An Interview with Pixy Liao

Pixy Liao is an artist born and raised in Shanghai, China. She currently resides in Brooklyn, NY. For the past thirteen years, Liao has been working on the photography series “Experimental Relationship” with her boyfriend Moro. The four photos printed in this issue all originate from this series. Through her work, Liao has subverted ideas of gender, sexuality, performance, control, and race. Liao spoke with Advocate President Sabrina Li ‘20 by phone in early January. This interview has been condensed and edited for brevity and clarity.

SL: “Experimental Relationship” has been an ongoing photo project for thirteen years. What inspired the project? How has the project evolved for you?

PL: It started in 2007. It was one year after I started dating Moro, and I was studying photography. I think for me, it was the time to really look for some kind of photo project that I felt belonged to me. When Moro and I met, it was a different type of relationship than what I had before. He is younger, and he's my first foreign boyfriend, and also he is Japanese, which makes it a little complicated because Chinese and Japanese usually have that impression about each other. So I think what's more different about this relationship is I found his personality to be very different from other boyfriends or men I knew before. He's very open-minded and also he doesn't have a very strong opinion about the usual idea of how a man should be. Like usually when you think about Japanese men, they usually think, according to stereotype, that they're very arrogant, that they're very, you know, masculine. But he's not like that, and he's younger, so he relies on me a lot. So I think that kind of changed the way I work with him in photographs. In the beginning, when I was shooting this project, I was asking him to help me with my other photos. And he usually wouldn’t reject me. He would always try to help me without considering what you usually think a man will consider. So I think in the beginning, when I shot those photographs, when I was using him as a model or prop, people would react less to my photo conception and more to how it was possible that a man would be willing to model like this in my photographs. Then that got me thinking that maybe, you know, there's something really special about this relationship, and I can make it into a photo project. That's how I started to photograph the two of us together.

SL: Have you noticed a change or a different trajectory in the photos throughout the thirteen years you’ve been working on the project, and have the goals of the projects shifted for you at all?

PL: Yes, definitely. I think in the beginning, when I first met him, I was at a point that I started to change my life into more like that of an artist’s. Before, I would never have thought about becoming an artist. And I met this new boyfriend and his style is very different from my other relationships. So I think I started to take up this new role as a woman leading the relationship. So I think in the beginning, I was very obsessed with the idea that, you know, I have so much power and control in the relationship. I think it shows up a lot in my earlier photographs. We’ve been together for so long, and there are periods of ups and downs. So later, like after a couple years after we graduated, I started to think of whether maybe my photographs were too much, maybe I’m overpowering him a little too much in our relationship––I would sometimes reflect on that, and this would show up in my photographs. And I think, especially in recent years, he has grown up so much. And we basically grew up together in the United States. I think our difference is getting smaller and smaller, and I think he's more mature than me in many different aspects of life. So I think later on in my photos, you will see we sometimes are in very equal kinds of positions in the photographs. And recently I think I kind of turned the lens more towards myself. In the beginning, I was just exploring the possibility of what I can be as a woman. And now, after taking pictures for so long, I think I have a pretty clear idea of what type of woman I want to be.

SL: And what is the idea of the “woman you want to be?” How do you communicate this to your audience?

PL: I think growing up in China, I always had this doubt. You know, in China, at least when I grew up, the idea of what a good woman is, what a good girl should be, is very limited: a good woman will be somebody who can find a good husband who can support her, but at the same time, she needs to sacrifice her life to the family to support her husband's career. People didn’t really consider independent women or strong women to be successful. And through my work I like to think about what is the best way to define a woman. I think the definition of woman is very limited. People just think of female as worse––like a woman would be somebody who's tender, who's soft, who's caring. I don't think any of that is true. I mean, we can be, but at the same time we can be something different.

SL: So when you're setting up a photograph for “Experimental Relationship,” what does a typical dialogue sound like between you and your partner Moro when deciding on a pose? And to what extent is he an active participant in choosing what poses to put himself in or yourself in? And does he ever choose your poses?

PL: I think in the beginning, I was very much into controlling every aspect of the photograph. So I didn’t expect him to do anything other than what I asked him to do. So I would tell him very simply, Oh, I want you to stand this way. I would move his body to look exactly the way I want him to. You know, I would say, Oh, you're looking at the camera. You don't look at the camera. It was very simple instruction. During the photoshoot, I would touch his body to modify his pose, and he would respond to that. And then sometimes he would give me an expression or a gesture that I would recognize as something I see in our real daily life. It was something that wasn’t designed by me. He was just naturally reacting to the situation that I set up. And then I realized that his improvisation and his input in the photograph is so, so important. It makes the photograph much more interesting and it adds a lot more life to it. So nowadays, I will tell him I want this kind of situation, and then I would ask him to get comfortable and do whatever he wants to do, and then I put myself in my own pose. Usually, I would just decide my own pose and sometimes I would do a pose based on his reaction. So if he reacted to a situation in a certain way, then I will also respond to that in the photograph as well.

