Pixy Liao, artist and winner of the Jimei x Arles - Madame Figaro Women Photographers Award: “I make art based on my feelings growing up as a girl in China, and on how I feel as a woman in today’s world.”
Pixy Liao (1979) was born and raised in Shanghai, and currently lives in New York City. She holds an MFA in photography from University of Memphis. Her photographs, sculptures and videos explore, with humor and bright colors, the issue of identity and genre, and question the conventions and stereotypes around womanhood, relationships and couples.
Pixy’s photographs have been exhibited in group exhibitions at He Xiangning Art Museum (China), Museum of Sex (NY), Metro Pictures (NY), First Draft Gallery (Sydney), Asia Society (Houston), and solo exhibitions at Galleri Vasli Souza (Sweden) and Leo Xu Projects (Shanghai). She has also participated in artist residencies in London and in the United States. She is a recipient of NYFA Fellowship in photography, En Foco's New Works Fellowship and LensCulture Exposure Awards.
Pixy had her first public exhibition in China in the winter of 2018 at the Jimei x Arles photo festival in Xiamen, where she won the Jimei x Arles - Madame Figaro Women Photographers Award. The young Chinese publishing house Jiazazhi published a book with Pixy for the 10 years of her project, Experimental Relationship. The book, entitled Experimental Relationship Vol. 1 2007-2017, obtained a special mention from the Jury of Aperture/Paris Photo PhotoBook Awards at Paris Photo 2018.
In your series Experimental Relationship and For Your Eyes Only, you explore the question of gender identity and of women’s representation in today’s world. This matter seems to be central in your work: in Soft-heeled shoes (2013), you wear a pair of high heels shaped like your boyfriend’s penis; in Breast Spray (2015), you use a silicone breast, and spray milk on your boyfriend (as seen in Milking the garden), reclaiming what is being sexualized in womanhood and turning it into a contradictory weapon, both feeding and attacking. Could you develop your views on that topic?
I make art based on my feelings growing up as a girl in China, and on how I feel as a woman in today’s world. I have a lot of questions on why people all say they feel the same way when I don’t feel that way at all. For example, why are high-heeled shoes so sought-after, when they are just a piece of torture for me? Or why should women be seen as mothers and lovers only? Am I less feeling like a woman? With so many doubts accumulated over the years, I try to answer those questions for myself in my work.
In the photo series Experimental Relationship and For Your Eyes Only, on view at Jimei x Arles, you give the viewer a glimpse of your personal space. You represent your boyfriend and yourself in your pictures: your bodies, your relationship, your intimacy. How do you feel about sharing this intimacy?
All the photographs are staged. Even though they seem to be in intimate settings, these are the images I intended to create for the public. When we are in the photos, we are performers for the camera, to create an image. We are not completely ourselves.
Do you think it is important to be both behind and in front of the camera?
Yes, I think for this project, it is important to be both behind and in front of the camera. Behind the camera, I’m the photographer, the director of the scene. In front of the camera, I’m playing a role that I designed. It’s important that I’m both the photographer and the model, because the project springs from my real life.
Why did you call your series Experimental Relationship?
In the beginning, as a Chinese woman, dating a younger man who is also Japanese, just did not seem to be something that would last. So I called it an experiment — just to see how long it would last. I guess in general, all relationships are like experiments, more or less.
How do you feel about showing this series in your homeland, China, in a public event, for the first time? How did you work on the exhibition concept with your curator, Holly Roussell?
This is the first time I’m showing this project in a public photo festival in China. To be honest, I had doubts before showing it. With my past experience, I would always avoid showing this project in any Chinese photo festivals, because of the censorship and public reception reasons. But to my surprise, this time, we had no censorship problem. And after talking to the audience, I’m delighted to find out that many people, young and old, are interested in my photos with a much more open mind than years ago. I’m happy to see that Jimei x Arles has successfully brought an international photo festival to China.
