The desired body



London-based photographer Yushi Li sets out to challenge the classical representation of active men and passive, objectified women in art history.
Installation view, The Death of Actaeon by Yushi Li, at Vasli Souza. Photo: Tor S. Ulstein / Kunstdok

You are currently on show with your very first solo presentation in Norway, the exhibition Paintings, Dreams and Love at Vasli Souza. What are you showing in Oslo?

I'm really happy to show my work in Oslo and work with Vasli Souza again, who did my first solo show in Malmö in 2018. This time, we are showing my latest works, including photographs from the series Paintings, Dreams and Love, and also three video works. In addition, there are also some older works, such as one from My Tinder Boys and one from The Artist Portrait.

Installation view, The artist portrait (gallerist 1) by Yushi Li, at Vasli Souza. Photo: Tor S. Ulstein / Kunstdok

A recurring theme in your photographs is the exploration of the male representation as an erotic subject, through a body of work that often deals with questions of gender, power dynamics and sexuality, in light of digital social networks. Could you please elaborate on how you started working with these thematics, and what you find interesting with exploring this through photography?

I started photographing naked man from My Tinder Boys series. At that time, I was inspired by a lot of erotic images of women with food. I thought it would be interesting to use Tinder to hunt for men to make some kind of parodies of that kind of image. Since this project, I started learning about the gaze and the power dynamic inherent in looking relations through different theorists' work, such as John Berger's Ways of Seeing and Laura Mulvey's famous concept of the male gaze.

A lot of existing gaze theories are based on film theories actually, but I think photography has the same potential to create fantasies like films and can be an interesting medium to explore the idea of the gaze. I think the nice thing about photographs is that they allow the viewer to look at the things in the frame with great details. Even though photography cannot contain movements like films, it leaves more space for the viewer to imagine and fantasise about what happened both inside and outside the frame.

Installation view, The Feast, Inside by Yushi Li, at Vasli Souza. Photo: Tor S. Ulstein / Kunstdok

In your MA-graduation project at Royal College of Art in London from 2018, you rented the “ideal” home through Airbnb, and booked the “ideal” man through the Internet to construct your “ideal” images. In a series of video works on show in Oslo, you are directing naked men to perform selected everyday tasks for you, via Skype. Would you please elaborate on this performative method, where you take an active role in your work, by taking control of your subjects?

In this project, I asked men to perform naked different mundane domestic activities conventionally associated with the feminine and the maternal for me to watch. However, these men are the ones who contacted me through the Internet, saying that they want to be in my work. I find their desire to be looked at really interesting, which opens up the complex relationship between the voyeur and the exhibitionist. In contrast to these men’s total visibility – their fully naked bodies, I refuse to show myself neither in person nor via the webcam, leaving just a black rectangle at the right top side of the screen. In a sense, I am like the digital eye, not a woman, nor a man, that is constantly looking at us from all sides in the current image world. Even though I try to control these men by directing what they do and how they do it through my text or voice messages, the intangibility within the virtual space of the Internet, and the actual physical distance between me and those men highlights the impossibility of sustaining this fantasy of a controlling gaze.

Installation view, The Feast, Outside by Yushi Li, at Vasli Souza. Photo: Tor S. Ulstein / Kunstdok

Several of the exhibited works make references to classical paintings, antique mythology and art history. How do you relate to art history in your work?

In a lot of European oil paintings, especially the ones of female nudes, we can see that there is a certain gendered dynamic, in which the woman is the passive looked-at object, while the male is the active looking subject. In a sense, the naked woman had become the embodiment of the male viewer's erotic desire. So in the series Paintings, Dreams and Love, I try to reflect on the staging of erotic desire in a lot of classical paintings to make my own portrayal of the desired body. In the resulting photographs, I take the more dominant and powerful role in the scene, regardless of its sex. For instance, I am the ‘incubus’ sitting on a reclining man in the photograph The Nightmare and I am the ‘Diana’ hunting a naked man in The Death of Actaeon.

By taking an active rather than passive role in my work, instead of simply reversing the gender roles, I try to intervene within existing representations of erotic desire to question the dichotomy of active men and passive women that has been broadly embedded in art history.


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