How far does appearance, specifically race, define who you desire? Ladybeard co-founder and Dazed Beauty Contributing Editor Kitty Drake meets the artist exploring this uncomfortable question
“NO ORIENTALS”; “Asians, please leave me alone.”; “I’m white and attractive so sorry but if you are anything else (i.e. NOT white) then you are not worth it.” London based artist @BoiHugo gets messages like this every day. Then there are the other kind of DMs, from men online who want him only because of his race: “I like your smooth skin and little Asian hands”; “I want a hot naked Asian boy to swallow my cock and lick my balls like a doggy”. If he’s in Hackney, or Dalston, he can get around 100 messages every twelve hours.
Lifting explicit, often abusive snippets from Grindr, Tinder and Scruff – @BoiHugo’s work is an intimate, often unsettlingly direct confrontation of the exoticisation of Asian men by an overwhelmingly white gay community. He arranges the messages in columns, or blows them up large, the blue bubbles of text very bright against their black background. Other pieces screenshot from gay porn, or rip from shirtless profile pictures.
‘@Boihugo’ is itself a kind of online avatar. Born ‘Han (Hugo) Zhang’, he didn’t want to call himself by his real name because he thought it would be interesting to see how people responded to the work in a space without immediately connecting it to his nationality. The first time I go to meet Hugo, it’s at his exhibition. Hanging in an art gallery, this work feels at once playful and strangely violent. To look at it is to ask yourself where you stand: how far does appearance, specifically race, define who you desire? That’s an uncomfortable question.
Hugo grew up in Beijing, suffocated by the feeling that he couldn’t be a traditional man, or live up to the ideals for male beauty. In his art, conventional masculinity lurks in corners. Men in suits are pictured standing in doorways; we watch them watching something just out of frame. They’re rendered threatening, but also somehow absurd, almost vulnerable. Hugo tells me it’s looking for that vulnerability – the cracks in the facade – that he finds interesting. In person, Hugo’s shy, and he smiles a lot. He’s also disarmingly open, at one point reading me out his entire Grindr bio. We sat down to talk about racism, revenge and a bizarre homosexual financial domination group he found while browsing for porn on Tumblr.
The man in your works is oppressive, white and hyper-masc. What got you interested in skewering the aesthetics of conventional masculinity?
Boihugo: Because conventional masculinity is something I could never achieve. The Chinese ideal for male beauty is to be fair skinned, with thick brows, big-eyes, and a prominent, Western nose. Basically as white as you can be without actually being white. There’s this Chinese character, ”男子气概” pronounced as ‘nan zi qi gai’, that means ‘masculinity’. Growing up, my mum was always telling me: “you don’t have enough ‘nan zi qi gai’”. Back then I didn’t have a way out. It was only when I discovered gender theory and feminist theory, that I found out there were actually so many possibilities for masculinity: I could wear nail polish and be masculine. I could wear a dress. It didn’t have to have anything to do with the male body or my biological status.
Yeah, at your exhibition you were wearing a great outfit: a peach velvet corset with matching blusher.
Boihugo: I’ve loved garments like that since I was a child. When I moved to London last year I found myself surrounded by all these really cheap, beautiful clothes from charity shops. For me, non-normative gender representation in public spaces is a kind of everyday activism. In Beijing, it’s not really acceptable to cross-dress. I lived in the city centre, but it was still quite conservative. I was able to be out as gay, but not to my parents. Although I think my dad low-key knows that I’m queer. I feel like in Asian countries we don’t really come out the way people do in Western countries. We’re not like, “Oh Mum I'm gay. Oh Dad I'm gay.” I feel like they know that we are, we just don’t talk about it openly.
In your art you repurpose the messages you get sent on dating apps that fetishise or exclude you for being Asian. It feels powerful and very personal. What inspired you to do that?
Boihugo: I still get sent those DMs every day. Mostly the exoticising ones like, “Asians were made to handle big cock!!” Some of the exclusionary ones – like, “I block more Asian than the Great Wall of China” I took from people’s bios. Having moved from the gay scene in Beijing, to London, suddenly I was in a community where the way I looked was either totally unattractive, or desirable, but only in a dehumanising way. Unlike in China, here I can fit the ideal: I am expected to be tiny, slim, smooth, with small, characteristically Asian eyes. But it’s like men online expect me to be a docile little schoolboy. I also screenshot images from gay porn and appropriate them in my work. In those images, we always appear in a really submissive role. There’s no versatility at all. To them, we’re like the same person.
