BY Lisa Yin Zhang in Opinion | 05 FEB 24
Featured in
Issue 240

Xiyadie Carves Out Queer Dreamworlds

The artist’s paper cut-outs use subversive techniques to reveal utopian ideals

BY Lisa Yin Zhang in Opinion | 05 FEB 24

This article appears in the columns section of frieze 240, ‘Sleight of Hand

When he began making work in the 1980s, Xiyadie was both artist and audience. A still-closeted gay man, he would glue sheets of rice paper together in stolen moments at the home he shared with his wife and children. Then, in a form of automatic drawing, he would glide scissor blades through the thin surface, excavating intricate scenes of homoerotic coupling, building the foundations for his private dream of a flourishing queer future.

Xiyadie, Gate 门, 1992. Courtesy: the artist and NOME Gallery, Berlin; photograph: Gianmarco Bresadola

In Gate (1992), crescent cut-outs denote the nipples, navels and smiles of lovers in the act of fellating. The artist’s blade disambiguates the limbs of one figure and the head of another, and carves the indented pattern of a slightly ajar door behind them. This dimension is ruled by a different spatial logic: in papercut, it’s the interconnection of all elements – unlike, say, a canvas – that lends a work its structure. In the rightward third of the composition, the two lovers are intertwined in an efflorescence that simultaneously conceals them and seals the composition within the bounds of the paper. But the vegetation also weaves its way through the cracked-open door, blending with the attire and bedsheets of the mother and child inside the home, merging the lovers with the walls of the house and naturalizing queer love in a harmonious vision of domesticity.

Time, too, works differently here. In papercut, it is indicated by repetition: a figure might appear multiple times in a composition as they journey through a landscape. Night is denoted in Gate by way of a moon sitting atop the roof; duration is built only into the section where the lovers meet. Their Janus-like faces are turned simultaneously towards each other as well as away – capturing and extending the tenderness of their coupling.

Xiyadie, Gate (Tiananmen) 门 (天安门), 2016. Courtesy: the artist and NOME Gallery, Berlin; photograph: Gianmarco Bresadola

In a 2012 interview with Sexy Beijing, Xiyadie compared his process to ‘dream[ing]’. ‘We were in the cave; we had that moment,’ he says of cutting out a certain section before moving on to another. His wording here hints at an otherworldliness: using ‘we’ to describe his private practice suggests a transcendence of self. ‘Cave’ reads as an odd transliteration of the word dòng, or hole, but it’s apt: while slicing into flat space, Xiyadie also creates a place of psychic refuge. Despite their cathartic aspects, these works still bear the traces of their forbidden status. A ridge that spans the vertical half of Gate, differentiated from smaller creases made to perform certain cuts, evidences that such early works were repeatedly folded and collapsed, likely so as to be tucked away in some hidden corner of his home.

In a review for this magazine, Isabel Ling likened Xiyadie’s works to Rorschach tests, in which conventional papercut imagery, such as carp and butterflies, can give way to fornicating, same-sex couples. Indeed, by embedding such subversive depictions in a traditional technique, the artist may have been able to skirt the condemnation that more legible portrayals of homosexuality can incur even after it was legalized in China in 1997.

Xiyadie, Gate 门, 1992. Courtesy: the artist and NOME Gallery, Berlin; photograph: Gianmarco Bresadola

In fact, it wasn’t until 2010 that Xiyadie exhibited his work publicly with a solo show at Beijing LGBT Centre. Since then, as Alvin Li noted in the catalogue for Xiyadie’s 2022 exhibition at the Drawing Center in New York, the artist has opted to situate his papercuts in more public settings – bathhouses and plazas, cruising spots and civic spaces. In Gate (Tiananmen) (2016), for instance, the crescent-patterned threshold is now fully blown open. Rather than the intimate realm of the single-family home of the artist’s 1992 Gate, this work is set before the two-tiered imperial roof of Tiananmen. And, where the earlier piece had a queasy asymmetry – which typically denotes trouble or quarrel in the papercut tradition – this one is confidently split into almost-symmetrical quadrants. The roots of plants staking the ground beneath a pair of lovers explode upwards, enfolding the palace, to conjure a world where gay lovers embrace in front of the seat of governmental power.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 240 with the headline ‘Papercut Dreamworlds’

Main image: Xiyadie, Gate (Tiananmen) 门 (天安门), 2016. Courtesy: the artist and NOME Gallery, Berlin; photograph: Gianmarco Bresadola

Lisa Yin Zhang is assistant editor at frieze.