The photography of Pixy Liao
Pixy Liao: the balance of power in a romantic relationship with authenticity and vulnerability.
Born and raised in Shanghai, Pixy Yijun Liao is a multidisciplinary artist who currently resides in Brooklyn, NY. After graduating with a Bachelor of Science degree, Pixy moved to the United States to pursue an MFA in Photography at the University of Memphis. Pixy has garnered awards and accolades for “Experimental Relationship”, an ongoing photography series she started in 2007. In her artwork, she explores the question of gender identity and women’s representation in today’s world. She restores what is being sexualized in womanhood and shifts it into an opposite weapon. Collaborating with her male muse boyfriend, Liao dismantles relationship stereotypes. She takes a deep inspection at love relationships, often reversing the power dynamics between a man and a woman to humorous effect, and challenging the expectations imposed.
You decided to leave a career as a designer, and inspired by Michelangelo Antonioni’s “Blow-Up” you started your career as a photographer. Can you tell us about the main challenges of the beginning? What motivated and kept you determinate?
When I went to study photography in the US, my idea of becoming a photographer was very vague. I didn’t know what type of photographer I wanted to be or what type of photos I wanted to make, I just thought that I could be a photographer so that I could make work with a minimum level of other people’s interference and hopefully be as rich as the photographer in the film. It took me a while to figure out what kind of photos I truly enjoy making. I tried landscape, portraits, fashion photos, and even wedding photos. Until I started making the “Experimental Relationship” project, I finally felt I was making my own photos. I enjoy it so much that I don’t even think about quitting.
At the beginning of the “Experimental Relationship” series, did you have any doubts about exposing an intimate part of your relationship? What was Moro’s very first reaction? Both Chinese and Japanese cultures place a strong focus on family. Have you asked yourself any questions about their possible reactions?
I used photography as an excuse to get to know Moro. So he had always been my model since the very beginning before the Experimental Relationship project. He has always been very supportive and rarely rejected my photo request. And I didn’t think of the photos as exposing an intimate part of our relationship because these are staged photos, not documentary photos.
When I first started making the project, we were both international students in the US. We were far away from our family and peers. I purposefully kept it a secret from our families. I don’t think it was possible if I could start the same project living in Asia. It was a time that I used the advantage of living by myself in a foreign country to allow myself to grow into the person I wanted to be.
A powerful woman point of view, with a brilliant sense of humor.
You rethought the role of the male as a muse, and you flip it with humor too. How much in the series of images is stage photography, and how much spontaneous? In some of your shoots, you are also the model. What does it mean to you?
Probably more than 90% of the image is staged. My project is concept-based. I rarely do a photoshoot without having a plan first. That being said, I don’t fully control every detail in the photos. I choose location, clothing, position, basic pose, but there’s always room for improvising. Especially for Moro, I encourage him to improvise based on the situation I created. So his facial expression and body gestures are more of his own. When I’m in the photos too that creates more uncertainty to the photos cuz I cannot see the photo when taking it. Actually, I wasn’t even sure when the photos will be taken cuz Moro is the one who takes the photos a lot of times. I think it is a performance or even a game we do in front of the camera.
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Her most well-known series “Experimental Relationship”, which received a special mention at Paris Photo Festival, is an ongoing project that paints her long-time relationship with her Japanese boyfriend Moro
Your images are also historical documentation of your relationship over time. Do you look at your early photos, even with the eyes of those who look at distant memories? How do you feel about reviewing certain moments or periods of the past? What do you hope viewers will understand through your images?
One gem of doing a long-term project like this is that you have recorded the precious time that you have spent with loved ones. When I see my old photos, I’m always more forgiving. I found many old missed photos that are worth publishing through this. When I just take a photo of myself, I’m always very critical of the image of myself. Maybe I don’t look good enough in one photo or maybe I didn’t pose the way I wanted. But years later, when I look back, I would think how silly I was. The younger self will always look better. After I get past the point of my own image issue, I can discover other good things about a photo and find some missed good old images.
She has created a vastness of different artistic projects, in which she imagines and portrays a role where women are not dominated but dominate. Her works deal with the exploration of issues such as identity and intimacy.
Image: The woman who clicks the shutter (2018), © Pixy Liao
I don’t expect the viewer to understand my images in a certain way. I want them to respond to them, whether they like them or dislike them or the images make them question something. It’s also an experiment on how people respond to this relationship.
During her photography studies orientation in the States she met her Japanese partner Moro, that was studying in the music department.
Is there one of your intimate portrayals from your series that you are more connected to or that marked a significant moment or change in your relationship? Can you share with us the story behind it or any meaningful event from the backstage of the photo shooting set?
The photos do not always come out the way I envisioned because when I take photos of us together, I could only imagine how we’re gonna look like in the photos. For example in the photo called “It’s never been easy to carry you”, there is a lot of empty space on the top part of the photo. It was not like how I planned it to be. Because Moro is quite heavy for me, his weight kept pushing me down during the photoshoot. When I saw the scanned image, I was very disappointed because the composition is not what I wanted. But later, I realized that the photograph is actually telling the truth. The fact that he is heavy for me to carry pushes me out of my ideal position in the photo, it’s also a metaphor of our life. I always imagined myself as a strong woman, but actually a lot of the time I struggle with the burden of our relationship, just like in the photo, his body pushes me down. After realizing that, I started to like this photo and named it “It’s never been easy to carry you”. There’s always a difference between what you desire and what you actually get. Even with all the staging, there are always things out of my control. I’m just learning to accept those.
