Xiyadie (西亚蝶)

Xiyadie (西亚蝶)


Queer Expression and Vulnerability

On a class visit to The Drawing Center, I enjoyed viewing Xiyadie’s work. He is a Chinese artist whose works have been shown in galleries such as Taipei’s Museum of Contemporary Art and Nome Gallery in Berlin. Xiyadie, through the tradition of paper cutting, births an enigmatic world of queer love and eroticism: a Queer Cut Utopia

Many of Xiyadie’s works depict sexual intercourse. Differences in the setting of these intercourses portray a timeline of the artist’s life and sexual maturation: a cutting named Sorting sweet potatoes (Dad, don’t yell we’re in the cellar sorting sweet potatoes depicts Xiyadie, presumably as an adolescent, having sex with the friend that he is sorting potatoes with in his father’s rural home 1 In contrast, the largest cutting named Kaiyang features trains along the sides of the frame and depictions of various orgies in bathhouses signal the progression of time and sexual maturation as Xiyadie migrates to the city for work as an adult 2 The city is also where he showed his art to the LGBTQ community in Beijing, kickstarting his career as an artist. 

The running theme of nature and growth in relation to the accumulation of the Xiyadie’s queer identity is what fascinated me. Xiyadie’s upbringing as a farmer and his discipline as a farmer seeps into his art through rich floral imagery. Vines and blossoms are placed near the genitalia, and their overgrowth connects sexual partners. Sex and nature are put in conversation due to the common element of connectedness. The pieces that depict orgies embody this. Vines coming out of sexual partners connect them to one another. These orgies read as living ecosystems. Each participant brings their seed—bad sex pun—and connects themselves to the larger system through intercourse. In this context, community is fostered through sex. Not just any type of sex, but sex between men. 

Bigoted ideologies against gay sex often speak to its inherent “unnaturalness.” Yet Xiyadie by intertwining nature and gay sex creates a paradox. The presence of nature during intercourse does two things: It denounces this ideology by asserting nature physically and symbolically within gay sex. In doing so, it creates a fantasy world that is unnatural. I mean this in a literal way: plants do not grow inside of human beings. While these plants may be metaphorical, they are still part of the art. Sewing images of flora directly into the nude body creates this dichotomy where people are stunned before conceptualizing all its nuances. Visitors and some of my classmates shared an initial hesitance to engage with the art. A hesitance that I believe stems from a casual viewer’s unfamiliarity with gay sex. 

Furthermore, Xiyadie puts gay sex in conversation with objects outside of the human body, in this instance it’s flora. Thus the question or impression of kink arises. Is this art kinky? Am I aroused? What does it mean if I am aroused? Or am I repulsed? Viewers are challenges on their positionality around gay sex so it’s difficult to move past initial stuntedness. Hence most visitors simply walked around the gallery, giving each piece quick glaces before moving on. Yet each piece features small details that would be easily missed. For example, the Chinese Zodiac, rooster, snake, monkey, tiger, rabbit, and maybe a pig, are scattered throughout Xiyadie’s work. The complementary pamphlet offers an indirect explanation from the artist; Xiyadie, on page fourteen, said that he likes to keep elements of folk tales in his paper-cuts. 

Another thing I noticed was that none of the people were looking at each other; they were looking at me. This may be one of the constraints of paper-cutting as an art form, but all the eyeballs are at the center of the eye. The figures’ eyes in the piece named Gate do not look in the direction of their other lover(s); instead, their trajectories are on us.3 It’s almost as if the pieces are holding us accountable for our intrusion. In the literal sense, we walked in on them having sex. In a metaphorical sense, we are crossing cultural lines to see the life of an artist who is so far removed from our everyday lives. This eye contact dares the viewer to look. Whether you look away in discomfort or you hold your gaze, we as viewers are held to our intrusion and compelled to look.

The shape of the eye is another intriguing feat. First, it looked like venus fly traps—the ones where the eyelashes are prickly and straight. Then it looked like volvas—the ones where the eyelashes are round or blobby as seen in the piece named Joy ().4 Finally, they resembled the look of Chinese opera singers who have their faces painted on a similar paper white color as the sexual partners, thick eyeliner that outlines the same almond-shaped eyes, and traditionally red eyeshadow that accompanies the eyeliner. I saw this in the Kaiyang piece; the smaller heads that line up on the gate. The pale white of the characters seemed like paint. The almond shape of the eye along with the red smudges prompted me to make this connection. 

This is such an interesting connection because there is an arcane nature to Chinese opera where gender and sexuality are disoriented, suspended, and ultimately implode on themselves. Performers, regardless of their gender or sexuality, play characters that vary and differ from their own identities. Because of this, nothing is the norm, and thus nothing is queer. It’s quite liberating. It’s also the running theme across this exhibit, especially about sexual liberation. This supernatural element is prevalent in art that displays self-expression, liberation, and vulnerability. Yet I worry if the gallery, as an institution, is insufficient to convey the weight of said art. 

For an art piece to cross cultural and geographic boundaries, the site of its exhibition and reception must become spaces of cultural exchange. However, I wonder if it’s an exploitative practice for galleries and institutions that are far removed from an artist’s struggle to acquire it and display it to audiences that are just as ignorant. I understand that the gallery has formed connections with Xiyadie himself, yet the way that his works are curated falls on the gallery. In my experience, I think ambient lighting or any lighting other than the harsh overhead lights could have fostered a more intimate viewing experience. Since the exhibition is already about sexual subjects having ambient lighting which many associate with the setting for sex may ease the initial discomfort of the viewing experience. Viewers themselves also have to be mindful and open to the lived experiences that are not their own. All in all, I congratulate Xiyadie for breaking cultural boundaries, and I encourage galleries and gallery-goers to reflect on how they may better engage with such intricate and vulnerable art.

  1. https://drawingcenter.org/exhibitions/xiyadie-queer-cut-utopias/works/8.
  2. https://drawingcenter.org/exhibitions/xiyadie-queer-cut-utopias/works/28.
  3. https://drawingcenter.org/exhibitions/xiyadie-queer-cut-utopias/works/3)
  4. https://drawingcenter.org/exhibitions/xiyadie-queer-cut-utopias/works/21
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