Photographer Yushi Li has just released her first-ever book project. Published by Baron, Baroness by Yushi Li ‘(m)Other’ consolidates some of her most extensive projects and is supplemented by the artist’s writing. Yushi Li’s work has consistently interrogated the nature of the gaze, turning the tables, or lens more aptly, from male to female-centric. The artist uses psychoanalytic theory to interrogate gaze and the act of looking as two distinct, yet difficult to extricate, phenomena. Her photographic work makes pulls from a rich archive of art historical references as she investigates these concepts.
Yushi Li’s research of Laura Mulvey’s seminal work led her to the forebearers of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan, whose theories she works with to understand the gaze. Yet, their writing only brings her so far and is archaic in many respects. She redeems their theoretical contributions by supplementing them with feminist perspectives on the discipline, as well as through her unique articulation of their foundational works. This ongoing investigation is apparent in the photographic work and writing of her first book collection. Following a long work review session, which Li described as therapeutic, acclaimed contemporary psychoanalyst Anouchka Grose has also prepared for her an introduction. In her second interview for METAL Magazine, Yushi Li talks to us about her academic research, photography and preparing her first book collection.
We haven’t caught up with you since 2019, what have you been up to since then?
Since 2019, I have been doing my PhD and continuing my projects about the question of the gaze.
Congratulations on your upcoming book Baroness by Yushi Li ‘(m)Other.’ How did you approach this project, and what will readers find inside?
Baron approached me last year, and we decided to make a book together. This will be my first photographic book, which will include most of my works from my earlier project My Tinder Boys, my latest project Paintings, Dreams and Love and some short writing pieces by me.
I am so struck by your piece The Dream of the Fisherwoman. Can you tell us a bit about this photograph, and where it fits into your book?
This photo is inspired by the Japanese painter Hokusai’s work The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife. The original painting depicts an erotic dream of the fisherman’s wife, in which she is sexually entwined with two octopuses. In my work, we can see an androgynous man with two octopuses in a bathtub, which is the dream of the Fisherwoman. The female figure is no longer the incarnation of someone else’s dream or desire, but the one who is dreaming and desiring.
Could you talk a bit about your invocation of the ‘(m)Other’ in this project? How does this concept manifest in your photography?
The (m)Other means both mother and the big Other, which does not mean any specific other, someone like me, but an otherness that “transcends the illusory otherness of the imaginary because it cannot be assimilated through identification,” according to Dylan Evans, An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis (London: Routledge, 1996), p. 136). In my work, the naked man represents my desire for the (m)Other – the phallus, in both a literal and a metaphorical way – the penis of the man and a fantasy of having power over the man in the picture, a fantasy of the absent mother.
There is such a throughline of psychoanalytic references in your work. Yet, it has gone out of fashion in recent times in many disciplines. What do you see as the current relevance of this field, and when did it become an interest of yours? How did you begin to incorporate it into your photographic practice?
Through my research, I found out that a lot of theories about the gaze, such as Laura Mulvey’s famous idea of the male gaze, are based on Freud and Lacan’s psychoanalytic theories. The definition of this term – the gaze – is also commonly unclear and conflated with the act of looking. So, I thought it would be useful to look back at these original psychoanalytic texts, which not only help me understand the question of the gaze better but also inspire me to explore more complex looking relations in my photographs.
Could you talk a bit about your work with Anouchka Grose for the introduction to this project? How did you begin working with her, and what was the collaboration like?
It was an honour to invite Anouchka Grose to write the introduction for my book. I knew her through a talk we did together for the exhibition I had at the gallery Filet in London last May. For the book, we had a very long meeting at her place, talking through all my projects, my process and ideas, which almost felt like therapy in a way. All in all, it was very nice to work with her, and I think she understands my work very well.
Are there any other contemporary psychoanalysts whose work you consider urgent? Do you attend psychoanalysis personally, or encounter this field solely in theory?
There are a lot of great writers who write about psychoanalytic theories. If I have to recommend something, I think Darian Leader’s work is very insightful and interesting. I have had psychological counselling myself but never had a psychoanalytic one.
You almost always make eye contact with the camera. I think there is a really interesting relationship at play between your gaze through the viewfinder, and your gaze through the lens. How do these gazes differ in your work? Are they ever the same?
When I look through the viewfinder, I’m the photographer behind the camera, which hides me and protects me. On the other hand, when I look through the lens, in other words, looking at the viewer, I become both the looker and the looked-at.
The last time you spoke to us, you discussed some of your reasoning for shooting on film. Aside from your Skype project, did your way of working change at all during the pandemic? Does it matter if photography that is shared digitally was originally shot using analogue processes?
I don’t think the pandemic changed my way of working very much, and I actually started the Skype project before the pandemic. It was indeed very difficult to work during the lockdown, so I decided to spend more time on writing. I appreciate the accessibility and immediacy of digital images, but I don’t think they can ever replace analogue photography completely. It’s like reading a digital book will never give you the same experience as reading a paper book. I think analogue photography provides not only different/better quality but also a whole different set of experiences, from the process of shooting, developing and printing to viewing and presenting.
On that note, you have quite the following on Instagram. What is the experience like of using systems you critique through your art, to share your art? Do you see redeeming qualities to these extremely fast media forms like Tinder and Instagram?
I don’t really share a lot of my works on Instagram because of the censorship over nudity. I use Instagram mainly to share and promote art events I participate in, and sometimes share moments of my life or express my thoughts and opinions. I think these social media platforms are definitely very useful in many senses, which allow everyone to look and also to be looked at almost anytime anywhere.
I Hope You Like What You Have Seen is such a relevant series coming out of the pandemic. Could you tell us a bit about working virtually mediated by technological interfaces?
In this project, I try to control these men through my text or voice messages via Skype. It’s indeed more difficult to direct or, in a sense, control these men via the Internet than doing it in person. But this distance between the virtual and the real, the model and I, what I want and what I get, is what really interests me. The idea of power is only a fantasy, which does not guarantee any actual power over these men. However, these men still comply with my gaze, even without being able to see me, just like how we are subject to the invisible Internet gaze nowadays.
In your book description, you talk about the digital eye as neither male nor female gaze. If the panoptic digital camera is coded for use by men, as is so often the case, can the eye be gender-neutral? Is your act of virtual looking in I Hope You Like What You Have Seen neutral?
I think it is an interesting question to ask if the algorithm is truly objective, as they are designed and trained by data provided by humans. But I think metaphorically, the digital eye is neither male nor female, as both women and men are under this Internet gaze that is constantly looking at us from all sides. The use of the internet creates a particular structural uncertainty: in the intangible space of the Internet I am a disembodied eye; my identity, my existence even, is always uncertain. My gaze is that of the invisible voyeur in a peep show or the guard in the panopticon prison. But it can also be the maternal gaze upon the child who plays alone secure in the presence of the mother out of sight.
I was wondering if you could tell us about your ongoing PhD work. How does your research and art practice interact?
I’m finishing my PhD this December. Basically, I use my photographs and moving image work as both a tool for observation and also a reflection on my writing, while my research is sometimes used to inform or inspire my practice.
What is next for Yushi Li? Do you currently have anything hanging to dry in the darkroom?
I just showed my latest photograph, The Smothering Dream, in a group exhibition called Eat, Drink, Men, Women at 180 Strand. The picture shown is a part of a diptych, which both depicts a pink, kitsch fantasy of love and eroticism inspired by the Roman Emperor Heliogabalus’s debauchery and also reveals the real scene – the impossibility of sustaining the fantasy. Apart from my photographic works, I’m also working on a video installation piece to continue my exploration of the idea of desire and the question of gaze through different media.