Holly contacted me for the exhibition. At that time, I was still not sure about showing this work in public in China. Fortunately, she convinced me to participate. The show is mostly arranged by Holly thanks to her hard work. I just made a few suggestions on photo choices. She had this great idea, showing my two projects together and using a wallpaper I designed to separate the two projects. The end result is very satisfying for me.
How do you feel about winning the Jimei x Arles - Madame Figaro Women Photographers Award? Does it change anything for you and for your work?
I was overwhelmed after I was announced to be the winner of Jimei x Arles - Madame Figaro Women Photographers Award. It’s such a great honor and everything just happened very quickly. I didn’t even finish processing the idea that I got the award, and I was immediately interviewed by so much press right after the award ceremony. I still get many press requests from it these days. But I hope to maintain the way I had been working — which is living my normal life and creating work at my own pace. I do look forward to work with Madame Figaro on their photoshoot.
What about your boyfriend? It isn’t the first time you are using him in your art. In A collection of penises, you asked him to shape penises the way he wanted. How does Moro feel about appearing in your work, and participating in it?
Moro is a gem! He accepted my invitation to photograph him from the very beginning. He usually agrees to participate in my work. He is a musician. And he is a very creative man and also a fan of contemporary art. When I asked him to make 100 penises, I let him create them according to his own imagination. He really enjoyed the process of making the penises in different shapes. As for photos, we have been doing it for more than 12 years now. He now sees it as part of our life, or just something fun that we do together. If I stopped photographing for a while, he would always encourage me to photograph again.
You said that because your boyfriend is Japanese and you are Chinese, this project also describes a “love and hate relationship”. Could you develop a bit on how you are representing, through your personal transnational relationship, a political relation between two countries?
Japan and China have a long and complicated history. It’s usually tense, sometimes hostile. But at the same time, these two countries influence each other so much. Our history is intertwined. I see it somewhat like a love and hate relationship, in a way that is similar to our own personal relationship. I think anyone who has ever been in a relationship experienced the love/hate dynamic at some point. As much as you love him/her, there are always times when you cannot put up with your lover. The hatred comes out of love because love is only ideal in our own imagination. Many of my photos can be explained with both love and hate, like when I’m kissing him, I’m choking him at the same time, or when a hug looks both tender and aggressive. A relationship is built by two lovers and also two rivals. Still, I still believe we need to stay together and mend our relationship, just like our countries do.
Your photos had been shown in China already, in publications and private galleries. What feedback did you receive from Chinese audiences? Are there any differences that struck you between the Chinese audience’s reception and the Western audience’s reception of your work?
Compared to Western audiences, the Chinese audience in general is not familiar with contemporary art, art history and different ideas on sexuality. When I’m showing my work in galleries in China, I don’t feel that much of a difference between a Chinese audience and a foreign one. But I will get many random questions if I show it in public. In Western countries, I don’t have that problem. In general, I think the Western audience will like my work — maybe because they think it’s fresh to see some different ideas concerning gender identities, especially coming from Asian artists.
However, even though my work is better received in the West, I always feel like my work is still viewed as different, other. The work is often viewed as another’s issue in the West, whether they like my work or not. But the Asian/Chinese audience feels more connected to my work. Because we come from a similar cultural background. If I have a show in China, there will always be young Chinese girls and women talking to me, telling me how much they like the work.
What’s next? What project are you working on right now?
I’m working on something that does not need to involve Moro, something that is just focused on the female issues.
Can you tell us about PIMO, your music project with Moro?
Moro and I have a band called PIMO. We started collaborating in music in 2011. It started when Moro got tired of going out to rehearse with his male band members and just wanted to stay home and make music. And there’s me, at home. In our band, Moro is the leader. He composes, performs, records, basically does everything, while I just sing in the band. We usually work on lyrics together. We call ourselves a toy rock band. We sing songs about our common interests in life, like cats and grandmas. You can listen to our music at pimo.bandcamp.com.