The balance of power in romantic relationships is a difficult topic to articulate with words, especially when in most cultures, women are taught to be subservient to male partners. But a significant age difference can throw a wrench in the gears of this standard, making room for subverting gender norms and exploring new ways of establishing romantic dynamics. In reality, dominance often ebbs and flows with time, and as each individual evolves, their relationship changes with it.
These power dynamics are given visual representation in the work of photographer Pixy Liao, who for the past twelve years has documented her long-term relationship with her much-younger boyfriend Moro. The images in Experimental Relationship symbolize her initial dominance over Moro, and how this has evolved into something more balanced over time. Using visual references to stories, television and iconography, Pixy’s images track the fluctuations in her relationship, all in front of her own lens.
In this interview, the photographer speaks to LensCulture about why she moved to Memphis to pursue photography, how the tone of her images has changed with time, and the importance of pursuing questionable topics in art.
LensCulture: I understand that it wasn’t always your intention to be a photographer. Tell me a bit about your life and career before you went into photography, and what inspired you to switch paths?
Pixy Liao: I didn’t have a formal background in photography because I grew up in China, and art education is not something that you’re told is a good path. I went to school for something else entirely, graduated from university with a random major and started working as a graphic designer. After a while, I realized this was not a good job, because I always had to listen to what my client wanted, and I hate that. I really just wanted to do my own thing without anyone changing my work. I saw the 1960s thriller Blow-Up, and in the film there’s a fashion photographer who takes photographs and makes tons of money, and I thought to myself, that seems like a good job! So I decided to change my career, and I went to the United States to study the medium.
LC: What did your first images look like when you started using the medium, and how has that style changed?
PL: Because I didn’t have a formal art background, I had no idea what I wanted to do. I went to school in Memphis, which is a beautiful city to photograph in, and I actually started out photographing landscapes. Then I started to photograph portraits of my friends. They were fun, but still quite normal, and I felt like I wasn’t finding myself. During my time in school, I got to know my boyfriend, and I started photographing him. I had to do a photo assignment that somehow related to death, so I asked him to play the dead body in my photographs as a prop. People started commenting on my images because I was using him in this way – as a prop rather than a human being.
They started asking me if my boyfriend was okay, and asking me how I could treat him like this. But I hadn’t thought about that at all. I was just thinking about my photo assignment, and he’s always okay with whatever I ask him to do. So I started thinking to myself, “Oh, maybe people think it’s really weird that I am able to photograph him like this.” That actually made me want to photograph us together, and from then on, I felt like I finally found myself and my voice through photographing us together. I found my own topic and theme.
LC: You met in Memphis? Why did you choose to go to Memphis of all places in the United States?
PL: I picked Memphis because of Elvis. I was super scared of going to New York because of 9/11, so I wanted to find somewhere in the middle of the US where I felt safe. I didn’t know anything about the States, but I knew about Elvis and I love musicians. I thought it could be fun, so I went!
LC: That’s amazing. In most descriptions of this work, people highlight how it’s an antithesis to what you were taught relationships should be like growing up, in terms of both age difference and gender norms. Can you tell me a bit about how you are exploring this difference in your work? How is it different from what you were taught when you were younger?
PL: I first saw my boyfriend at the international student orientation, and he introduced himself as a musician. I thought he was also in graduate school, and that we were the same age. I didn’t see him again until a year later, and I asked him if he wanted to model for me, and I quickly realized that he was, like, five years younger than me. I was very shocked at the time, because if my family knew I was talking a young guy, they’d think it wasn’t a reliable relationship and that I should just give it up. In China, this kind of relationship would rarely happen because everyone around you would suggest you move on to find an older man. But because I was in the US and by myself, I could do whatever I wanted, so I didn’t tell anyone in my family at first.
LC: And now it’s been twelve continuous years of adding to Experimental Relationship. When you started the series, what were the ways you communicated your core themes, and how have you seen these ideas evolve? Have they changed at all? Are there certain things you always go back to?
PL: I think that with all the photographs, my process is very similar. Every time I come up with an idea for an image I want to make, I make space for a good moment to photograph it, but I think the topic of the project has changed. Now, it’s really about how our relationship changes as we grow older and older.
In the beginning, my boyfriend was super young. He was right out of high school, but I had already worked and had experience in society. So he was super dependent on me, relying on me and listening to everything I said. That meant that at first, I was quite overpowering, and this is reflected in the early photos, which are very aggressive. I was just very excited to find this new type of boyfriend, and I was excited to be able to do all kinds of things with him.
But then he grew up a bit. I think there was a period of time when our relationship really changed – it was almost like a rebellious time for him. There was tension, and I sometimes thought my photographs tended to be too dark. I would look at them and think I was doing too much, so then that different way of thinking started to make its way into the images.
