Jackson Davidow, the John R. and Barbara Robinson Family Curatorial Fellow in Photography, recently talked with artist Guanyu Xu about the development of his photograph Worlds Within Worlds, his artistic process, and public reception of his work.
Xu, who was born in Beijing and is based in Chicago, exhibits his work nationally and internationally. The recipient of many awards and grants, he is a lecturer at the School of Art & Design, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.
The text has been edited for length and clarity.
Jackson Davidow: In 2022, Harvard Art Museums curators were thrilled to acquire Worlds Within Worlds, a photograph belonging to your acclaimed series Temporarily Censored Home, from 2018 and 2019. What is this project about?
Guanyu Xu: Temporarily Censored Home is a multilayered project. The audience’s first impression is often that the series is a gay subversion of my parents’ home, a form of temporary protest.
But there’s more than that. It is also about how images construct identities, how images affect our desires and ideologies. And it considers how images can react to and transform a space and how I can reclaim a space as my own.
The series was made during my graduate studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, during Trump’s presidency. I was thinking a lot about the relationship between China and the United States; I was trying to understand the two countries in terms of questions of patriarchy and the treatment of marginalized groups. The more I looked at these two countries, the more similar they seemed.
Patriarchal, nationalistic ideas were embedded in my education in China. Because my parents worked for the Chinese government and subscribed to the state’s political and familial values, it was hard to speak about my identity growing up. As a teenager, I turned to American films and magazines, which were filled with ideas of beauty, freedom, individuality, and democracy. The world they advertised influenced my decision to come to the United States and come out. Yet my experience here was different from what I’d hoped it would be.
JD: Every work in Temporarily Censored Home is meticulously composed, intervening in a different space of your parents’ home. How long does it typically take to produce such a complex, overwhelming photograph?
GX: Usually, I make an installation and take a photo within one day. After my parents leave for work, I start to put the images up. Worlds Within Worlds is one of the most chaotic, complex, and three-dimensional photographs I’ve ever made. It feels like everything is in there, as if I am bombarding the space. This was the last photograph I made in the series.
JD: What types of visual source material do we encounter in Worlds Within Worlds?
GX: After working and studying in Chicago for a couple of years, I brought certain works of staged portraiture of gay men back home to Beijing in my suitcase. These images materialize across Temporarily Censored Home. I juxtapose these with torn pages from those magazines I collected as a teenager—magazines that present masculine, white, and hetero heroes, and that lack Asian representation.
JD: So when you brought some of the prints from Chicago to Beijing, you actually folded them and put them in your suitcase?
GX: Yes, the larger ones I had to fold. In the center right [of Worlds Within Worlds], there’s a giant photograph of me standing in front of a black backdrop—probably the largest print I brought back. You see the marks of folding, of hiding, of concealing.
JD: What are some of the other images in the work?
GX: In this photograph—on the left edge, in the center, and on the ground—you also see images printed out at a shop just outside my parents’ apartment complex. I didn’t have access to a large-format printer there.
And in the top right-hand corner, you see half of a still from the last section of Complex Formation, a video project I made in conversation with my mom. In this video, I utilize photographs taken by my mom in the United States and Europe from 2016 to 2018—her first time coming to “the West”; I was thinking about her ideas of beauty. In our conversation, she told me to make beautiful rather than political art.
JD: I’m fascinated by how you put your mom’s photographs in dialogue with your own, appropriating them, staging a conversation.
GX: Temporarily Censored Home is definitely in conversation with Complex Formation, because I was making these projects at the same time. I talked with and recorded my mom at night or on the weekend and made Temporarily Censored Home when she was at work.
JD: Do you see the project as starting a dialogue between you and your parents, beyond the realm of representation? Have your parents become aware of the series?
GX: They know I did a project at home. They know this series was shown in New York in 2020, because they saw an article in the Chinese media about it. Yet this article used very low-resolution images, so they couldn’t exactly see what was going on in the photographs. They still don’t know my sexuality.
