There’s a startling painting that, I’m sure, is fairly widely known. I had always thought it was Italian, but it’s actually French. It’s a Renaissance painting that shows two women. Lavish red curtains are drawn to reveal the scene. Both women face the viewer, and given they’re taking a bath, they’re nude. My personal focal points of this painting have always been their hands. Each of these hands is painted in the most delicate way. The left hand of the woman on the left is the one that makes this painting so memorable: with just her index finger and thumb she very gently pinches one of the other woman’s nipples.
“The models have been identified as Gabrielle d’Estrées (1571-99), the favorite of Henry IV (1553-1610), and one of her sisters: the Duchess de Villars or Madame de Balagny” the Louvre’s website informs us: “The oddly affectionate way in which the sister is pinching Gabrielle d’Estrées’ right breast has often been taken as symbolizing the latter’s pregnancy with the illegitimate child of Henry IV. This interpretation would seem to be confirmed by the scene of the young woman sewing – perhaps preparing a layette for the coming child – in the background.” If you don’t remember the presence of a third woman, way in the back, you’re probably not alone (read more about the painting — whose painter is not known — and its historical background here).
Not in a million years would I have guessed, let alone known the reason for that particular gesture. Classical paintings were made to be read, not merely seen, much like today photographs are. Unless you’re an art historian or someone at least familiar with art history, you simply lack the code to do the reading, leaving you with guesses — which themselves might actually be interesting, however much removed they are from the actual ideas. I find this fact extremely interesting. Essentially, the world in which this painting originally was shown in is very much alien to us, yet we still are able to respond to its artifacts.
I would be tremendously intrigued to find out what viewers in 2418 will make of a 2008 photograph by Pixy Liao in Experimental Relationship Vol. 1 (2007-2017) whose title is given in the index as “Relationships work best when each partner knows their proper place”. I have no actual reason to believe that there will actually be human life left on Earth, given the rapid deterioration of the planet’s climate, but who knows? Maybe 400 years down the line — roughly the same amount of time that separates us from the painting I talked of above — there will be some humanoid life form looking at this photograph.
In the photograph, the artist, standing fully dressed on the right side and looking at the viewer, touches one of the nipples of the man beside her in a way that copies the painting’s gesture. Unlike the woman, the man is almost nude, wearing only underwear. He also holds the end of a cable release (in 400 years, some obscure technical historian might shine light on this strange black thing), and he looks at her, not the viewer. There are no curtains drawn. Instead, generic looking blinds cover all the windows behind the couple, producing a much flatter space than in the painting.
Regardless of whether a viewer has seen the painting or not, this photograph is startling. Why would the man take a picture like this? But wait, in the book it becomes clear that he is not the artist, he is playing the role of a model. Note that this particular photographic strategy can also be found in the work of Jemima Stehli. “As much as I enjoy looking, and watching her moves, I realise she’s the one in control,” writes Adrian Searle, one of the subjects in her Strip series. “I take the photograph, but she’s got me photographing myself, looking at her.” I’m not 100% sure, but based on a detail in his essay (“I notice that one of my trouser legs has ridden-up, and that somehow that look of power and confidence I wanted to present […] has managed to go awry.”) he might be the man in the right panel here.
This is all very interesting. Unlike in the case of Stehli and Searle, the man in Liao’s picture — his name is Moro — is the artist’s partner. I don’t think we have a way of knowing that from the picture. But this bit of information, along with some more, is given in the book’s introduction. We thus have the familial relationship between the two women in the painting and their gesture, one — art historians tell us — of affection. We have a feminist artist undressing for a series of men, some of them curators, some critics/writers, and giving them the “power” to determine which picture should be taken. And we have a non-Western artist combining those two in Liao’s photograph.
We have, in other words, the state of the world of art in 2018, or rather the state of those parts of the art world that have recognized the need to massively expand the narrow historical confines of the West (and by “historical” I here mean the highly selective history as written down so far). It is against this background that Pixy Liao’s work needs to be seen.
Make no mistake, though, on its own, the photographs in the book have tremendous merit. They clearly speak of a relationship between a man and a woman that appears to be built on an enormous amount of trust, a relationship in which both partners are willing to acknowledge each other’s strengths just as much as weaknesses, a relationship that does not shy away from subverting traditional ideas of how a man and a woman ought to behave with each other. It is this latter aspect where history and cultural contexts enter.
Much like the knowledge of the gesture of affection in the painting provides crucial insight into the work itself, an awareness of the various larger cultural ideas entering this artist’s work are able to massively enrich a viewer’s experience with them. Another photograph from the book, Start your day with a good breakfast together (2009), shows Moro (who, again, is in charge of the shutter-release button) lying on a table, with what looks like half of a papaya over his genitals. The artist, a spoon in her left hand, looks into the camera.
I’m sure (well, I hope anyway) I don’t have to decode all aspects of this photograph. In an obvious way, Moro — who the short introduction in the book informs us is Japanese — is made to serve as a Nyotaimori platter, with the various fruits adding further elements of sexuality. Nyotaimori is an obviously misogynistic practice, so it would seem only fair that the tables are turned here for the two sexes (my apologies for the somewhat lame pun).
In all their various forms, the photographs in the book center on aspects of sexuality and of what can happen between a man and a woman when there is an awareness of both the flawed past and the possibly much better future. That better future is not going to arrive without any efforts and work being devoted to it. That better future will have to provide a true equality for all the various groups that for historical reason up until now have been placed in an unequal relationship (to phrase this very mildly). Experimental Relationship Vol. 1 (2007-2017) demonstrates what the better future might look like.
And it’s fun. There’s a tremendous amount of joyful engagement going throughout the book, with the joke, if there is one, often but not always at the expense of the male. “The book is designed in yellow color,” writes the artist, “because I want it to be a ‘yellow book’, in Chinese ‘黄书’ means pornography book. ;)” There have only been 500 copies printed, so you probably better rush to make sure one of them will become yours.
Experimental Relationship Vol. 1 (2007-2017); photographs by Pixy Liao; 160 pages; Jiazazhi; 2018
Rating: Photography 4.0, Book Concept 3.5, Edit 3.0, Production 3.5 – Overall 3.6
Ratings explained here.