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This activity takes Guanyu Xu’s work Temporarily Censored Home as a starting point to explore themes of LGBT+ experience, personal censorship and sense of individuality.
Guanyu Xu was born in Beijing and now lives and works in the U.S. His work is influenced by his conservative upbringing in China and his life in America by comparison, underpinned by notions of personal freedom and expression in relation to political regimes.
The activities are designed to be completed in a creative classroom space with access to art and photography references, still life objects and materials such as paints, paper and scissors. There is also an option to explore ideas in greater depth if there is access to computers and printers.
I. Looking at the work of Guanyu Xu
- Split the class into small groups and look at Guanyu Xu’s series Temporary Censored Home.
- Read to the class the image statement below:
Temporarily Censored Home, is a multilayered photographic installation, in which Xu captures staged temporary displays of his professional work from the USA intermingled with collected images from his past, including family photographs and images torn from magazines, in his parents’ home in Beijing. In doing so, Xu temporarily queers his family home – a stereotypically heterosexual environment, thereby questioning the coexistence of his past and present.
Encourage the class to unpick some of the terms and phrases from this statement, and investigate their meaning. For example: ‘queers his family home’, ‘heterosexual’ and ‘questioning the coexistence of his past and present’.
Ask students to volunteer their interpretations and at the end provide a simple definition:
Heterosexual: a term used to describe individuals who identify as a heterosexual, meaning having a sexual, emotional and/or physical attraction to individuals of the “opposite” gender/sex.
Queers his family home: to Queer something is to take something and look at it through a different lens, often as a process of questioning mainstream ideas of what we consider normal.
There are also useful LGBTQ+ Resources below if further guidance is needed.
- In their groups, students work through each of the following questions, supported by the teacher.
The questions act as prompts for enquiry into the themes, techniques and meaning behind the images.
Guanyu uses many different sized photographs that are located (installed) in a particular space, constructing a scene that articulates his current experiences, relationships and identities. This installation is then documented using one single image that becomes the final artwork.
- Do you think this type of approach is successful?
- Which is your favourite image in Guanyu’s installation? How do the images work together to tell a story?
- Guanyu’s image was taken in his bedroom. If the work had been installed in a different space how might this have changed the impact or meaning of the work?
- Guanyu’s parents are not aware of his sexual identity. His time in the US was a space for personal growth. In what way is your individuality nurtured and supported, or limited by your current environment? Does the approval of family or friends make a difference?
- Guanyu’s image imposes his current identity on his childhood bedroom, an environment where he had not been able to openly express himself whilst growing up. What might you show someone about yourself that isn’t obvious on the surface? How could you represent this visually?
- What are we allowed to openly express and pursue in this country that we take for granted, but may not be legal or acceptable elsewhere such as access to education, careers or sexuality? Was there a time and place in which you didn’t feel included or allowed to express yourself?
II. Temporary Self Installation
A Photography Project
- Ask everyone in the class to think of and write down five photographs that they have taken or that someone has taken of them that best express their personality or something they care about. Add objects or belongings that also have personal significance to this list .
- As a group, look at Study For An Exchange by Paul Mpagi Sepuya (Study For An Exchange is the 25th image on his website). Sepuya is an example of another artist using photography to construct a scene that expresses something he cares about.
Read to the class the image statement below:
Study For An Exchange is part of Paul Mpagi Sepuya’s series Mirror Study. By creatively playing with and distorting his studio environment, Sepuya explores how easily we can manipulate what is ‘shown’ by allowing us to see what is otherwise, hidden.
Working either as individuals or collaboratively in groups, students create their own temporary installations that demonstrate their own ideas around representation and identity using the photographic strategies that have been introduced.
The project may be physically completed and installed in the students’ chosen space. However, if this is not practical or possible due to institutional limitations, the project may be conceptual and take the form of a proposal for an installation.
Students must begin by choosing a location for their installation that has some connection to their ideas such as the lunch hall, toilets or sports hall.
How does the location relate? How will assembling an installation here allow students to reclaim a space? Encourage students to think big – the windows of the atrium, the staff room – even if they don’t actually make it.
- Depending on what your class has access to, they can either look around the classroom space, gathering objects, prints, posters or items in their bags that best visually express their chosen subject. Or, if you have access to a printer, students can research and print images of their choice.
- Groups can now start to assemble their installations, sticking prints to the wall, laying objects on the floor, re-organizing found or printed materials. Encourage students to think about how they can best communicate what they want to say using lots of different prints/objects, using them as elements that make up their installation.
- Photograph the installations. This documentation becomes their final artwork. As a class, share and discuss the images using these questions:
- How do the installations differ from each other?
- Can groups recognise what is being explored in the other group’s installations?
- Did students enjoy working as a group? Was it easy to agree on a theme?
- Is there another location where they would like to try this – a park, a busy square or in their own bedroom?
- Did this exercise help students relate to other people’s experiences of being in the world?
- Did this exercise help students reflect on the importance of photography as a space for honest self-expression?
Other Artists our contributor thinks might inspire you
Clifford Prince King, an LA-based artist whose images are often out of focus and raw, explores safe spaces and the moments of intimacy that take place there.
I chose King as he photographs his everyday ritual, his time spent with friends and family, in the world and behind closed doors. His images feel at once harmonious and questioning as within this he seeks to question racial and gender expectation.
You might be interested in
Useful LGBTQ+ Resources
About the Contributor
Eva Louisa Jonas is a visual artist, facilitator and co-founder of art platform UnderExposed. She lives and works in Brighton, U.K. Central aspects of her practice involves building a photographic narrative through construction and material – forms at rest or manipulated, influenced by our habitual and gestural environments.
Recent shows include >Keep Your Eyes Peeled< at Aff Galerie in Berlin, September 2020 and A Rumour Reached the Village in Why do it together if you can do it alone? at Lewisham Art House, as part of the PIC London Collective Strategies program, October 2019.
She published her first book ‘Let’s sketch the lay of the land’ with a Parisian publisher, September books in October 2020.