Yue Xu, Which is her favorite, peonies or roses?, 2021
Tethered to Memory: The storytelling in Yue Xu’s artwork
“The power of art, for me, is to keep people alive” -Yue Xu
In February I visited the group exhibition Ullrpaaaiiillllgggrrrrrrhrhekoko at The Plan, a Humboldt Park, Chicago based gallery and project space. The exhibition’s title served as a call to the group of artists to pull inspiration from each other, from bodily features to emotions, resulting in artworks that enacted the different auditory expressions contained in the conjunctive title.
Yue Xu (she/they) is one of the six artists featured in the gallery, whose work fit beautifully into the symbolic conversations happening across the group exhibition; yet independently, Xu’s sculptures told a series of emotionally interwoven stories. I spoke with Xu about their studio practice and how she approaches making. Often when I interview an artist, I approach the conversation through the lens of oral history asking the two-part question: When and where were you born? Can you tell me your earliest childhood memory?
Yue Xu: “This is a difficult question; my memories are often in fragments rather than linear. But I can associate relevant memories from my childhood with what is around me now. I have a lighted candle on my table. And then I remembered sitting on a wooden L-shaped table in my room as a kid, and I dripped tea light candles mixed with different colored crayons onto the table, stacking them together to make a ‘little volcano’. Then, I collected them by heart in a little blue box shaped like a whale; a feather was plucked from a shuttlecock. I put it close to my mouth and blew on it, keeping it floating in the air as long as possible. I was alone but enjoying my time; the weather was average in Guangzhou summer and hot and humid.”
The visuals related to Xu’s memory are ever present in her work, from the familiar imagery of the candle and volcano, to the importance of material collections, so much is waiting just out of sight. There are many artists I have come across that build a practice grounded in familial histories, yet I have seen very few that offer a tangible summation of those early years of life with such presence and play as Xu does.
Over the last few years, I had seen artwork by Xu—mold making, found objects, drawings, and inflatables, utilized in conjunction with each other, telling tales and building worlds in a slow and breathy manner. Several pieces from a 2021 exhibition, Hostile Architecture, at the Chicago Art Department in conjunction with the Chicago Architecture Biennial, brought further clues to the stories embedded in Xu’s recent body of work. The artwork I knew, I can never open that door, was a paraffin and beeswax candle that took on the shape and measurements of a standardized door. One wick, which ran through the center of the sculpture, burned during the door’s first showing. The remaining wicks, hidden throughout the sculpture, were lit in an event at 6018|North this past January, burning the entire structure. The door, unable to be opened, must be burnt down. The realities of China’s Zero COVID policy immediately came to mind, where confinement became the norm and exiting the home became a luxury.
Another work in the show, Which is her favorite, peonies or roses?, a series of interconnected air filters, painted with flowers, foreshadowed the increasingly intimate stories related to Xu’s mother, shared in the sculptural relationships in her most recent body of work. Xu, whose mother passed while she was in high school, recalls her mother’s favorite flower. While her father believed roses were her favorite, Xu believed it was peonies, drawn to the tattoo of peonies that adorned her mother’s breast. These same flowers are painted into one of the air filter sculptures, hung low to the ground—a punctuation as one exits the threshold of the gallery.
There is a ghostly aura to Yue Xu’s work, brought on by personal and collective grief. As I navigated the exhibition at The Plan, a feeling arose similar to when I interacted with Do Ho Suh’s work for the first time: memories cycling through activation, transparencies making me aware of my body’s impact on space, accompanied by a desire to touch and play growing in intensity. Yue Xu has an intentionality to her art practice, a unique ability to balance subjects that mine the depths of mournful familial histories alongside collectivist experiences of growing up in Guangzhou, China. Each aspect of these sculptures continue nest within a meticulously constructed cage of absurdist joy.
As I spent time with Xu’s art, I was struck by her manipulation of hidden and overlooked household materials. “I tend not to think much about the medium but choose the right material within the concept subjectively,” Xu explained to me as we walked through the exhibition together. A letter to Rabbit is a series of three sculptures that Xu presented in the exhibition, built through an abundance of materials including insulation foam, plastic toys, a portable fan, and the most repeated material used— air filters. Xu shared the origins of the sculpture series: “The rabbit piece started with a letter I wrote to rabbits last year. Rabbits are animals that do not bark, and the only time they make any sounds are screams when they receive an extreme threat to their life — and then they will face death.”
The Chinese New Year brought forward 2023 as the year of the rabbit and with that Xu skillfully uses the animal as symbolic stand in for the disempowerment of Chinese society under the Zero COVID policy, the hope-centered affirmations brought on by the zodiac as well as the ever present practices of self-censorship that Xu continues to balance. The experience of moving different cities and crossing borders is seen within the iconography of the rabbit in the sculptures. Xu started working with inflatables several years ago due to the compact nature of how the work could be stored and carried, bringing forth a degree of ease with border crossings. Xu shared with me that their work had to shift when they moved to Chicago: “I’m facing the other kind of silence, fear of free speech, and ignorance of an unfamiliar culture.”
As our time in the gallery was coming to a close, Xu broke eye contact while we were speaking and her gaze moved towards the ceiling, gesturing to a tryptic of sculptures above the lighting grid: Visible Filter, air filters painted in fluorescent color, intentionally left off of the gallery map. “Art is something to awaken self-awareness and unfold political blinders, an accelerator that moves the social movement process forward,” Xu shared with me. Xu’s artmaking operates from a place where observation and embodiment is often obscured, where sculptures are literally hidden from the viewer within an exhibition space. As the unseen becomes seen, the viewer is no longer able to make assumptions; their lived reality, within a political society, isn’t just reflected back but becomes hard to unsee.
Gabriel Chalfin-Piney (they/them) is an artist and organizer based in Chicago. They are the founder of Care-Full Histories, an Oral History Archiving, Food + Performance Residency.
Yue Xu (she/they) was born and raised in Guangzhou, China, and currently based in Chicago. Xu earned her MFA from the School of Art Institute of Chicago in 2021, and her BFA from Guangzhou Academy of Fine Art, China. Xu is a multimedia artist who works with video installation, inflatable, drawings, and artists’ books to point toward the forces—invisible or taken for granted—that structure our everyday lives. Her work has been shown at Mayfield (2022), Chicago Art Department (2021), Terrain Biennial (2021), Mana Contemporary (2021), 062 (2020), Comfort station (2020), Chicago, IL, USA; Guangdong Museum of Art (2017), Xinzao Contemporary Art Center (2016), Guangdong, China. Xu recently received the Spark Grant of the Chicago Artists Coalition.
Installation view of Ullrpaaaiiillllgggrrrrrrhrhekoko at The Plan
Yue Xu, detail of A letter to Rabbit (still life), 2023
Yue Xu, I knew, I can never open that door, 2021
Yue Xu, detail of A Letter to Rabbit, 2023
Yue Xu, detail of Visible filter (2022)
Yue Xu, detail of A letter to Rabbit (we dance on the rockery), 2023