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Interview: Photographer Pixy Liao On Pushing New Boundaries in Gender Non-Conformity

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Photographer Pixy Liao has a fraught relationship with relationships.

“I accept the fact that the world surrounding me will never completely accept me,” she candidly tells us. “For me, it’s more important to create a world for myself than to think about what other voices say.” It is this attitude that allows the Shanghai-born photographer to challenge the expectations enforced upon her.

Misrepresenting Misrepresentation

The creation of this world began 13 years ago, when Liao met her partner and art collaborator, Moro, while studying photography at the University of Memphis. What started as a way to get to know each other turned into a poignant portrait series that playfully re-imagines traditional gender norms. Set against the backdrop of her own relationship, Liao’s series, Experimental Relationship, flips the power dynamic on its head portraying the couple in reversed roles.

Pixy Liao photographer

The images, which portray Liao as a dominant, almost authoritative force over the subservient and docile Moro, serve as a direct contrast to the traditional view of relationships that Pixy grew up around. “As a woman brought up in China, I used to think I could only love someone who is older and more mature than me,” Liao writes on her website about the problematic cultural expectations that came with dating a man five years her junior.

Thought-provoking yet refined, the portraits show a range of often-intimate scenes, such as a fully-clothed Liao cradling her naked lover, to more provocative images where Liao is subtly biting and choking Moro, or eating a vagina-shaped papaya off his crotch at the breakfast table. “I have always doubted the stereotype of a man-woman relationship,” Liao writes in the foreword to a book accompanying the Experimental Relationship portrait series. “Why does man have to be a certain way? Why should woman be a certain way?”

Pixy Liao photographer

Pixy Liao photographer

Laced throughout Liao’s body of work is her distinctive brand of humor. By simply reversing gender roles, her photography exhibits a poker-faced satire that shines a ridiculing light on the gaping cracks of convention. “I take humor very seriously,” Liao avows: “It reveals one’s true self. I think people will get my work when they are amused by it.” The accessibility of everyday scenes and Liao’s humor invite the audience to imagine a world that subverts the narrative of the gender-normative.

By reversing gender roles, Liao’s photography exhibits a poker-faced satire that shines a ridiculing light on the gaping cracks of convention

Pixy Liao photographer

This subversion of traditional power dynamics is repeatedly emphasized in her other artwork, most notably Soft-Heeled Shoes. Liao’s art piece, a pair of shoes, uses a latex heel cast from her partner’s erect penis. The result is a visual metaphor that antagonizes the patriarchal power dynamics in society. When asked to elaborate, Liao recalls that she “couldn’t put all my weight on [the shoes]. If I did, they would break, which shows that you can’t rely on a man that much. [Women need to] depend on ourselves.“

Pixy Liao photographer

Opposing Forces

Another powerful theme that runs through Liao’s work is the omnipresence of opposing forces, and the dialogue between them. Love and hate are the most pervasive — a theme perhaps influenced by the “usually tense, sometimes hostile” relationship between Pixy and Moro’s home countries, China and Japan. In one photo titled “Intimacy will improve your relationship,” a loving embrace disguises feelings of anguish. Another shot, named “Spit,” shows Liao tenderly looking at Moro while spitting directly into his mouth. Liao’s work not only exposes the delicate demarcation between love and hate, but also asserts that one is often a byproduct of the other. “A relationship is built by two lovers, but also two rivals,” Liao states. “The hatred comes out of love because love is only ideal in our own imagination. “

Pixy Liao photographer

“A relationship is built by two lovers, but also two rivals” — Pixy Liao

Pixy Liao photographer

Control and subservience is another dichotomy prevalent in Pixy’s work. The presence of the cable release — the button that allows Liao and Moro to remotely take the picture — in almost all of Liao’s photographs represents the contradiction of power. In a relationship there is always a power struggle,” she says. The cable’s recurring presence transcends its status as merely a functional object. Although Pixy assumes the position of authority, the power to take the shot is mostly in the hand of Moro. Liao comments on this paradoxical relationship as “a sign of power,” noting that “it also gives Moro some degree of control in the photo… He takes a cue from me to click the shutter.” The enigma of opposing forces in Experimental Relationship challenges the audience go beyond Liao and Moro, to question the power dynamics in their own relationships.

Pixy Liao photographer

Pixy Liao photographer

Influences

What is most enjoyable about Liao’s work is its autobiographical nature. Her time living in Memphis, Tennessee has added an appreciation for vibrant, yet delicately-matched color palettes, accompanied by an acute attention to detail nurtured from her graphic design background.

All of this is blended together by the cross-cultural influences that come to her by nature of being a Chinese immigrant living in the USA, dating a Japanese man.

Pixy Liao photographer

However, Liao’s current biggest influence is the future, and who she wants to become. “What I desire to be as a person is what I make,” she says. The more Liao grows as an artist, the more she wants to move away from her relationship and branch off into work that represents her and other women’s lived experience. An example of this is the inspiration behind art piece “Breast Spray,” which originated from a news story of a German woman who robbed a store by spraying breast milk into the cashier’s eyes.

