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Issue 237

Xiyadie’s Papercuts Bloom with Queer Love

At The Drawing Center, New York, the artist presents papercut scenes of homoerotic couplings inflected with conventions of the Chinese craft

BY Isabel Ling in Exhibition Reviews , US Reviews | 03 MAY 23

A farmer, husband and father, much of Xiyadie’s early life was defined by an adherence to the rigid social expectations of conservative rural China. In contrast, ‘Queer Cut Utopias’, the artist’s first solo show in New York, presents papercut figures engaged in gay sex acts, their genitals often blooming into flowering vines that unfurl against a lush background of flora and fauna. Adopting traditional Chinese paper-cutting techniques, Xiyadie scaffolds insurgent narratives that transcend socio-political and physical constraints to forge a personal vision of queer love which, in turn, expands the boundaries of the form.

Very detailed papercut, colored with diluted pastels, of two male figures kissing in front of Tiananmen.
Xiyadie, Gate (Tiananmen), 2016, paper-cut with water-based dye and Chinese pigments on Xuan paper, 1.4 × 1.4 m. Courtesy: the artist

Xiyadie’s works document spaces of Chinese queer life through time. In Gate (1992), he maps homosexuality across the dynamics of family and state. Two men engage in oral sex behind an ajar door as one man’s wife tends to their child inside the family home. While vibrant florals swirl across mother and child and pomegranate-bearing vines climb steadily outside, their inability to unite across the threshold demonstrate the strict division within Xiyadie’s doubled consciousness as a traditional family man and a homosexual. Created two decades later, Gate (Tiananmen) (2016) depicts another pair kissing unabashedly in front of the monumental gates of Tiananmen Square – the site of an infamous student massacre in 1989 – indifferent to the symbol of governmental power that looms behind them. Elsewhere, works like Yuquanying Subway Station (A Chance Encounter on a Subway Station, which Used To Be the Base of Homosexuals from the Western Suburbs of Beijing) (2018) capture spaces that have since disappeared under China’s recent political crackdown on LGBTQ+ communities.

A round papercut of a man fellating and being fallated, flora in the background
Xiyadie, Joy, 1999, paper-cut with water-based dye and Chinese pigments on Xuan paper, 20 × 20 cm. Courtesy: the artist

While repression and longing have certainly informed Xiyadie’s practice, narratives about the artist’s participation and agency across the queer spaces he so often depicts – particularly from his intersectional positionality as a working-class queer man – are usually located in fantasy. Descending to the basement level, we find ourselves immersed in two similarly subterranean, large-scale works. In the fable-like Sorting Sweet Potatoes (Dad, Don’t Yell, We’re in the Cellar Sorting Sweet Potatoes) (2019), cordoned-off sections depict a hunched farmer peering into the shaft of the cellar, while two men are shown in covert embrace alongside an abandoned sweet-potato harvest embedded within the earth. Nearby, Xiyadie relocates his exploration of the queer underground to an urban context in Kaiyang (2021), which depicts the titular Beijing bathhouse, an infamous mecca for illicit cruising. The largest work on display in the exhibit, this mural-sized papercut shows throngs of figures caressing, playing and fucking, their countercultural collective pleasure threatening to puncture the conservative veneer of Chinese urban society. Xiyadie’s distinctly ecological style of representation transforms his queer revellers into a writhing organic mass that resembles a clamorous, mycorrhizal root network – a nod to the thriving gay counterculture of early-2000s Beijing that greeted Xiyadie when he moved there as a migrant worker in 2005.

A papercut: figure fellating a flower, flora and fauna in the background
Xiyadie, Boiling (A boiling pot resembles helplessness and suffering of humanity), 2018, papercut with water-based dye and Chinese pigments on Xuan paper, 20 × 20 cm. Courtesy: the artist

One wall of the exhibition is lined with small red and black papercuts, similar to those used for door hangings on Chinese holidays. In these Rorschach test-like works, traditional papercut imagery, such as carp and butterflies, reveals, on second glance, same-sex couples intertwined in embrace. By depicting these clandestine unions using a declining traditional artform, inherited from his mother and the women in his village, Xiyadie inhabits a unique status as both a steward of China’s cultural heritage and an instigator against its discriminatory policies. In these works, Xiyadie cultivates new contexts, facilitating the cultural survival not only of the craft itself, but of the personal histories he carries.

‘Xiyadie: Queer Cut Utopias’ is on view at The Drawing Center, New York, through 14 May. 

Main image: Xiyadie, Fish on a chopping board (Human suffering, depression and helplessness are like a beheaded fish on a chopping board, but at this very moment we are still happy), 2018, Paper-cut with water-based dye and Chinese pigments on Xuan paper, 20 × 20 cm

Isabel Ling is a writer based in Brooklyn, New York.