Pixy Liao interviews her favourite artist, Elina Brotherus, about her influences, creativity during lockdown, and the performative elements of their self portraiture
For 20 years, Elina Brotherus has employed her own body as a subject, exploring both personal and universal experiences — from the presence and absence of love, to her continued exploration of the human figure within natural and manmade landscapes. Her work has been published by numerous art and photography publications, and features in a number of prestigious public collections, including the Centre national des arts plastiques and Kadist Art Foundation, Paris, France, and the Hasselblad Center in Gothenburg, Sweden.
Brotherus’ early works, namely I Hate Sex, (1998), and video work Miroir (2001), are what initially inspired New-York based artist Pixy Liao to make her own self-portraits. Liao found that Brotherus’ work revealed the most intimate psychological moments. “These are the feelings that many people have and nobody talks about, but Elina did. It made me feel close to her work,” says Liao. “I felt like I knew this person, that she was the kind of person I could be friends with”.
New York-based Liao shot to fame after publishing her first photobook, Experimental Relationship Vol.1, a project that playfully examines the Chinese photographer’s 10-year relationship with her Japanese boyfriend, Moro. Famed for its unique take on sex, gender, and power dynamics, Liao’s self-portraits have been displayed in solo and group exhibitions worldwide, and critically recognised in books including 10×10’s How We See: Photobooks by Women.
Brotherus and Liao have met on several occasions, at festivals and openings, but those were fleeting encounters — brief conversations between talks and tours. Now, with “all the time in the world”, as Liao puts it, they were able to catch up over a video call. Here, they discuss creativity during lockdown, using yourself as a subject, and the performative elements of their practices.
Elina Brotherus: So nice to see you Pixy. It’s like another world now, since we last saw each other in Arles.
Pixy Liao: I know, how are you right now?
EB: I don’t know what to say, I mean, frustrated. How many shows have you had cancelled so far?
PL: We installed one show that was supposed to open, but now nobody can see it. All my other shows have been postponed.
EB: I had six shows — three of them that were installed and cancelled, and then three which have been postponed. My gallery says that they will find a slot for next year, but I don’t feel it will be easy to do those shows later — they were meant to be for now, and times will have changed. I worked several years on these, and now it feels like the work was for nothing. Artists everywhere are facing the same problem. I also don’t feel very creative at the moment, and I don’t feel ready to make new work, because the old work hasn’t been shown. How about you?
PL: I’m in the same boat, I don’t feel creative right now either. I feel more creative when I’m busy, I’ll find the tiniest bit of time to make work. Right now, we have all the time in the world, but I don’t feel like making anything. Instead, I am trying to do things that aren’t creative, like working out or studying. One of the questions I wanted to ask you is what are your influences?
EB: I appreciate seeing other people’s art. That’s something that can function as a trigger for me. When I was a young artist it was old art, like Renaissance art and Flemish painters. What I’ve been doing for the past four years is looking at much more recent art history from the 60s and 70s, like Fluxus and John Baldessari. My other inspiration is unknown or unseen places. What I love most is to be somewhere where I have never been before, to carry around my camera in a backpack and go on a hike. Especially in uninhabited places and landscapes where you don’t meet other people. What I like most is the surprise of going out and finding somewhere that inspires me.
PL: I really like your fashion — I like what you wear when I’ve met you before, and I also like what you wear in your photographs. Do you always consider what to wear when you shoot?
EB: What I wear in my pictures is what I wear in real life. I love bold, geometrical clothing that is simple, but has nice forms. When I know that I’m going somewhere, I try and imagine what kind of landscape I expect to find there, and then I pack clothes that I think might fit, or I take something very neutral like black jeans and t-shirt, or a red coat — a red coat fits everywhere.
PL: I also feel a sense of love for design and architecture in your work. What types of spaces inspire you to take pictures?
EB: I love mid-century modernism, but my conscious relationship with architecture is actually quite recent. One thing about me is I am completely flat in my thinking, I don’t understand three dimensional space. I could never be an architect or a sculptor, because I have to flatten everything. That’s why I was never really interested in architecture, until I was invited to work in Maison Louis Carré, a beautiful house designed by Finnish architect Alvar Aalto. I stayed for three days on my own and that was a revelation. It was the first time I was consciously paying attention to how a structure looked like around me, how it was made, and how the direction of light changed during the day. Little by little, when I get the opportunity, I want to add more iconic houses to the series. My dream is to do a series of fantastic modernist houses on the East Coast of the US.
PL: You appear in all of your photos. Do you think of yourself as a consistent character in your work?
EB: Let’s say there’s two different categories. Some works are autobiographical, like ANNONCIATION (2009-2013), which is about what was happening to me in my life at that moment. That’s one category, then there’s another set of images in which I don’t think the person is me — it’s a human figure, a woman, or girl. I don’t even say it’s me when I’m talking about the pictures, I say ‘that person’. I want to ask you the same question, because you appear in your pictures too, do you feel like there is a consistency, or does it change?
PL: It does change, but I think it’s more consistent. For me, most of the work belongs to the same project. I think it is a character that I want to make for myself, like an alter ego. It’s not always me and my boyfriend, exactly, it’s someone else we can’t always play.
EB: Maybe it’s not necessary for us to establish it so strictly, and keep the freedom of just playing around. One day it can be one thing, and tomorrow it can be something else. It’s fantastic that you have the possibility to continue to work together. That’s one of the fantastic things about doing the same things — well, same same, but different — to see the process of ageing and to have these pictures that you did 10 years ago. In my case, my first pictures are from 20 years ago. I look very different now than I did then, but there is something recognisable. It looks like a younger sister, or a distant cousin. It would be wonderful to be able to do an exhibition where you show your 25-year-old self next to your 85-year-old self. It’s interesting to be able to compare how the body is changing.
PL: How do you feel about that, because doing self portraits, you cannot escape the changes happening to your body. It’s taught me to accept the fact that I’m ageing, and sometimes I really look forward to being old.
EB: We all look beautiful, no matter our age, or wrinkles. I’m much happier, and more content about how I look, than I was when I was 23. People are much more self-conscious when they’re young. I really don’t care — I couldn’t be more at ease with how I look now. Whose gaze are we trying to please? Why do we have to look sexy?
PL: I noticed that in your early photos you look at the camera a lot, but in later photos, we see your back more. Does this have a significant meaning?
EB: I think in my early work when I’m looking at my camera, maybe I’m trying to reach out to the spectator, or trying to establish a connection. I feel like when the gaze is direct, it can be quite aggressive, it can feel like a confrontation. When I turn my back, it’s more of a calm situation in which we can exist together. There’s no aggression, it’s a shared contemplation, like we are watching the same landscape without disturbing each other.
PL: Like making peace with your spectator?
EB: Yes, that’s a very nice way to put it. The other thing is that when you see the face, the identity of the protagonist is clear. When it’s the back, it can be anybody. For the spectator, it’s easier to identify with that figure, because it could be you.