The ongoing thoughts of an art teacher in China - and home in Sydney

A continuing diary about my travels in China, and thoughts about China and Chinese art from home and abroad

Thursday, August 20, 2020

Experimental Material: Desire and Intimacy in the work of Pixy Liao

 My article about Pixy Yijun Liao's challenge to binaries of gender, race and heteronormativity was published in the most recent issue of 'Yishu' journal. To say I was thrilled to be published in Yishu would be an understatement. I picked up a back issue of this important journal in the shop of San Francisco's Asian Art Museum many years ago, and have subscribed ever since - both for myself and for the research library at the White Rabbit Collection, which now holds an impressive collection of back issues that were very kindly donated to them. Yishu has consistently published interesting voices in the field of contemporary art from China. To have the opportunity to interview Pixy Liao in April (by email, from her home in lockdown in New York and my home in lockdown in Sydney) was a delight, and to then have the article published in Yishu buoyed my spirits at a very dark time in my life. So I encourage you to read the journal in full, and I post a short excerpt here.

Desire, intimacy, and the performative nature of sexuality—this is the complicated, gendered territory of Pixy Liao’s photographic practice. When the Shanghai-born, Brooklyn-based artist moved from China to the United States in 2006 to study photography in Memphis, a chance encounter with a Japanese musician and fellow student inspired a continuing body of work. He became her boyfriend, her model, and her muse, appearing in a series of staged photographs enacting an exaggerated, heightened version of their partnership.

Pixy Liao, Photography, Chinese Contemporary Art

Pixy Liao’s much-anticipated first solo Canadian show, curated by Henry Heng Lu at Vancouver’s Centre A Gallery, was a victim of the novel coronavirus, opening only in virtual form on April 3, 2020. The exhibition, Pixy Liao: Experimental Relationship (for your eyes only, or maybe mine, too), features her ongoing (since 2007) Experimental Relationships project and the more explicitly erotic For Your Eyes Only series (2012–ongoing).[i] Pixy Liao examines the dynamics of her romantic relationship with her partner, subverting expectations of gender and heterosexuality in images that are sometimes playful, sometimes touching, sometimes erotic—and occasionally a little disturbing. These photographs, in which the artist herself often appears with her boyfriend, Moro, are generally shot in interior domestic spaces with a cool, high-key aesthetic. A couple, shut away from the world, focused only on each other and their relationship? In a pre-pandemic world this may have seemed a somewhat obsessive, inward-looking practice. But as COVID-19 swept across the globe, introversion became a way of life for many and Pixy Liao’s unsettling photographs seem more poignantly representative of the zeitgeist than ever.

Pixy Liao, Contemporary Chinese Art, Chinese Photography

In her examination of the shifting power plays in her relationship, Pixy Liao also explores broader themes of cultural identity, the representation of masculinity, and the fetishization of the Asian woman. For the Experimental Relationships series, posed by the couple using a self-timer that is generally visible in the shot—a broad hint at the “meta” nature of her allusive practice—the mundane domestic interiors in which they act out their desires are a significant element of her mise-en-scène. She invites us to imagine what lies behind the bland facades of suburban houses, the dramas taking place around the IKEA furniture. In ordinary, unglamorous kitchens and bedrooms, Pixy Liao inverts the misogyny of the art historical male gaze, posing the pale body of her younger partner like a flexible prop. She wraps him, folded over bedclothes like a piece of human sushi, dresses him in her own clothes, or drapes his naked body over her shoulders like a shawl. Liao is generally clothed, or wearing a nude bodysuit, and Moro is often naked, thus overturning centuries of objectification of the female nude. In his 1972 book and television series, Ways of Seeing, John Berger pointed out what later seemed so blindingly obvious: In (Western) art history, “Men act and women appear. Men look at women, women watch themselves being looked at.”[ii] Here, it is Pixy Liao who is doing the looking.

Pixy Liao, Contemporary Chinese Art, Chinese Photography

The “determining male gaze” proposed by film theorist Laura Mulvey entered Chinese critical discourses in the late twentieth century.[iii] Lara Blanchard explains how Mulvey’s psychoanalytic theorizing of desire was adapted to analyze pre-modern Chinese images of women. However, in her discussion of feminist art practices in China, Blanchard argues that the theory cannot apply to gazes that fall outside the familiar trajectory of the male desiring gaze directed at the female subject, nor to the mutual gaze between women.[iv] Where does this place an artist such as Pixy Liao, who directs her frankly desiring gaze toward her male subject while at the same time positioning herself for the objectifying gaze of the camera lens? She is author, participant, observer, and observed, occupying a complicated space in which she fetishizes her own body as well as Moro’s.  

Pixy Liao, Contemporary Chinese Art, Chinese Photography

Relationships work best when each partner knows their proper place (2008) shows the fully dressed artist pinching Moro’s nipple while she gazes blankly at the camera in a witty parody of the famously ambiguous sixteenth-century French painting Gabrielle d’Estrées and One of Her Sisters. Art historian Rebecca Zorach speaks of a “libidinal economy” of possession and collection in relation to this painting, and she might equally well be speaking of Pixy Liao’s semi-parodic allusions to fetishism and voyeurism. Zorach describes an intersection between desire and possession that is “mimetic, producing a likeness in the desirer of the thing desired.”[v] The For Your Eyes Only series makes this playful intention explicit. Pixy Liao describes it as “a combination of daily life and performance with a naughty attitude.”[vi] Images of body parts are fragmented and closely cropped: a close-up of Moro’s crotch in tight underpants, for example, or Pixy Liao’s buttocks poking through a vulva-shaped opening between deep-red curtains. Laura Mulvey argued that “in a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female,”[vii] In the light of more recent theoretical analysis of the performative nature of gender and sexuality, Pixy Liao’s work clearly establishes the pleasure inherent in the female gaze revealed through the distancing lens of her camera—at the body of her lover, at herself, and at their physical (and emotional) connection.

And to read the rest of the article, you'll need to download the PDF from Yishu Online!