By her account, Chinese-born photographer Pixy Liao was a feminist before she even knew what the word was.
As a child in Shanghai in the late 1990s, when China was still opening up to the world, Liao would buy CDs from the black market. Her favorite artists: Sinéad O'Connor and Björk.
“I found I was only attracted to these female singers,” Liao says. “They helped shape my expectations of who I wanted to be as a woman.”
Liao is now best known for her series Experimental Relationship, where she upturns gender norms by posing herself and her boyfriend in cleverly suggestive positions.
In one photo, he’s wrapped around her neck like a scarf. In another, he’s lying on a bed like rice on a sushi roll.
Her work has earned accolades from around the world, including the Women Photographers Award at Jimei x Arles, one of China’s biggest photo shows, last November.
The festival was the first time she showed Experimental Relationship in China, and she was initially nervous about the show. At previous events, Liao had only exhibited her landscapes because of concerns about censorship.
But at Jimei, she found a more open environment, fueled by a #MeToo reckoning in China. Her work not only resonated with younger women—her main audience, according to Liao—but also women in their 50s and 60s who were closer to her mom’s age.
“They know the world has changed for younger women to have a different lifestyle,” Liao says. “I think they understand that.”
Growing up in Shanghai, though, Liao saw few role models for her as an artist. “Being a woman meant marrying somebody and becoming a mom,” she says. “I just thought there was no fun to that. It wasn’t something I looked forward to.”
In 2005, she left for Memphis, Tennessee, in the United States to study photography. It was her first time abroad.
At school, she met Moro, a music student who eventually became her muse.
“In the beginning, I was using him as a model,” she recalls, “but it was more like I wanted to get to know him more.”
Liao began documenting their relationship on camera, leading to the series Experimental Relationship.
In the beginning, the on-camera dynamic was very much photographer-model. She was the director, and he followed her instructions.
But as their off-camera relationship developed, so did their chemistry on set.
“He’ll improvise,” she says. “He’ll have his own expressions and body gestures that I can’t direct.”
In that sense, Experimental Relationship is also a reflection of their real-life partnership. When things aren’t working in their personal lives, the shooting stops.
“There’s a photo of Moro sitting with fog over his glasses,” Liao says. “At that time, we were having a difficult relationship, and it was very hard to be in the photo with him, so I took one of just him.”
Liao’s family in China doesn’t always understand her work. Her 100-year-old grandmother once implored her to “stop doing those little pornos” (as a nod to that, Liao’s latest photo book has a yellow cover, in reference to how porn is referred to in Chinese slang as “yellow books”).
But her parents have been supportive over the years. Her father is especially a fan, sharing her photos with friends on WeChat, China’s most popular messaging app.
“They worry because my photos are about gender, a sensitive topic in China,” she says. “But over time, they see me doing my work and understand that it’s what I want to do.”
Lately, Liao has expanded beyond photography to sculpture. One of her most recent pieces is a phallic shrine dedicated to Wu Zetian, China’s only female emperor. It’s part of a series she wants to develop about female leaders around the world.
“When I was in middle school, there was a girl who really admired Wu Zetian,” Liao says. “At the time, I thought it was a wild claim to adore such an aggressive woman.
“But after all these years growing up, I realize that I should accept these women as my role models, to admire these women who people say are evil but are actually very powerful and strong.”
Pixy Liao’s latest show, “Open Kimono,” is on view at Chambers Fine Art in New York City from March 7 to April 27.