Later on, he became more understanding of my work and accepted it as a part of his life – more like a collaborator. At the same time, he’s more mature than he was before, so I can now rely on him, which has changed our relationship yet again. You can see that in the images where we seem more equal. It’s not all the time, because I still have that desire to be in control, but the reality is that we are in a relationship and sometimes we are equal.
LC: So when you say something is more aggressive versus “equal,” how does that manifest visually? What are some examples?
PL: The more aggressive ones are like the ones where he’s laying across my lap, and I am clearly dominant. And then when he’s rebelling, we almost have this competitive way of being, like in “I Can Tell That Your Heart is Fogged.” I actually remember taking this picture. We were kind of in this cold war at home. I watched this Japanese TV show that said when people’s eyeglasses fog up, it means their heart is foggy too. So I used that as a metaphor and found a way to make to into an image.
LC: What’s the dialogue like between you both when you want to set up an image like that? If you’re going through something in a relationship, and then you want those tensions to be visualized in photos, that must mean you have to articulate what’s going on.
PL: Oh yes, good question. I think when I take a photograph like this, I have the idea for it, but I don’t actually tell him what my intention is. And when I want to take a picture with both of us together, that makes things even harder. You can see it in his expression with the foggy glasses – I couldn’t get him to do any other face. That’s why I’m not in this photo. He was okay to pose just by himself. I titled it later on, but he didn’t necessarily know my intentions in the moment, and he’s okay with that.
LC: The fogged glasses are a really interesting reference. What other sorts of things do you reference in these scenes?
PL: I reference so many things. The nipple pinching is of course an ode to the famous Gabrielle d’Estrées painting, and “Start Your Day With A Good Breakfast Together” references the Japanese tradition of eating sushi off of a female body. And “Spit” is from a cartoon that I watched that was almost like a Sleeping Beauty cartoon. The prince was going to kiss the princess, but instead, he spit on her. There are many things I reference because I really love the image of it, so I want to have my own version. Actually, my favourite is “Massage Time.” There’s a CD album cover for music you are meant to listen to while you massage your partner. It’s a super funny cover, so I really wanted to replicate it.
LC: It’s interesting that this project now spans more than a decade – twelve years. And even though the relationship has changed, all the images come together as something cohesive. Like you said, the earlier images might be more aggressive, and then there are also moments of calm. But there’s something about the light and colors in this work that keeps it all within the same visual universe. Tell me a bit about your relationship to light, because I get the sense it is extremely important in this work.
PL: Yes, absolutely. I like bright images, and I was deeply influenced by the sunshine in Memphis when I got there – it’s so abundant. I studied color photography, and I just love photographs with bright colors, so that aesthetic has always stayed with me. But I did notice one thing: in Europe, the light is so different. “Electric Head Massage” was taken in Sweden, and even the color temperature changes with each city, especially somewhere like London. I have difficulty photographing there because there is no sunshine.
When I was in China, I always wondered how Western photographers were able to take such beautiful color photographs, because I was used to everything being grey due to air pollution. Once I got to the United States and saw the blue sky and colors popping out, I loved it, and I think that really stayed with me.
LC: I notice that there’s a lot of focus on your work being about your dominance, but like you said, your relationship is constantly evolving, and I think it’s also about your partner embracing his vulnerability too. In addition to your dominance, it’s also saying that it’s okay for men to be vulnerable.
PL: Definitely. I think my boyfriend is a very rare man. He has stayed true to himself and not been influenced by other people’s opinions, and that’s what I admire the most about him. He’s just being himself and being this piece of art in front of me, all the time. I really enjoy viewing him. Just seeing him is pleasurable, and I don’t know necessarily know whether that’s just because I am a woman. I really enjoy seeing the male body in a way that isn’t super masculine – in a way that isn’t harmful and that is very safe.
LC: Absolutely, and I think that variance in the idea of what a male body should look like needs to be embraced. Your work also probably gets a ton of different reactions from people. What are some that have stuck with you and why?
PL: One time, I was in a large group show in a gallery in Chelsea and this old guy came up to me and said, “You’re wild.” I don’t know what this means, but I always find this kind of response interesting. It’s not positive, it’s not negative, but it’s a comment on me personally after seeing my work. I think that’s fun, and it’s something I enjoy. But I’m really open to people’s different opinions and I think that’s good.
I enjoy people who see my work and love it, and I also like when there are people who absolutely hate my pictures. No one really says it to me directly, but sometimes they’ll write an entire blog post about hating my work, saying “What is this woman doing?” But I think it’s good, because it opens up the topics I am trying to address. We all have different ideas, and I think it’s really about finding ways to express and communicate them. Through that, we can really being to understand each other, or at least open up some space for more understanding in the future.