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After Psyche revived by Cupid’s kiss, 2019Courtesy of Pixy Liao

Pixy Liao’s provocative photos subvert the artist-muse dynamic

In her new series, Experimental Relationship, the Chinese image-maker explores the gendered stereotypes of the contemporary art world

New York-based, Chinese artist Pixy Liao is best known for taking provocative photographs of her younger Japanese boyfriend, Moro. Inside their home, he poses naked as a life-size sushi roll on the bed, allows her to cradle him in her arms and is pushed on a swing. In another playful double-portrait, the artist stares defiantly into the lens while pinching her male muse’s nipple. Moro adopts a submissive role, while Liao depicts herself in a deliberately dominant light to explode all expectations of heterosexual relationships, as well as traditional ideas of the male artist and female muse. But are these disruptive images a matter of art imitating life, or does life imitate art?

Art historian and author of Muse, Ruth Millington, caught up with the pair to find out.

Ruth Millington: How did you both meet? Were you artist and muse from the very start? 

Pixy Liao: We met at the University of Memphis, as we were both studying there as international students. We actually met on the first day of school in the international student orientation. Moro left a deep impression on me when I saw him. Not knowing where he was from, I only knew that he was a music student at that time. He attracted me. A year later, I met him again on campus and then asked him to be my model, and he agreed. So our relationship started with art collaboration from the very beginning, even though it was only my excuse to get to know him. 

Ruth Millington: Where did the idea for the ‘Experimental Relationship’ series come from?

Pixy Liao: In the beginning, I was not thinking about photographing our relationship; Moro was simply the model I always used in my various photographic assignments. He was a very willing collaborator and seldomly rejected my requests. It was not until my classmates and teachers wondered how it was possible for a boyfriend to be so willing to pose for my photos, sometimes even naked or in unflattering situations, that I realised that our relationship seemed uncommon to other people. So I then started to focus on our relationship. 

Ruth Millington: Moro often reclines nude, echoing the way in which women have frequently been framed throughout art history. Did you have any specific artworks in mind when creating the series?

Pixy Liao: Yes, the ideas for a lot of my photos come from art history or mass media – mostly imagery I have previously seen that has impacted me. For example, my early photo ‘Relationships work best when each partner knows their proper place’ (2008) was inspired by a painting I always find amusing, ‘Gabrielle d’Estrées et une de ses soeurs’ (c.1594). And ‘Every man needs a woman to keep him on track’ (2008) was inspired by the magazine cover featuring a photo of Janet Jackson’s half-naked figure.

Ruth Millington: Who decides on the poses? I am interested in the process – do you plan individual photographs and entire series together?

Pixy Liao: Mainly, I decide on the poses. But during the photoshoot, Moro also improvises and changes to whatever positions he feels most comfortable with. Before the photoshoot, I usually already have an image in mind. I will choose the location, prepare the clothing and props if we need them, and set up the camera. Then, I will invite Moro to pose with me: I’ll tell him what I want him to do in the photos. And from then on, Moro is free to add in his own changes to the process.

Moro: Pixy usually has the basic idea of image first: like plots, framing and how we pose. But from there, we usually improvise.

Ruth Millington: Moro, do you enjoy being photographed and how does it make you feel? Do you ever say no to an idea?

Moro: I do enjoy being photographed, and I feel happy that Pixy is working on something she is interested in. One time, when we were in Beijing together, she wanted us both to stand and pose on top of a very shaky fragile thin glass table. I told her, ‘It’s too dangerous’ and convinced her not to proceed with that one. It’s one of the only times I said ‘no’.

Ruth Millington: The ‘Experimental Relationship’ series is clearly a performance – is it a reflection, or an exaggeration, of the power dynamic in your relationship?

Pixy Liao: I think of it as a notebook of my thoughts on intimate relationships.

Ruth Millington: Does the artistic relationship impact your personal one? And is there a line you won’t cross in terms of putting your relationship on show?

Pixy Liao: Yes, the project impacts our relationship and so vice versa. Especially in the beginning, the project also reinforced my leading role in our relationship. And when I look at these photos, I will reflect on my position in our relationship and sometimes make changes. And the changes in our relationship will further give me new ideas for our projects.

I view the photos as a performance of the camera, so I rarely consider it as a revealing of our own relationship. There are some photos I have considered too explicit or unfit for public viewing, usually because they look overly sexual or because the meaning of photo has changed from my original intention.

Ruth Millington: And humour is clearly important in your practice – is there a sense that humour allows you to get away with what you’re doing?

Pixy Liao: Humour is one of the key elements in my photos. Firstly, this is because I have to enjoy the process in order to work. But also, humour is a powerful tool. Most people would think that humour is not serious. But I think that when people are humoured by something when it really gets to you, the person actually reveals themselves as well. I admit there’s a part of it that is my rebellion to the society I’m living in.

Ruth Millington: What are the expectations in Chinese culture for a woman and her romantic relationships, and what are your thoughts on this?

Pixy Liao: In China, it’s common for the man to be older and the woman younger in a heterosexual relationship. In a family, the husband is usually the head of the household and the wife takes care of the domestic affairs. I always thought I needed to find a boyfriend or husband who is older and more mature than me, and could also be my life mentor. Now I think it is too narrow to define a heterosexual relationship in these terms; it limits the opportunities for different types of people to bond together outside of this stereotype. Plus, if we all do that, it will reinforce the structure of patriarchy in society.

Ruth Millington: And Moro, what are the expectations for romantic relationships in Japan and what’s your view on them?

Moro: I think in Japan, like many other parts of the world, parents traditionally have some expectations for the men to adopt the main role in the family, while I feel that it’s not always necessary to be like this.

Moro, am I right in thinking you’re a musician? Does Pixy also collaborate with you on your projects?

Moro: I’m more like a househusband who plays music. I used to play bass in various jazz bands, but I’m tired of carrying the heavy upright bass on the subway and I asked Pixy to sing, so I can make music at home. Yes, Pixy sings and sometimes she even makes melodies which I arrange into the whole song.

Ruth Millington: What feedback has your work received in China – from critics, as well as your family and friends?

Pixy Liao: It depends on who the audience is, as they differ so much in China. But, overall, I see more and more acceptance of my work. I would usually only show this project in art galleries and museums, and never show it in public in China. But things are changing. Last time I showed it in a public photo fair (Jimei x Arles International Photo Festival) in 2018, I was surprised to find that it was accepted well among the general public there. Even some older women showed interest in my work, which was not imaginable years ago.

As for my family and friends, I think it took them years to actually understand me or at least accept me as who I am through my work. Take my father, for example; in the beginning, he was worried that this type of work would bring me trouble in China and would hide it from other relatives and friends. But now he truly enjoys my work and sometimes he even requests to see some particular works, which he shares proudly among his circle.

Ruth Millington: Finally, for both of you: the ‘muse’ is a western concept – do either of you identify with the term? What does the word mean to you?

Pixy Liao: Moro is definitely my muse. I am so fortunate to have him in my life. I think a muse is someone who inspires you constantly. It’s important that you have strong feelings, emotions or desires for this person in order to have him or her as your muse.

Moro: I don’t think I’m a muse. I’m just an ordinary Japanese guy.

Pixy Liao’s solo show Your Gaze Belongs to Me is travelling to Fotografiska Tallinn from April 22 to August 8, 2022