Words shared between the curator Sophia Cai & artist Pixy Liao in Sydney on August 1, 2016 ahead of the exhibition ‘Some words are just between us’ at Firstdraft Gallery.
SC: This is your first exhibition in Australia. What have your impressions been so far of Sydney?
PL: The food is really awesome (laughs).
SC: Better than American food?
PL: Not just better, I feel like what I have in the USA is pathetic by comparison. And the weather is not too cold. I like the landscape and nature too, it’s really beautiful. I feel quite relaxed here, different from what I expect from a big city. And the people are relaxed too.
SC: Do you feel inspired?
PL: Yeah. I wish I brought my boyfriend and my camera too so I could shoot here.
SC: Yes, you could have added to your ‘Experimental Relationship’ series that you have been working on since 2007. This is a highly personal project based on your intimate relationship with Moro, your boyfriend. How did you originally arrive at this idea?
PL: It began in art school when I met Moro, and I asked him to model for my photo assignments. The way I photographed him was more like a prop, rather than as a model.
SC: So did it start quite naturally?
PL: In the beginning I wasn’t doing it quite seriously. But when I showed these early works to my classmates they all were really concerned about how I treated Moro.
SC: Why is that? Did they think it was based on life?
PL: No, it was more about how I used him in the photos – posing him in certain ways, often naked, playing dead. And once people started showing concern and pointing these things out, I started to think more about our relationship and power dynamics, and I started to photograph the two of us together. I suppose I wanted to explain to people what sort of relationship we had, and through this process I also started noticing things, such as how our relationship differed to my previous expectations.
SC: You have been working on this series for almost 10 years, and this exhibition includes very early works (Try to live like a pair of Siamese twins 2009) alongside more recent ones (Hang in there 2015). What I find very interesting is the change, both visible and invisible, that is evident through this series. How do you see this?
PL: This series has helped me understand more deeply about relationships, myself and also Moro. It is changing, as my ideas about relationships also change. For example in the beginning the series shows a more unequal relationship, because I was already mature when I met Moro while he was young and just out of high school.
SC: So the age difference was felt more strongly early on.
PL: Yes. At the time I was more interested in showing female dominance. But these days, as we have been together for so long, I feel like the series shows more about power play and dynamics, and how we now support and connect to each other. So there are some new themes.
SC: One theme that I feel very strongly about your work is the notion of the female gaze, particularly in relation to your depiction of the male body and the male nude. Do you see this as a form of ‘equal opportunity objectification’?
PL: The female gaze is very important to my work, because it describes how I have been feeling my entire life. However I wouldn’t say that I want to objectify men, it’s more about the qualities in men I am attracted to. And that is why I depict them.
SC: Would you say then that feminism is important to your work?
PL: I don’t call myself a feminist. I grew up in China until I graduated from college in my early 20s, and feminism is not something you really discuss in China. But I do think my work does make reference to feminist issues and themes, and other people often referred my work to feminism. When I first encountered feminist text and theory I was surprised to see what I had been thinking and doubting my entire life discussed. But I do think on the other hand that I’m not a feminist because my priority is not equal power, but rather more about individual experience, about who you are, and about what it means to be female.
SC: But in relating to those ideas, and identifying those traits, does your work not share many feminist goals?
PL: It really depends on the individual encounter. Maybe I am more ambitious than feminism because I want more than just equal rights between males and females. But part of me also believes that this ideal cannot apply to every relationship, because people are also different. Maybe that’s why I don’t explicitly identity as feminist but I am pro-female and support feminism. Maybe that means I am a feminist, I don’t know. (laughs)
SC: I first encountered your work during my Masters research studying contemporary Chinese photography artists. Like you, I was also born in China but have spent my adult life living and working overseas. Does your Chinese heritage influence your practice, is this something you think about actively?
PL: I think everything I do is because I’m Chinese.
SC: What do you mean?
PL: Because it’s all based on my experience. And my experience was that I was brought up in China – and that informs my worldview. I also feel like my work is fighting something.
SC: What do you mean by fighting something? Do you mean that your work is inspired by the social and cultural norms you experienced growing up in China?
PL: Yeah, exactly. How do you feel about this? What has your experience been as a Chinese born Australian curator? Is there something you identified in my work?
SC: Well I think my cultural heritage is something I struggled with for a long time, and only something I started thinking about in relation to art about 3 years ago when I studied Chinese art history at the Courtauld. Before this, I never really felt very ‘Chinese’ because I didn’t go to Chinese school, my friends and I were all Australian, and grew up within this context. But I suppose now what really interests me in curatorial practice is looking more globally at artists and different perspectives, grounded in personal narratives and experiences. The reality is that it is very common nowadays to move around the world, to grow up somewhere else to where you were born, and in a country like Australia where multiculturalism is celebrated but also highly contested as shown in recent politics and commentary, these topics are really important. When I first saw your work, I think I was really struck not only by the socio-political angle, between Japan and China, but also how your work challenged Confucian ideals.
PL: Oh I hate those! I think that’s the main reason I grew up angry in China (laughs). Because of that.
SC: Yes, exactly. And how there are these certain expectations on women, and I suppose I never wanted to be a woman who would fit into that. How everything was very hierarchical and regimented.
PL: I think there are these aspects in my work that really address that Asian female perspective, women growing up with similar expectations placed on them. That is why I think I am a Chinese artist. And speaking more about Japan and China, I thought my generation wouldn’t care about that and I wouldn’t be affected. But when I met Moro, who is Japanese, I was surprised to find that the stereotypes did affect me, and I was shocked I felt that way because I consider myself pretty open minded. I did have doubts because of this, but I thought I would try.
SC: Well it’s good that you tried, because otherwise we wouldn’t have this series of work, and we wouldn’t be having this conversation.
PL: Yes, I am happy that I tried too.