots of American landscapes with self-portraits of himself in intimate encounters with other gay men. “These constellations of photographs not only express alternative visuals of gay male intimacy, but also interweave with my transnational way of seeing,” he says. “The presence of my Asian body disrupts the dominance of queer aesthetics which privilege a narrow, white, masculine homonormativity.”
In so many ways, Temporarily Censored Home captures perspectives, norms and stereotypes from both countries Guanyu has called home. The photos exploring his encounters with men in the US literally place gay identity in both nations in the same frame. Cut-outs from magazines he collected as a teenager in a traditional family bring attention to his upbringing in China, as does the very fact that the images are hung in his parents’ home, parents who are still unaware of his sexuality. “Through juxtaposing all of this together, I can create a space of critical reflection both about my cultural influence and about the harsh realities of this seemingly global but evilly conservative world,” Guanyu explains.
“I’m just trying to communicate my reflection and express my frustration and protest when caught between two worlds, neither of which are constructively making societies better places domestically and internationally,” he says. “I see it as a way to deal with the problem and communicate with people that may have a similar experience.” This is a project that is insightfully objective while being deeply subjective. It’s a project that makes so many points about societies and their bias worldwide, while also being communicated through the eyes of one young man experiencing it. “In a way, my own body is trying to claim, map, and take control of the whole space. It’s really personal,” Guanyu says. “I think it’s one of the most expressive works I’ve ever made.”