Through the history of Western art, the heterosexual dynamic has shaped the notions of artist and muse: the male as creator, sublimating his sexual prowess to make art; the female as muse, the passive object of inspiration. The notion of a muse comes from the ancient Greeks, who cast nine goddesses as the source of inspiration for men to pen poetry, hymns, music and song, dance, comedy, tragedy, history, and astronomy — decidedly more “feminine” disciplines, as opposed to science, math, and philosophy.
Some 3.000 years later, the paradigm is as patriarchal as it is démodé — and now brilliantly challenged by Chinese photographer Pixy Liao in “Your Gaze Belongs to Me”, her first museum exhibition, curated by Holly Roussell. Hailing from Shanghai, Liao recalls being raised with traditional gender roles hailing from Confucian times that very much mirror that of ancient Greece.
“As a woman brought up in China, I used to think I could only love someone who is older and more mature than me, who can be my protector and mentor,” Liao told Lenscratch. “Then I met my current boyfriend, Moro, who is 5 years younger than me, I felt that whole concept of relationships changed, all the way around. I became the person who has more authority and power. One of my male friends even questioned how I could choose a boyfriend the way a man would choose a girlfriend. And I thought, ‘Damn right. That’s exactly what I’m doing, and why not!’”
A New Equilibrium
Liao first met Moro, a Japanese musician five years her junior, while studying photography at the University of Memphis in 2006. They became a couple and embarked on a series of works titled “Experimental Relationship”, which initially began as a way to deconstruct, subvert, and reimagine the gender dynamics of the traditional heterosexual relationship. The impact was immediate; when she first showed works to her class at school, Liao recalls their shock at seeing a man she knew intimately adopting a submissive pose.
“The first thing they said was not about my photos, but ‘How could you treat your boyfriend like that?’ Liao told the Asia Society. Their presumption Moro would not willfully and joyously choose such a position for himself speaks to the rigid proscriptions around masculinity. “Moro made me realize that heterosexual relationships do not need to be standardized,” Liao writes in the exhibition text. “The purpose of this experiment is to break the inherent relationship model and reach a new equilibrium.”
“Your Gaze Belongs to Me” brings together more than 50 works from “Experimental Relationship” and the outgrowth series “For Your Eyes Only”, along with never-before-seen video and sculptural works that allow us to question notions of desire and how they are formed, examining spaces where nature and nurture merge, diverge, and can ultimately affirm lives outside patriarchal “norms.”
“My vision of a man’s body is not the mainstream masculine type,” Liao told The New York Times. “I look for what is closest to me and doesn’t feel threatening. I think men and women are not that different. I couldn’t have done this work while living in China, where female-male roles are very specific and I grew up learning to hide my thoughts. In the U.S.A., I feel completely free.”
By Miss Rosen
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer focusing on art, photography, and culture. Her work has been published in books, magazines, including Time, Vogue, Aperture, and Vice, among others.
Pixy Liao: “Your Gaze Belongs to Me”. Through September 5, 2021. Fotografiska New York, 281 Park Ave South, New York, NY 10010, USA.