Once named as one of the Royal Photographic Society’s Hundred Heroines, Chinese-born, US-based artist Pixy Liao has been making waves with a series of playfully provocative photographs that subvert gender norms and upend the stereotypes of heterosexual relationships. In her project Experimental Relationship, Liao illuminates her own relationship with her Japanese partner Moro, five years her junior. Over the course of 12 years, she’s visually tracked the natural shifts in their power dynamic, staging images in which she and Moro perform its evolution over time.
Liao’s interest in the way relationships are presented and appear to the outside world comes from her experience of growing up in Shanghai and feeling at odds with traditional views. "In China, women are usually expected to get married before the age of 30," she explains, "otherwise, you are considered a leftover woman. People believe that a woman’s happiness is reliant on her marriage to a richer, older man. Growing up, I too was always told that I would need to find a man who is older and reliable. Even though I never looked forward to that type of 'happy marriage', I didn’t think dating a younger man would work out either. It’s only when I started dating Moro that my ideas began to change." Liao began to consider the alternative possibilities for male-female couples, and photography became a way for her to see what would happen when a man and a woman's roles are reversed or shared.
"My upbringing in China was very normal, nothing artistic, just practical," she remembers. "After graduating from university, I became a self-taught graphic designer, and later on, I felt frustrated and wanted my career to be something I could have more creative control over. After watching the film Blow-Up, I felt like a photographer would be a good job, and that was that – I came to the US to study photography."
Here, Liao tells Refinery29 what led her to Moro, and shares some of her favourite images.