Let’s meet up with…Pixy Yijun Liao!

Pixy Yijun Liao took second prize in the ‘Open’ category with her series ‘Experimental Relationship’ which explores the alternative possibilities of heterosexual relationships, questioning what is the norm.
In the images it’s often your boyfriend who holds the remote shutter release, even though you are positioned as the more dominant one. What is the reason behind this choice, what does this signify?
I use a cable shutter release but it’s really long and has an air release so it’s very hard to squeeze. When I did it usually my expression would look very painful! So in the beginning that’s why I gave it to him, but then I noticed that it actually gave another interesting layer to my photographs. Particularly in one photo where I am pinching my boyfriend’s nipple – it’s almost like I’m signaling him to take the photograph, Then he’s taking it, and there’s an extension cord going out of the frame. I really like this connection from me to him and to the audience, so I’ve kept it as my signature.
Actually the picture you just mentioned, where you’re pinching his nipple, I particularly wanted to ask you about. It seems to echo the well-known painting, ‘Gabrielle d’Estrees and one of her sisters in the bath’. Is this indeed a conscious reference and if so, what does it signify?
I was definitely inspired by that painting. In the painting her sister is tweaking her nipple to indicate that’s she’s pregnant, which I find really interesting. But I was actually more thinking about domestic things, a way of signaling the female position in the family.
Also in this photograph in particular, there’s a recurring incidence of red – your nails, the brush and even the small tags on the blinds. Was this intended to signify anything?
I think red is my favourite colour, always has been, even before I became a photographer When I was a graphic designer I liked to use it in my pictures. Sometimes I feel I might unintentionally use a lot of red. I’m just drawn to it.
How was the series received? Was there a difference in the way it is received in China and in the USA?
The USA is definitely much more open to see all types of different ideas in photographs. In China I’ve only shown it twice. I have had a lot of opportunities to show my work in photo festivals but they’re more for the general public so I wouldn’t want to show this project. I would show my landscape or other projects because I’m worried about it being shown to a more general audience. This kind of idea is still very new in China, where people are very concerned about what men and women should do, what they should look like. It would take a long time for them to understand what it’s about. I did show it in a photo gallery and museum but the audience was very limited and the show was targeted for art lovers and so more open to this kind of idea. But in the USA I feel much more free to show it in all kinds of exhibitions.
Do you think the situation is changing in China?
Yes, definitely. I’m not sure about the ideas around heterosexual identities but especially things are changing for gay people in China, While I think they are not officially recognised by the government, they are not banned and a community is forming. A good friend of mine directed a short film 3-4 years ago, a gay romantic story (which starred my boyfriend and another actor) which was very popular. At that time they had the first LGBT media festival in China and the film won an award. So, yes, I think it’s really becoming more open.
It’s wonderful that your boyfriend is willing to participate in the series, even though he is really quite exposed in some of the images. Has the series had any effect on your relationship that you’re aware of?
The project really started with the relationship, around one year into it. At that time we didn’t really know each other that well, but I noticed that there was something different about this relationship, how we were with each other. I started to use him in my photos and started to explore what this relationship was, right in the beginning. But now I’m doing this project for seven years, so it’s really growing with the relationship. The relationship changes throughout the project. I think for him, as we’ve been doing this project for so long together, he fully collaborates and cooperates with me and he understands what I’m trying to do. Most of the time it’s just performance for the camera, so it’s not a real reflection of our relationship. But, he’s cool with it, and I’m really happy about that! He’s a musician and actually we’re in a band together. It’s kind of my way to do something for him, to contribute.
After looking through your other work I can start to recognise a style, particularly in your use of colour and light (I particularly like the Memphis, Tennessee series for this). How did you arrive at this do you think? Who have been your main influences throughout your career?
There are several factors I think. My graphic design background means I was always interested in how colours matched together. I went to a photo school in Memphis, which was the first time I studied photography. That particular city, its colours, its aesthetics really influenced me. There are also many great American photographers from the south, from Memphis even, like William Eggleston. There’s really something about the light and the colours there which has stayed with me. Also when thinking about light I always like the paintings of Edward Hopper. My boyfriend’s aesthetics also influence me. Sometimes he makes suggestions for colours where I would usually go in another direction.
You said you were a graphic designer before you studied photography. What made you change? Any advice for anybody who also thinks about making such a switch?
My undergraduate study had nothing to do with art or design, I did an education major but I was always interested in art. I became a freelance graphic designer, totally self-taught. In the beginning I really liked it, that I could just make images. But once it becomes a job, your clients can make you feel like you’re just a pen for them. I felt my creativity was being limited. Around that time I watched a film called Blow Up. There’s a cool fashion photographer in the film and he just looked so free. I thought ‘that must be great job. Maybe I should go abroad and study photography.’ At that time I was really frustrated with the graphic design job and felt like I had to make a change. I think that’s the only advice I would give really – if you don’t feel like it’s too late to change, then it’s not too late to change.
What are you working on now?
My new series features close-ups on body parts and lots of colour composition. Compared to the last series, where the idea is specific so people either like it or dislike it based on the message I send out, with this new project I wanted to do something more vague so it’s more open for people to decide what the photo is for. I wanted to make these photos visually attractive.
You weren’t in Amsterdam for the Pride Photo Award exhibition. Is there anything else you would say about your series for people looking at it?
This project is a very private project, but at the same time it’s a performance. There is only ever the two of us during the photo shoot. Nobody else is on the set with us. I will continue the series as long as we are together.
Interview: Robyn Grafton

Pride Photo Award is an annual international contest for photos about sexual and gender diversity.


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