Wu Zetian is a female figure who made a great impression on me when I was a girl. … It’s hard to imagine growing up without even one queen in your culture, which is why I think she is really important, especially to Chinese girls.” – Pixy Liao
From Shanghai to the States. You have lived in Memphis, and now you are based in Brooklyn. Which were the biggest advantages, which main differences did you notice that helped you to grow as a person and as a photographer?
I started studying photography in the US. The biggest advantage is that I live in a new environment away from my family and peers. That gave me a great space for me to grow without being interfered with. The difference between Memphis & Brooklyn is huge. Memphis is a very photo genetic city. And there are many places to take photos. When I moved to Brooklyn, the photo opportunity is much much less. But it’s a great place to live as an immigrant in the US. Now, most of my photos were taken when I’m traveling.
You have been working in the world of photography and art for many years. What do you think the role of gender has in contemporary photography? Does gender still matter? Are women slowly changing art and photography?
I think gender always matters. It helps people to see things from a different point of view, a photographer’s point of view. Everything about the photographer matters, his/her gender, race, cultural background, etc,. Are women changing art and photography? That’s not depending on the photographers. The photographers are just making their own photos. It depends on the platforms and audience who want to see those photos. I think the world today definitely wants to see more female photographers’ work or LGBTQ or BIPOC photographers’ work. It’s a good sign that we have a more diverse view of the art world now. I hope it’s not just a trend.
I make art based on my feelings growing up as a girl in China, and on how I feel as a woman in today’s world.” – Pixy Liao
In the age of social media, do you think that world cultural differences in love relationships have leveled off? Do you think that the new generations overcome prejudices and taboos more easily than those of the past? What do you think has changed since you started your project “Experimental Relationship”?
Yes. I definitely notice that people of my generation and the generation before me think about love relationships much differently than the younger generation like Gen Z. For them, it’s much more common to accept the idea of gender fluidity and they don’t judge people much who are in minority groups. I also know it doesn’t come easily. It comes from generation and generation of people’s hard work to make those “taboo” things more seen. Thinking about the artists/people that influenced me and the people who influenced them. And it’s slowly changing the world. I have been making this project for more than a decade. I just recently (in 2018) felt comfortable showing the work in public in China (in a photo festival). The response I got from the audience was encouraging. That is not something I could imagine happening 10 years ago, maybe not even 5 years ago. But it’s getting ok now.
Me, him and the audience are all connected by the cable release.” – Pixy Liao
You used the “female gaze” also in other artwork, sculpture, and other processes, like A Collection of Penises, Man Bags, Soft Heeled Shoes, and Breast Spray. Are they collateral projects or somehow related to your main photography work? Are you working on something new?
Yes, my work is based on my female experiences. I think my other works are equal to my photo work. They might be not so much about the heterosexual relationship, but more focus on the female experience. I am working on a conceptual work about female leadership.
In China, girls are normally encouraged not to work hard and rather to find a man to rely on; conversely, men are told to man up and to be brave.” – Pixy Liao
In addition to photography partners, you and Moro have together a band: PIMO. Can you tell us about this project?
Our band PIMO is a totally different story. Moro is a musician. Our roles switched to what we do in photography. We started collaborating in music in 2011. In our band, Moro is the leader. He would compose, perform, record, basically do everything, while I just sing in the band. We usually work on lyrics together. We call ourselves a toy rock band. We sing songs about our common interests in life, like cats and grandmas. You can listen to our music at pimo.bandcamp.com
What limits of your relationship did working together in photos and music projects help you to overcome, and what did it help you strengthen? Being involved in a synergetic multileveled artwork collaboration evolved your relationship?
The photo project has made us partners. This project is based on our relationship and grows with our relationship. At the same time, this project has become part of our life. In the beginning, he would just do as I said, but now he participates more. He truly understands what I’m doing and he contributes his ideas or reactions during the photoshoots. If I stop shooting for a long time, he encourages me to take photos again. The more we continue in the project, the better we know each other and trust each other.
And the music project is a good balance for us. In photos, I’m the director. In music, he is the leader. For me, it’s both an enjoyment and also my way of paying him back.
Featured image: The woman in the red robe (2018), © Pixy Liao
Photo courtesy of Pixy Liao
CHINA-UNDERGROUND. Ciao! My name is Dominique. I’m Italian and I’m proud to be a mix. My father was an Italian chemical engineer and high school teacher, with Greek and Polish heritage. My mother is Haitian, she was high school language teacher, with Dominican, Spanish, French, Portuguese, African and Native American heritage. Being a mix makes me appreciate to want to understand different cultures and lifestyles. I grew up in Italy, lived few years in Haiti, travel around main European capitals, lived seven years in China, six in Spain and UK. Traveling makes me feel that we can learn something from every situation in every part of the world.