Pixy Liao photographer

Pixy Liao photographer

This shifting attitude is the impetus behind Liao’s latest work, Temple for Her. The art installation is a tribute to China’s only Empress, Wu Zetian. Although she is considered one of China’s most malicious historical figures, Liao’s aim is not to give agency to oppressive autocrats, but rather to challenge patriarchal misrepresentations of women throughout history. “The work is more about female desire and ambition,” Liao states.

Pixy Liao photographer

It’s easy to interpret Pixy’s body of work as a feminist statement. But for the artist, it’s not as black and white as that. “My work is not about equality — it’s about my fantasy,” she said at a recent talk. Her challenge to traditional societal expectations doesn’t come in the form of an abrasive middle finger; it comes through creating a world where these expectations don’t exist.

RADII caught up with Pixy Liao during her recent tour of China to talk about her work, cultural differences, and her inspirations:

RADII: Your journey with photography started with a leap of faith as you moved to a country you’d never been to before. Can you share with us how you first got into photography?

Pixy Liao: I was a graphic designer in China. At that time, I was frustrated with my job because my work was always being changed by clients. I wanted to do something where people could not change my creative work. When I watched the movie Blow-Up, I was fascinated by the photographer’s lifestyle in the film, and thought maybe this is the perfect job. No one can change the photo once it’s taken. So I decided to go abroad to study photography. When I was a graphic designer, I was a keen collector of images. I looked at so many images online, photos and paintings. I also paid a lot of attention to color combinations — that was a habit I developed as a designer.

Can you tell us Experimental Relationship and how it came about? What are some of the central themes or concepts you wanted to explore with this photo series?

This project started from 2007, one year after [Moro and I] had been together. In the beginning, I did it because I noticed that our relationship was viewed as somewhat abnormal by others. I wanted to explain how natural and how fun it is for us to be like this in our relationship. I wanted to test people’s acceptance of a different type of heterosexual relationship. Also, I wanted to test what is the limit of our real relationship.

Pixy Liao photographer

Pixy Liao photographer

You mentioned previously that you have always doubted the stereotype of a man-woman relationship. How does this series challenge the stereotypes of the man-woman relationship?

When I started this relationship, I noticed that because I was much more experienced in life than he was at that time, I became the one with the authority. It is a very different type of relationship than what I experienced or knew before. In China, a woman will usually have a relationship with an older, more experienced man. The photos are my notes on what a relationship look like if we do something different — not necessarily just a woman leading a man, but more like collaborating in different ways other than man-leading-woman.

How much of the narrative of your work is your take on the female gaze? What is your definition of the female gaze?

I don’t know what “female gaze” is. It’s a female gaze because I’m female. Because I grew up and live as a woman in this world. It must be a completely different feeling than living as a man in this world. So it’s not a male gaze.

A lot of your art lampoons the voyeurism and fetishism that the male gaze traditionally uses to objectify women and empower men. Yet, your work also is so much more than simply turning the power tables on gender. How important do you think it is for the female gaze to be more than simply a reversal of the male gaze and to concentrate on other themes?

Since I cannot experience male gaze, it’s hard for me to reverse that. Women not being “women” does not mean being men. There is so much space in between. What about people who don’t feel like they’re either a man or a woman, or who feel like both a man and a woman? I believe gender is a spectrum, it’s not just two genders. I’m somewhere in between.

Pixy Liao photographer

Pixy Liao photographer

A lot of your work carries a distinctive, satirical sense of humor. Is this part of your personality that naturally came out, or was it a conscious creative decision?

That mainly comes from my personality. It’s also a key element I need in order to make work, I need to humor myself. I need to feel the fun of making it. I take humor very seriously. It reveals one’s true self. I think people will get my work when they are amused by it.

One of the most common reoccurring elements in your photography is the presence of the shutter release cable. I know that Moro holding the shutter release was a practical decision (because it’s easier for him to squeeze it) but, with the power to take the shot consistently in the hand of the Moro, it also begs the question of where the power lies.

Exactly.

Could you elaborate a little about the concept of power in your work and also on how you feel the shutter release adds emotional and/or transcendent depth to the series?

The cable is a clue in the photo. It shows how the photo was taken. It links the audience with us. It’s a sign of power. It gives gave Moro some degree of control in the photo. He takes a cue from me to click the shutter. He controls the exact moment of taking the picture. I make the order, and I wait.

Pixy Liao photographer

Pixy Liao photographer

How has your art given you a deeper understanding of the concept of a relationship, love and life in general? And how is the changing dynamic of your relationship reflected stylistically and thematically in your work?