SL: One of the features of your photographs that immediately struck me was that you almost always see either you or Moro clicking the shutter in the image. So it's made very clear to the viewer that you two are the ones photographing yourselves and that you are in control and that this has been a shot that has been set up. I was wondering how you would describe your and Moro’s relationship to the audience and the viewer. Is your relationship to the audience different from Moro’s relationship to the audience, and in what ways?

PL: I think the shutter release started from the very beginning because I was shooting with a film camera, and there's really no way to take the picture ourselves except for using the extension cable. And in the very beginning, it was because the cable release is so hard to squeeze, I just couldn't take the picture. Like my facial expression would be off if I had to take the pictures, so I always gave it to him. And we have a very early photo of when I was pinching his nipple, and he's taking the picture, and we're both standing in front of the camera. That picture I think kind of set the direction of this project because I feel like there's a connection going through me pinching his nipples, which almost signaled him to take the picture, and then he's the one who is actually taking the picture, and then the extension cable goes out of the frame and then extends to the audience. So it's like a circle going through this image. So I think after that image I always just accepted having the cords left in the image. I think it's a clue. And sometimes people will be confused because in a lot of the photographs, he’s the one who is actually taking the picture. So I think it's really interesting if people would think, Oh, the guy was taking the picture, and then afterwards they realize, Oh, actually the photographer is the woman, and how their response to the photograph would change dramatically based on their knowledge about who is the author of the photograph. One thing that is very interesting is that Moro is the person who actually controls the exact moment of the photograph. So I always tell him, I'm ready, you can take the picture. But he will always wait until he feels ready. So after I tell him I'm ready, I have no idea when he's going to take the picture, I just have to be there and just wait for the moment. And I think in that period of time he actually has a lot of control in the photograph, which is very interesting to me––I have control, but at the same time he has control. It’s almost like in a relationship where sometimes you think the person who's in control is actually being controlled by the other person or vice versa.

SL: That’s a really interesting dynamic of agency. It reminds me of when I was reading once in an interview that you were saying that “All the photographs are staged...When we are in the photos, we are performers for the camera, to create an image. We are not completely ourselves.” I was wondering if you could elaborate on the version of yourself that you perform for the camera. Have there been photographs where you noticed that the photograph was less of a performance than you would have liked? How important for you is this barrier between performance and authenticity, the barrier between you and the viewer?

PL: I think the me in the photograph is an image of a version of me that I want to give to the viewer. Of course, in each photograph my role is actually slightly different depending on my idea for the specific photo. I think it is me, but it is not the real me. The real me could be more normal. The me in the photograph can be more focused on being the strong woman in a heterosexual relationship. I think the performance part is very important because I think, for me, the person is not really me, but it's me in fantasy. So it cannot be too real. So I think in regard to performance whenever I was in the photo, I was very concerned about how my expression is, how my body is. But occasionally accidents happen and I lose control and I can’t perform as I’ve designed it. One example is in a photograph of both of us on a couch, and I was wearing a pink sweater, and Moro is lying on top of my shoulders. In the photograph my idea was that I am such a strong woman, you know, I can carry him on my shoulder. So I set up the frame and I took the picture. But when I saw the picture, I was very disappointed because during the photoshoot Moro was actually much heavier than I expected, so when he was lying on top of my shoulders, he was too heavy, so I was always being pushed down in the photograph. So even though I composed the picture, there's a lot of empty space at the top of the image because he was too heavy. I thought I could sit up much taller, but in reality, he just pushed me down. And I really liked the result in the very beginning. And I think after a while, I don't remember how long, but I realized that what was really happening is that a lot of the time when I think about a photograph, my ideas are so far from my old point of view that I really don’t think about the reality of it––what's happening in your life or what your imagination is about, who you can be or what you want to be is a different thing. Sometimes I think I'm such a strong woman that I can handle everything, that I can handle this heavy burden in our life. But actually, it sometimes crushes me. So, I think after I realized that, I started to appreciate that photograph, even though I couldn't be as strong as I wanted myself to be in the photograph.

SL: So going back to this idea of fantasy, I remember hearing during a talk when you said, “My work is not about equality — it’s about my fantasy.” I was wondering what the difference is for you between equality and fantasy, and has your fantasy changed throughout “Experimental Relationship”?

