Suspended Status, Guanyu Xu’s solo exhibition at the Light Work Gallery, focuses on people — including the artist himself — who are in the United States by virtue of a visa issued by immigration authorities.
As yet, the visa holders have no permanent status here; they await final decisions by government agencies who typically demand reams of documentation.
The artist doesn’t supply specific details of everyone’s visa applications. Rather, he’s interested in the psychology of subjects caught between cultures and countries, stuck in situations governed by complex rules and regulations.
And so, the show draws from two bodies of Xu’s work: Resident Aliens, whose photos depict temporary installations in subjects’ homes; and Suspension, a grid of 144 squares presenting portions of the artist’s own visa application.
The eight works from Resident Aliens were created with the subjects’ permission; they each allowed Xu to set up temporary installations in their homes. In his artistic process, he doesn’t photograph the subjects or identify them, doesn’t say where they live in the United States, and doesn’t indicate why they applied for a visa.
Instead, Xu radically transforms domestic spaces. He first photographs living spaces and then asks subjects to supply objects and images related to their lives. On his second visit, he returns with images he’s printed, arranges them and photographs the revised scene.
The final artworks are chaotic, confusing, as the photos divide interiors into quadrants. On one hand, viewers see objects from specific households– a shoe on the floor, comfortable rugs, a bookcase, a clock, and other items.
On the other, Xu has inserted a variety of snapshots and small photos, placing them on doors, shower curtains, on couches, and on other surfaces.
The images, and accompanying objects, offer glimpses of subjects’ lives, hints rather than definitive information. If a viewer sees a teddy bear, she or he will wonder if a child lives in the household. Similarly, an album by legendary jazzman Cannonball Adderley invites questions about whether a jazz fan lives in the apartment.
Yes, each of the “resident aliens” is different. In one work, there’s an image of a young man holding a ceremonial sword and wearing traditional Sikh clothing. Other photos portray children, adults skiing, and a guy on a bench next to a small body of water.
In another piece, there are photos of two men watching TV, of statues from a museum, of young people walking down a street in a night-club district. They could be in Seattle or Berlin or London.
These artworks aren’t intended to prompt guessing games. Rather, each viewer is invited in essence to spy on a household, to look at photos and objects supplying narratives about a family or couple. There’s a sense of intrusion.
At the same time, Xu’s installations in the homes are fleeting and are done with the subjects’ consent. When they apply for a visa, their lives are placed under a microscope, and the process is mandatory.
The current exhibit doesn’t discuss types of visas, but it’s worth noting they are issued for various reasons: to reunite with a spouse or relative, to attend college in the United States, to come here as a temporary worker or tourist. In addition, people apply for asylum or refugee status, and for other visas.
Next, the grid of images entitled Suspension both augments and contrasts with photos of interiors. Xu has had his own experience as a visa holder. Born in China in a conservative military household, he first moved to the United States in 2014. As an immigrant, artist and gay man, he’s negotiated his own status as an outsider.
In Suspension, he communicates a feeling of fragmentation.
He’s cut up and layered 144 pages from his own visa application, just a quarter of the overall total of 558 pages. We see excerpts from a New Yorker article about Xu’s art, from a piece from The New York Times website, from a letter sent by an art appraiser living in St. Albans, Vermont, and much more. Among other things, the application was supposed to document Xu’s career as an artist, to show he had the potential to make a living creating art.
The work, which occupies a gallery wall, raises questions about the process of applying for a visa. How does an overworked government employee adequately review an application of over 500 pages? How much time did Xu, a full-time artist, spend consulting with an attorney?
Finally, Xu’s exhibition is clearly thematic, but he certainly hasn’t neglected visual appeal.
The grid referencing his own visa process appears with an overlay of green. And the photos depicting interiors are bold, colorful, dynamic. The works entice viewers even as they touch on notions of safe space, as they delve into the lives of people in transition.
Suspended Status is on display through Dec. 15, 2022 at Light Work, located at 316 Waverly Ave. at Syracuse University.
The gallery is free and open to the public. Its current hours are 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday to Friday, and 1 to 9 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. Starting Dec. 5, the show can be viewed between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. For more information, call Light Work at 315-443-133 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Carl Mellor covered visual arts for the Syracuse New Times from 1994 to 2019. He continues to write about artists and exhibitions in the Syracuse area.
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