JD: You have several techniques of manipulating and reconstructing the image: replicating, layering, censoring, mirroring, tearing, obscuring, hanging, folding, and so forth. While some of these verbs are generative, others are more destructive—or have destructive potential. How do these different types of actions lend themselves to the work and its subject matter?
GX: As I was making these photographs, I don’t think I was analyzing what each action means.
JD: So it was more intuitive?
GX: The main thing was to create a collage within the space. Hiding was part of the project. We all grow up in a household where there are secrets, even if you are not queer. Hiding is something quite universal. My parents could have just gone into my bedroom, opened my suitcase, and discovered the folded hidden prints. Hiding these prints was a bit like when I collected those magazines. Closeted queer youth are always hiding desire.
JD: Let’s talk about the title, Worlds Within Worlds. For me, it’s evocative of social and digital media, especially within queer communities. And in the image, we see a laptop on the table. Does this photograph offer a reflection on spatial shifts in queer sociality? I’m thinking of the circulation of print magazines to the dizzying circulation of digital images and identities on platforms such as TikTok or Instagram.
GX: Since the work is about the physical space that I inhabited during my teenage years, I wanted to use physical prints to transform it. The laptop, then, becomes the extension of that space.
I grew up receiving a lot of information through pirated Hollywood films and TV shows. This work speaks to how perceiving all these films on my laptop changed my ideas about identity and reformulated my desire. There are a couple of photographs in Temporarily Censored Home that depict my laptop. In Worlds Within Worlds, there is a laptop with a Google image search of “U.S. and China.” And I have another work in the series called My Desktop, which shows a laptop on which I googled “gay porn.” The algorithm gives a general representation of what these phrases mean.
I always want to make multilevel connections: from physical to virtual, from personal to familial to societal space. Bridging these spaces helps me better understand what’s going on. It’s much more complex than “Oh, my parents are really conservative, and I cannot be gay because of that.” To understand larger issues, I need to look within both different spaces and different times. By making the series, I revisit the time of collecting those magazines, the time I made portraits in the United States, and the time I constructed the installations.
This also brings up questions of privacy. If you have your own laptop as a queer person, or a person in general, you can always seek information and then hide it immediately, and nobody will know (except, perhaps, the algorithm). There’s a sense of privacy in the physical intimate space you’re inhabiting, but also a larger freedom within the digital space.
JD: You appear, I think, twice in Worlds Within Worlds. Do you see this photograph and potentially others in the series as self-portraits?
GX: Yes, I do. The work is multifunctional, which, I think, also makes it queer. For me, that’s one characteristic of what queer means. The work is also autobiographical, which inherently makes it a self-portrait.
But beyond portraiture, it’s about the idea of the image—recycling and appropriating photographs. To situate my photographs in this space generates new meaning. It’s the same with identity. When we are navigating our bodies in a space, or meeting new people, our sense of power might shift, and our identity might shift as well. To highlight this, I emphasize photographs within photographs—worlds within worlds.
JD: Your work has been displayed in numerous contexts—from the presentation of this series in “traditional” white cube gallery settings to your collages created for the cover of a print magazine—Italian Vogue, no less—in February 2023. How have different audiences in places as dissimilar as St. Louis and Shanghai tended to grapple with this project?
GX: Of course, it’s mixed. The work is more successful and well received in the United States, partially because it feeds into identity politics. But I always need to emphasize that the work is not just about being a closeted Chinese gay person!
In China, people can access the work only through the Internet. Some people understand and relate to it, and I find those moments really rewarding. The work was actually censored in Shanghai in 2020: when I received the Photofairs Shanghai Exposure Award, I was supposed to show the work as a solo show, but it didn’t get approved by the office reviewing the exhibition. Yet it has been shown at least once at Photofairs Shanghai, for about three days. The perception of the work is always a unique situation.
Jackson Davidow is the John R. and Barbara Robinson Family Curatorial Fellow in Photography in the Division of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Harvard Art Museums.