PL: I get asked a lot whether my work is feminist. And for me, I feel like feminism is about equal genders. But in my photographs, it is very obvious we are not equal. And I don't want it to be translated as a feminist work because I really don't think from a feminist point of view. Otherwise, my work would look very different. So I think in my project the fantasy is more about what do people want? What do they desire to be? Without thinking about moral concern and political correctness. It is a lot more personal than being equal, being fair, it's not about that.

SL: Does it ever bother you that the audience tends to impose that feminist lens on your work and in the process creates a binary of one person is in power and one person isn’t, rather than a more nebulous gray zone?

PL: I think I can understand why people associate my work with feminism. There are a lot of similar ideas between my work and feminism. But I think I have the fear that people will misread it as a feminist work. And then because my photo is not really about equality, then they will say, Those feminists, they're horrible. Look at what Pixy Liao did to her husband. I don't really want to go into that. I think it’s very dangerous to measure artists’ works with political correctness. I think they will lose a lot of freedom.

SL: You once said in an interview that even though your work is better received in the West, you always feel like your work is still viewed as different, other. How do you feel that the West others your work?

PL: I think that it depends on where I am and what the public thinks in that place. Especially when I started the project in Memphis, there are very few Asians there, and I think a lot of people’s first impression is not that this is a work about a female photographer and her boyfriend, but it is, This is Asian. They're so weird. Their first impression would be you’re somebody else and this is your lifestyle. I think New York is very different because New York has so many people from different races. I think it also depends on your life experience and whether you're in close connection with different races. So it depends on the person––whether or not they see Asians and feel surprised. And I think in Europe, it depends on which city you go to. If it is very white, your photo will be seen as a very exotic thing even though you're talking about a very universal topic. But people like us, I feel like they are more open-minded, and I think they will accept the ideas of what I'm talking about in a photograph.

SL: Do you think Chinese Americans' understanding or reactions to your work are different from mainland Chinese viewers’ reactions?

PL: That’s a very interesting question. I think that’s the first time a person’s asked me about that. I think Chinese Americans respond to this project a lot. I would say even more so than other Americans, for sure. I think how they react to it goes back to your family. I think if you grew up in a very traditional Chinese family home, I think maybe your reaction to it will be similar to the audience in mainland China. What do you think?

SL: Oh, me?

PL: Yeah, you're Chinese American right?

SL: Yeah. Um, I haven't really been to mainland China that much though.

PL: Do you think your family or your friends have an idea of what a good Chinese woman should be?

SL: Definitely. I think I especially resonated with what you were talking about before of how the fantasy you're portraying in your photos is othered because of your race. I remember reading in one of your interviews that you were saying how one of your pieces in which you’re eating papaya off of Moro was in response to people wanting to eat food off of Asian women. I could definitely see parts of America reducing your pieces as portrayals of weird Asian dynamics and seeing it through that more racial lens, because I guess the narrative still is that Asians have crazy solutions to intimacy, and that results in othering and dehumanizing them. But for myself personally, when I saw your work I was really struck by it and it moved me a lot. I saw myself in your works, and this playfulness and subversion of racial and gender stereotypes I still see in American media. And when we were talking before about equality versus fantasy, I felt like your works do such a great job of complicating what it means to be in an equal partnership and what it means to live within hierarchies, particularly dominance and submissiveness––the people you think are in power are never fully the ones who are.

PL: Now that you talk about it, I think there might be a difference between Chinese Americans and Chinese audiences in mainland China. I think one difference is maybe the women in mainland China feel more of a social pressure, and I think maybe it's better in the United States. And I think the other thing that’s different is the idea of being Asian. I think that could be something that people living in mainland China would never think about. They would never think about how other people might react to it, because we are Asian, and I only experienced this after moving to the United States. So in the beginning, I was very confused about how it was possible that when people first see my photos, the first thing they think is we are different. That's the first thing they think.

SL: How do you react when you get those responses?

PL: I think I have accepted the idea that once you produce the work, how people react is out of your control, and it actually has very little to do with your work, or what you made, or what you have in mind. It has more to do with who they are. So when I hear different responses, I realize there's so many people, and we are so different in many, many ways.

SL: Do you ever see yourself ending the photo series?

PL: I don't want to end it unless I couldn't make it anymore. And I think my life is leading this work. So it depends on how my life goes. How my and Moro’s lives go.

SL: And what is your next project?

PL: Recently, I've been really thinking about female leadership. I am interested in female leaders from Asian history because they are so rare. I'm interested in what kinds of methods they took to get their power, and I'm interested in their desires and ambitions. So I think my new project is going to be called “Evil Women Cult.” I want to create a cult for these women so people can actually get to know them and recognize them as a group of ambitious women who existed thousands of years ago. They existed. And I want to promote them and let more people know about them.