Pixy Liao was given a special juror’s mention at this year’s Paris Photo/Aperture Foundation Photobook Awards. BJP revisits this article on Experimental Relationship Vol.1, a project that playfully examines the sex, gender and power dynamics within the Chinese photographer's relationship with her Japanese boyfriend
Last year, after a decade of creating hundreds of images for a project about her relationship, Pixy Liao decided it was finally time to create a book. “I’m not a very productive photographer, so I always felt like I didn’t have enough images” she says, “but ten years felt like the right time”.
As a woman brought up in China, Liao always thought she would end up with an older man who would look after her and protect her. But while studying for an MFA in photography in Memphis, Tennessee, she met Moro, a Japanese musician five years her junior. Being with Moro challenged her own views on how a man or woman should behave in a heterosexual relationship, and so she began to explore this through photography with a project titled Experimental Relationship.
Ten years on, her first photobook, Experimental Relationship Vol.1 2007-2017, was nominated for this year’s Arles Prix du Livre award, and is one of two nominations published by Jiazazhi – a Chinese publisher gaining global recognition for its work with contemporary Chinese photographers.
Designed by Liao, who was a graphic designer before she took up photography, the book shows 77 photographs, organised around a timeline that follows each of the four apartments the couple lived in together, giving a sense of how their relationship has grown over time, says Liao.
Like the photography in it, the formatting of the book is intended to be light-hearted and casual. Liao intentionally picked a cover and paper stock that would make the book easy to flick through, like a magazine, and the yellow cover is a playful nod to Chinese pornography books, whose name literally translates to “yellow book” in English.
“My grandma, who is 101 years old, she saw a few of my photos and said to me, ‘You must to stop doing these pornos!’,” Liao laughs. “Pornography is a little bit naughty, and my work has that same characteristic.”
As a collection of photographs, Experimental Relationship explores how roles of gender and power can shift within a relationship. Liao often photographs Moro wearing women’s clothes, and creates images that exposes his vulnerability and dependency.
This is also unintentionally expressed by an item which started as a necessity, but soon became a prop in almost every photograph – the cable release. Because Liao isn’t strong enough to squeeze the pump with one hand, most of the time Moro is the one pressing the shutter. In one photo, Liao dominantly squeezes the pump above her head with both hands while straddling Moro, and in another she is pinching his nipple as if signalling him to take the photograph. In others, they hold it together, in a joint effort.
The project is full of innuendo and, at first, this was largely inspired by Japanese TV shows and the country’s sex industry. One photograph of Moro lying on the kitchen table with a papaya balanced on his hips, captioned Start your day with a good breakfast together (2009), was influenced by an image Liao saw of Japanese people eating sushi off a naked woman’s body. But as she got to know Moro and his family, she realised that her work was more about the fantasy of Japanese sexuality than the reality of it.
“In Chinese people’s minds, Japanese people are very open about sexuality. When I actually got to know Moro, and went to Japan, I realised it was completely different,” explains Liao. “Average people are actually so conservative, they don’t talk about anything sex-related because they think it’s offensive and taboo”. To this day, Moro’s family have never seen any of this work, because Liao is worried that they may disapprove of her.
Being Chinese and Japanese, the project touches on some of the difficulties of being in a relationship with someone from another country. “This is my first relationship with a foreigner, and I was kind of feeling like there was so many things I couldn’t say or express,” says Liao, “but being with him all these years, I’ve gotten over this idea that I need to have super deep, philosophical conversations with him. For a relationship to work, it’s mostly about daily things, like who’s cooking dinner.”
Fortunately for Liao, her experimental relationship has been a success so far, and the project will continue as long as the couple stay together. As with being in a relationship, she says, the most important thing is enjoying it in the here and now. “It’s all about enjoying the process,” she says.
http://pixyliao.com/ Experimental Relationship Vol.1 2007-2017 is available to purchase from Jiazazhi, priced at €45.