Growing up in a culture in which dating older, more dominant men was the norm had an enormous influence on Chinese-born photographer Pixy Liao’s life and work – but not in the way you’d expect. After entering into a relationship with someone five years her junior, Pixy has spent the past decade creating self-portraits that question the traditional power structures of heterosexual relationships.
Words by Eleanor Scott
Photography by Pixy Liao
If you were to write out the most memorable lines of every love song Elvis ever recorded, you would have a book full of adages about romantic entanglements. It’s an amusing premise, particularly when considering the work of photographer Pixy Liao – which also delves into the nuances of love. After all, her long-term series Experimental Relationship may never have occurred had she not moved to Memphis, Tennessee in 2007 and met her partner Moro; but she never would have moved to Memphis had Elvis not lived there.
“Why I picked Memphis? It’s purely because of Elvis,” Pixy says. “I didn’t know much about the United States except for some music and films. I have always loved musicians. I thought that since Elvis lived there, it must be an interesting city with many musicians. And I was right. Moro is a musician.”
At the time, Pixy was working as a graphic designer in Shanghai. But the self-taught creative was deeply unhappy with the lack of freedom she had in her work – constantly frustrated that, in the end, clients would always make changes to her designs. Then, after watching Blow-up, Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1960s cult thriller about a London fashion photographer capturing a murder on film, she had a distinct thought: “photography is a much better job”. So, she applied for an MFA in photography at the University of Memphis and found herself in the perfect position to reinvent herself.
“I had a huge culture shock coming from Shanghai to Memphis,” Pixy explains. “Honestly, I didn’t know what I should do and who I should be in this new environment. So it was a perfect time for me to grow into someone I wanted to be in a place where nobody knows me.”
“I didn’t see any alternative examples of relationships where I grew up… I thought that one day I would find an older and reliable man.”
Of course, when Pixy left China she had no idea how her cultural views would change and subsequently influence the next decade of her life. Growing up in China as a girl, she was taught that she should take a submissive role in her romantic relationships. “Even though I was given a lot of love and support from my family – we are the generation of the single child policy – I was constantly persuaded to work less hard and take an easy life,” Pixy says. “I had my doubts, but at the same time, it was the norm. I didn’t see any alternative examples of relationships where I grew up… I thought that one day I would find an older and reliable man.”
But then she met Moro. Five years her junior, Pixy first approached him using “photography as an excuse to get to know him”, but after he worked with her on a few photoshoots as her model, the pair became a couple. It was during this time that Pixy realised that they “could live in a totally different life model” than the one she had been taught – although it was her classmates’ reactions to the photos she took of him that eventually inspired Experimental Relationship. “I kind of used him as a prop in my photos. Sometimes I would ask him to play a dead body, or be naked and fit in a suitcase,” Pixy explains.
“When my class saw my photos, the first thing they said was not about my photos, but, ‘How could you treat your boyfriend like that?’ I was surprised by their reactions because it was very natural for us. I asked my boyfriend to pose for me, and he did it. They are just photographs. From then on, I started to take self-portraits with him. That’s how I started the project. I wanted to show that this relationship is normal for us.”
“Me, him and the audience are all connected by the cable release.”
Now, over a decade later, the New York-based couple continues to subvert and explore traditional, gender-based power dynamics through the project. Oscillating between uncomfortably direct and teasingly subtle, the staged images and self-portraits offer a sharp but tongue-in-cheek commentary of patriarchal archetypes, heterosexual relationships and cultural dynamics.
One of the earliest photos in the series is called ‘Relationships work best when each partner knows their proper place’, in which Pixy is pinching Moro’s nipple and looking directly at the camera, while Moro is clicking the shutter and the cable release is extending outside of the frame. “Me, him and the audience are all connected by the cable release,” Pixy explains. “I also think it’s like a metaphor for our relationship. Sometimes the one that seems to be in control is actually the one who is being controlled. And I like the fact that he also has control in the image making. After this image, I always leave the cable release in the photo.”
Although the process of creating the images hasn’t changed much – Pixy still uses the same camera she bought in college – the content has evolved. In the early days of the series, it’s clear that Pixy is the dominant force between the two, but in more recent years there have been times where the power balance has swayed in the other direction or remained neutral. But that’s only natural, as Pixy says, “the project grows with [the] relationship”.
“I always have a way to make fun of the situation and amuse myself.”
Stylistically, the work is heavily influenced by Pixy’s background in graphic design and her droll sense of humour. There’s a sense of never-ending innuendo, and the more you look at the series, the more you fall down the rabbit hole – which is entirely intentional. “I always have a way to make fun of the situation and amuse myself,” Pixy explains. “I think humour is very important. It will bring out the deep truth about yourself when you are humoured”. With that in mind, it’s no surprise that one of the more intriguing threads of the project is Pixy’s consistent winks and references to other images she has seen, whether it be classic art or mass media.
“I want to make my own version of my favourite images,” Pixy says. “For example, ‘Every man needs a woman to keep him on track’ is a tribute to Janet Jackson’s album cover where a pair of man’s hands are covering her breasts. And ‘The woman who clicks the shutter’ pays homage to the ‘Sex and Fury’ film poster.”
One of Pixy’s favourite images from the project is ‘Homemade Sushi’, which was inspired by an online story about a woman who saw her husband sound asleep before leaving for work and tied him up with a blanket and belt because she thought it would be funny. In Pixy’s picture-based evolution of this story, Mori is nude, limp and loosely bound within sheets and blankets that have been shaped like sushi. For Pixy, it’s also a direct reference to Nyotaimori, the Japanese practice of serving sushi from the naked body of a woman.
As a multidisciplinary artist, Pixy has not been limited to photography in her razor-sharp satirical observations and expressions. Her most recent work, ‘Temple for Her’ is part of an ongoing conceptual art series that she is currently expanding, entitled Evil Women Cult. The large-scale work invites viewers to climb up a small red staircase toward a phallic throne, while a pair of golden eyes roll towards a centralised point directly above their heads.
The piece is a tribute to the only recognised Chinese empress Wu Zetian, who was known for her ruthless leadership. When Pixy was a young girl she was obsessed with a television show about the historical figure, but when a friend of hers claimed her to be her idol, although Pixy loved the show she was shocked that someone could actually look up to such a merciless character and said: “No! How could you claim her as an idol? She is evil”. However, now she believes she had it all wrong, and hopes to create a series that celebrates the strength of female rulers who have traditionally been painted as ‘bad’ largely due to their gender.
Although Pixy wishes she had been able to claim Wu Zetian as her idol “back then”, she’s excited at the prospect of delving deeper into the lives of powerful females throughout history so the next generation of young girls can claim them as their idols in a way she wasn’t able to at the same age. “I’m planning to make works based on all the female rulers I have researched, but “Temple for Her” is a tribute to my own idol Wu Zetian.”
Like her long-term photography series Experimental Relationship, and many of her other multidisciplinary works like ‘Breast Spray’, ‘Men as Bags’ and ‘Soft-Heeled Shoes’, Pixy’s newest project will undoubtedly continue to create incredibly detailed layers of nuance by weaving together her own personal brand of pointed comedy, societal commentary and cultural reference.
Born and raised in Shanghai, Pixy Liao is an artist currently residing in Brooklyn. Liao’s photographs have been exhibited internationally, including in He Xiangning Art Museum in China, the Museum of Sex in New York, and First Draft Gallery in Sydney. Liao holds an MFA in photography from the University of Memphis.