But you subvert that dynamic in your work, too. In my favourite piece, you take hundreds of profile pictures of shirtless white ‘alpha-men’ and arrange them so that they are almost indistinguishable.
Boihugo: Yes, I took those images from the dating app Scruff. They have this column called ‘most popular guy from the last hour’, which I screenshotted at random times over several days. Surprisingly, or unsurprisingly, every single image was of a muscular white guy. I like to exaggerate the absurdity of that look – and the oppressively white gay community that prizes it – by the repetitive imagery I use in the piece. I included so many images, I had to spend two entire days blurring out all their faces. It’s about power: when those men are looking at me, I lose something, but when I’m looking back, it’s like I take back some of that control. It’s funny, because we were talking about how Asian men are exoticised in gay porn so that they become the same person. But these white men are like one person as well, in a way.
So, is it a kind of revenge?
Boihugo: It’s quite satisfying! When I exhibited the piece last month I displayed it on the central window, so it would be the first thing people noticed when they walked in. I like the idea that a man walking in might see himself as part of that faceless mass. They never see themselves in any series that explores what we’re experiencing. They’re invincible. Masculinity has always been predicated on the exclusion of the ‘other’. For example, straight guys think they’re masculine because they don’t look gay, and white guys think they’re more masculine because they don’t look Asian. In a gay world which understands masculinity in terms of strength, and the desire to dominate – it’s like, a minority will never be as attractive because historically, we have been dominated. When you start thinking about the white male beauty ideal politically, it becomes a sinister image.
Your work has the ability to make the ‘ideal’ white hyper-masc guy look vulnerable. In your zine, Alpha Men’s Amazon Wishlist, masculinity is shown to be absurdly constructed. Can you tell me about that?
Boihugo: I got the inspiration for the zine when I was browsing Tumblr, which I use for porn, mostly. One day I found this male homosexual financial domination group. Men online use explicit images – many of which aren’t even of themselves – to create alpha alter egos. They’re so ‘manly’, some of them are actually presenting as straight. The interesting thing is there’s always an Amazon wishlist link at the end of their bio. I’ve clicked on a lot of them, and there’s a whole variety of stuff: a Canon DSLR camera, Nike running socks, a golden chain, even toilet paper. The followers of this fetish get pleasure from buying the ‘alpha men’ the stuff on the list, or just sending cash.
Boihugo: I don’t know! They just want people to buy toilet paper for them I guess! Maybe they’re really poor in real life? The products themselves are fascinating to me. In the zine I made, every page has a different item from the wishlist on it, then I used a French fold technique to slip a dirty image of the alpha man you can buy for between the pages. I wanted to emphasise how funny and absurd it was: how does toxic masculinity become a commodity? And when these men are asking for money or toilet paper, they’re emasculated in a way that is completely opposite to the image they’re portraying. Do the people who are sending them money not realise that?
What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever seen on a wish-list?
Boihugo: Well, they try to curate their lists so there’s no feminine or so-called feminine products on the page. It’s interesting because it makes you think about the way products are gendered. Nike running socks; a Dyson vacuum cleaner; a stainless steel colander.
But if you’re using a colander you’re cooking; if you’re using a hoover you’re cleaning. Those are traditionally female roles, so it’s like they’re trying to be masculine but they keep slipping up.
Boihugo: Yeah, it’s kind of cute in a way. I suppose masculinity is difficult to keep consistent. Or – there could be some Chinese grandmas behind the screens. You never know!
All your work is concerned with the politics of sexual attraction online and offline; the politics of looking. I wonder, do you think it’s possible to have any sort of sexual attraction that isn’t exploitative? Because the act of looking is an act of objectification, isn’t it?
Boihugo: Yes, I think you can. I’ve experienced it. I was dating my ex boyfriend for two years and we treated each other as individuals.
I suppose that’s love.
Boihugo: Yeah, I feel like he respects me. It’s different to anything I’ve experienced on dating apps, or anything the majority of my fellow queer Asian friends have experienced, I guess.
So, finally, your work is about the way aesthetics can inform our sexual preferences. What about you: have you escaped feeling sexual desire for the ‘alpha man’?
Boihugo: There was definitely a time when I was attracted to that; when I craved for the oppressors. I was full of self-hatred and self-consciousness because I was really attracted to men who looked like that and I also wanted to fit that standard of beauty myself, but I couldn’t. No matter what. But now I realise I have the right and the power to make sense of my own existence. At the moment I am trying to unlearn what the oppressive structures have taught me. Actually I’d like to finish this answer with a line from my bio on Grindr: “Turn ons: brains, non-toxic masculinities, good manners and good smell.”
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