Currently studying her PhD at the Royal College of Art, Yushi Li has already been spotted by It’s Nice That as a photographer to watch and, as usual, they are right. Li is fascinated by historical representations of the eroticised female body and draws comparisons and disparities between the male and female gaze. She usurps the long-standing male dominion on the field of vision (in regard to art but also perhaps society as a whole) through portraying her male subjects in a manner that women have been subjected to also.
This is especially evident in her My Tinder Boys photo series, wherein she used Tinder to seek willing male participants for a nude photoshoot inspired by pornographic images of women eating in kitchens. Not only does she shift the power dynamic from male to female in her work, but she also questions the act of seeing itself and its inherent power structure between viewer and viewed, regardless of gender. This is evident in her wholly serious and yet accidentally humorous collection Your Reservation Is Confirmed, which we also talk about in the interview.
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Your work deals with the gaze, approaching photography from a female point of view that sexualises men in ways that they have sexualised women for generations. What inspired you to explore the concept and power relations within the gaze as it stands?
I think I have always been interested in gender politics, which are imbedded in the predominance of the visual in Western philosophy. And living in the current age of images, I’m curious about how technology and the Internet have affected the gendered power relationship in the field of vision.
You address concepts and constructions of masculinity and femininity in your work. Now it seems androgyny is becoming more mainstream, with men waxing their chests, women growing their armpit hair and individuals identifying as genderless. Do you feel that gender norms are natural and inherent, or are they constructed by art and society?
I think there are biological differences between men and women, which we cannot ignore and have to acknowledge. But gender is something different from biological sex, which is constructed and affected by social and cultural factors. And nowadays, the idea of gender has become more fluid, shifting between genderless to pangender. However, gender norms are still prevalent in our society, especially in China, where I am from. Most people still behave and think according to society’s expectations of different gender identities.
In your talk for It’s Nice That, you describe yourself as “A Chinese woman who takes photographs of naked western men in the United Kingdom”, which was met with laughter. Why do you think that this is funny, considering that you’re simply doing what many men have been doing since the dawn of time!
I’m not sure why people laugh, to be honest. I feel like maybe it was because I described what I do in a very simplified and not serious way. But people do find me photographing naked men a bit surprising and funny every time I tell them. I guess firstly, nudity is still something provocative for most people when we talk about it, even though naked pictures are almost everywhere. Secondly, I think it is exactly because making naked pictures has always been something men have been doing; it takes time for people to get used to the opposite. Apart from that, I guess this kind of reaction also reveals that conventional gender norms are still deeply internalised in our minds.
For your My Tinder Boys project, you used the dating app to find subjects to photograph. What is your opinion on this new form of internet dating? Can you tell us about some of the responses you received, as you messaged over three hundred men and only fifteen said yes?
I tried using Tinder for dating before I started this project. I was fascinated by how people exhibit themselves and communicate with each other on this kind of online platform, which is very instantaneous and weirdly intrusive. After talking with my male friends who also use Tinder, I also found out the different kinds of experiences we have between male and female users. While men swipe right to most profiles, women are more selective and less responsive. Then, I thought it could be interesting to use Tinder as my tool to find men for my photographs, on which I could act as an active predator in the similar way as how people search for casual sex online.
Most people just didn't reply to my messages. Some people thought it was a scam or something. And some people wanted me to strip for them or have sex with them to ‘pay them back’. In a way, I feel like these men who sent me sexual requests treated me as a sexual object who was trying to seduce them or would use her own body to exchange something she wants instead of a professional artist. And I did ask people who said ‘yes’ to my project. I think most of them said that they thought it was an interesting thing to do, or they were interested in art and curious about my project. One of the guys told me that he agreed to do it because he expected that something else might happen between us.
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You lament that the male body isn’t equally as celebrated in the media and art as female bodies are. Even now, when it is more widely accepted for women to not only be the subject of sexual desire but the object of it, why do you think that male bodies aren’t more widely celebrated in an erotic sense?
In Ancient Greece art and early Renaissance art, the male nude was actually the ideal and principal subject. However, unlike the female nude, which has normally functioned as male’s erotic pleasure, the male nude is viewed in a lot wider range of contexts. They are athletic and confident, presenting their bodies in an upright and aggressive way, while female figures are normally presented in slightly bent and passive poses. If I have to say why, I guess it is because that we used to (maybe still) live in a patriarchal society, in which men are generally represented as an active, working and powerful subject, rather than a pretty and sexual object.
Some would find your work quite amusing, as it appears as a parody of typical images of desire. Did you have comic in mind when you were shooting or is this just a happy accident?
I do hope my work appears kind of humorous and uncanny, but I didn’t really plan to make comic images at the beginning.
In Your Reservation is Confirmed, you booked the ‘ideal man’ and the ‘ideal home’ to explore the power relation inherent in the gaze. Can you explain a little what this power relation is and why it is inherent?
According to Jean-Paul Sartre, the other is objectified through my look upon him or her and could be apprehended as a subject only when he or she sees me. Being seen inevitably makes me conscious of my own vulnerable being that can be hurt by others and reduces me to the feeling of shame. The shame is the shame of an unknown image of myself that is seen and judged by the other. In this work, I try to question this dichotic active-passive power relationship between the looking subject and the looked-at object by putting myself in the picture, which is both the subject and the object.
In one of the images in that series, you got one of the models to pee in the shower! Amazing, but why was it that you did this?
I normally photograph men doing mundane activities in my photographs because I like the domestic and natural feeling of them. I think peeing is something very mundane but also erotic in a way. Apart from that, urinating is also a sign of masculinity, which is slightly aggressive and intrusive, like ejaculation. By photographing a man with his urine dripping down his penis, I feel like it’s my way to play with this power structure between my subject and myself.
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Why is it that you work in analogue as opposed to digital?
First of all, it’s my personal preference. I prefer the quality of analogue photographs and the whole analogue process, which is much slower and more tactile than digital photography. And I like the contrast between analogue prints and online images, which shows the gap between the real and the virtual.
The medium of photography can be both intimate and distant, with a lens between photographer and subject. Do you think that this medium reflects these disparate elements that pervade dating apps such as tinder and social networking sites like Instagram?
I guess so. The similar thing between photography and social network platforms is that you are always behind a machine (a camera/screen). In other words, there is something non-human in both cases, which creates distance between two sides of the camera/screen. But of course, the distance created by the screen is much bigger on the Internet, as things online are virtual, anonymous and instantaneous.
Where do you see your work going? Will you continue working with photography?
Yes, I think I will continue working with photography from a feminist perspective. And now, I am trying to make work that is more directly linked with the Internet.
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