This project grows with our relationship, and has taught me so much about relationships. A long-term relationship is a living thing. It’s always changing. Our relationship has changed during the course of 13 years. In the beginning, I was so much more dominant in the relationship. It shows in my work as well. And in recent years, my photos have changed because our relationship has gone through different stages. There were moments of doubt, reflection, understanding, and supporting each other. These show in my photos.

By virtue of being in a relationship and following a profession that subverts the expected norms of the culture you grew up in, how have you dealt with the criticism that comes with going against the grain and rejecting societal expectations? And how has this developed your artistic style and outlook on life over the years?

I grew up in China. When I was a kid, I already knew that I didn’t completely fit in there. And today, I know that I do not perfectly fit in anywhere in the world. I accept the fact that the world surrounding me will never completely accept me. At the same time, I don’t want to change myself. That helps me to go against the grain. For me, it’s more important to create a world for myself than to think about what other voices say. I’m always intrigued by artists who create artwork from what’s within themselves.

Pixy Liao photographer

Your work has been shown all over the world in magazines, exhibitions and galleries. How have you noticed the difference in how your work is received in China compared to a Western audience? Is there anything you find that gets lost in translation from culture to culture in your work?

Compared to a Western audience, the Chinese audience in general is not familiar with contemporary art, art history, or different ideas on sexuality. I don’t feel that much difference when showing the work in galleries or museums in China, but I will get many random questions if showing the work in public.

In Western countries, I don’t have that problem. In general, I find that a Western audience might like my work because they think it’s refreshing to see some different ideas concerning gender identities, especially from Asian artists.

Even though my work is better received in the West, I always feel that my work is still viewed as “other,” as “other’s issues,” whether they like my work or not.

But for the Asian or Chinese audience, they resonate more with my work, because we come from a similar cultural background. If I have a show in China, there will always be young Chinese girls and women talking to me, telling me how much they like the work.

Pixy Liao photographer

Previously, when talking about yours and Moro’s nationalities, you described your relationship as a “love and hate relationship.” Can you expand a little on your thoughts on these embedded cultural differences? How does this come out in your photography?

Japan and China have a long and complicated history. It’s usually tense, sometimes hostile. But at the same time, the two countries influence each other so much. Our history is intertwined. I see it somewhat like a love and hate relationship, in a way that is similar to our own relationship.

I think everyone who is ever in a relationship experiences the love/hate dynamic at some point. As much as you love him/her, there are always times when you cannot put up with your lover. The hatred comes out of love because love is only ideal in our own imagination. Many of my photos can be explained with both love and hate like when I’m kissing him, I’m choking him at the same time, or a hug looks both tender and aggressive. A relationship is built by two lovers and also two rivals. Even though, I still believe we need to stay together and mend our relationship, just like our countries do.

Experimental Relationship’s main themes of challenging gender power dynamics and society’s ideas about relationships and sexuality are also continued in your other work, like Man Bags, Soft Heeled Shoes and Breast Spray. How has broadening out into other mediums advanced your comprehension of your own art and expressive voice?

I choose mediums based on the requirements of how to express an idea. When an idea cannot be realized in photographs, I will look into other mediums that I can work with. Sometimes some ideas will push me to learn new skills.

Pixy Liao photographer

What is the story behind Soft Heeled Shoes

I really hate wearing high-heeled shoes. I imagined if there were this pair of high-heeled shoes which the heels are made with a soft penis, and each step I take, the balls will be bouncing. That might be fun enough for me to forget about the pain of wearing them. So I 3D-scanned Moro’s penis and 3D-printed it into soft silicone like heels, and attached those to a pair of shoes. I took a brief happy walk in these shoes.

What about your latest work, Temple for Her? How has this work changed how you think about how the consistent under-representation and misrepresentation of women in art?

The inspiration for Temple for Her comes from my complicated feelings for Wu Zetian [the only empress in Chinese history] when I was young. I really liked her, but couldn’t admit that. I couldn’t admit that I adore this powerful woman because she is always considered evil. I made a miniature temple for her with a pool of blood in the shape of a woman, a red staircase, a phallic throne, a pair of golden rolling eyes, and a Chinese character Wu created for herself as her name, Zhao, which is a combination of two characters: “clear” and “sky.” In order to worship a powerful woman like her, we need to embrace the evil part of her as well.

Yours and Moro’s band, PIMO, just put out your third album, Hello World. Can you tell us a little about your band?

Moro is a talented musician, and we have a duo band called PIMO. In the band, he is the absolute leader. I usually just sing. It’s another way we work together. I enjoy making music with him. It’s a totally different angle of life in our music than the photographs. And I think through making music together, I’m paying him back.

What is next on the horizon for you?

I’m working on a conceptual work relating to more female leaders like Wu Zetian in history. The work is more about female desire and ambition.

All photos courtesy Pixy Liao. Follow Pixy on Instagram (@bloodypixy) or her personal website: www.pixyliao.com

More photography:

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Gavin Marcus
Gavin is a writer and content creator who has been living and working in China for over ten years. He writes on photography, music and culture.