“I was having culture shock, coming from China,” she said on the phone from her Brooklyn apartment. “I didn’t know who I should be.”
She tried landscapes and self-portraiture, using the camera to process her new environment, which differed greatly from her hometown of Shanghai. Her early work in Memphis betrays a shared sensibility with midcentury photographers like William Eggleston and Stephen Shore; and a keen interest in the everyday people and ancillary details that characterize the American South.
Eventually, she turned her lens on herself, and her relationship with Moro, a jazz musician and MCA student from Japan five years her junior. A body of work emerged featuring Liao interacting with Moro in a series of bizarre and tender poses. He’s cradled in her arms like an oversized child or draped across her shoulders like an unwieldy scarf. In another scene he’s splayed out nude on a kitchen table as Liao feasts on a halved papaya covering his crotch while staring casually, defiantly into the lens.
“Relationships Work Best When Each Partner Knows Their Proper Place” (2008) Credit: Courtesy Pixy Liao
Liao makes it clear that while the project “grows with our real relationship,” it is “never meant to be a documentation.” The sly references scattered among the compositions playing out between Liao and her pliant subject-cum-collaborator visually echo everything from Frida Kahlo’s self-portraiture and Japanese TV shows, to 16th century French painting and Chinese idioms. (The book itself is a pleasing canary hue –a sly play on the Chinese term for pornographic material that literally translates to “yellow book.”)
The scenarios performed for Liao’s camera are themselves the lens through which her vision is processed, and her insistence that they are not a document is clear from the way both she and Moro are reduced to tools for image-making. Far from being cruel or reductive, it’s the ultimate romantic gambit.
“Kiss Exam” (2015) Credit: Courtesy Pixy Liao
For a couple in the throes of physical and emotional intimacy, the conceptual distancing necessary for a project like “Experimental Relationship” can give everyone a little breathing room. In the end, she says, “it’s a way of protecting the relationship.”
Liao spoke to CNN Style about the origins and evolutions of this (hopefully) never-ending project.
How did your relationship with Moro begin?
Pixy Liao: I saw him the first day I went to school. There was an international student orientation, and he was just there. I was attracted to him immediately. He was skinny and tan and good looking, and he was a jazz student, which seemed cool. The next time I saw him on campus I just walked up to him and said, “Do you want to model for me?” I wanted to get to know him, so I was using photography as an excuse.
“Carry the Weight of You” (2017) Credit: Courtesy Pixy Liao
How has the process of creating and photographing scenarios evolved with your relationship?
I think in the beginning I was much more dominant in our relationship, because when I met him I was in grad school and had a career, and he had just graduated from high school in Japan. I felt like I was coming from a position of power and I could tell him what to do and he would listen. But after living together for so long — 12 years now — we kind of grew up together.
Some of that imbalance just disappeared. Now I don’t necessarily always have full control. In the beginning I was directing everything. But then the project became more about collaborating and welcoming him to improvise during the photo shoots and give me input. It’s changing and it’s kind of growing with our relationship.
“Homemade Sushi” (2010) Credit: Courtesy Pixy Liao
Can you recall a specific photograph or scenario that was especially difficult to negotiate?
There’s one picture I shot of him sitting in a room wearing a pair of eyeglasses that are fogged. I think it was taken in 2012. We had both graduated and moved to New York, and at that time we were going through some more … the relationship was just hard at the time. I felt like there was a disconnect between us. We didn’t really communicate that well, like we did before.
His eyeglasses are fogged because we saw a Japanese TV show, and in the show there was a character who said that if someone’s eyeglasses are fogged, it means their heart is fogged. That’s kind of how I was feeling at the time. I didn’t take many photos that year. So, I’m photographing him, but I’m not in the photo with him. It was a way to express that feeling of disconnection.
“I Can Tell That Your Heart is Fogged” (2012) Credit: Courtesy Pixy Liao
Does that process help address what’s going on in your relationship more directly?
When I’m photographing him, I try to tell him as best as possible what I want to do, but not necessarily why I want to do it.
So, does the project affect your relationship, or simply reflect it?
Sometimes when we look back at the photos we’ll realize, “Oh, at the time we were in this kind of space or that kind of space,” and how different that is from now. I think it’s a mutual understanding, not necessarily me trying to tell him anything directly.
“Start Your Day With a Good Breakfast Together” (2009) Credit: Courtesy Pixy Liao
Is there a creative aspect of your shared lives where Moro takes on the more dominant role?
In our band, he’s totally the boss. He becomes like another person. He’s so strict with me, and always criticizing me, like “You’re out of tune! You’re not keeping the beat!” — things like that. I think he’s kind of a perfectionist, but at the same time I enjoy collaborating with him on music because I feel like it’s a very good balance in our relationship.
In my photos, I can only show my side, my opinion. With music we’re doing something different. It’s more about what he wants to do.