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Updated: May 5, 2020

Photography of China interviews Holly Roussell at the Rencontres d'Arles about curating photography, Pixy Liao and the Asia Photography Project

Holly Roussell is an independent curator, museologist and art historian specializing in photography and contemporary art from Asia. Born in 1989 in  Vermont (United States), she now lives and works in Suzhou (China). She served as coordinator of the worldwide traveling exhibitions program and photography prize, the Prix Elysée, for the Musée de l’Elysée, Lausanne, from 2013 to 2017. In 2017, she co-founded the Asia Photography Project, a non-profit curatorial collective and platform for photography from East Asia.

As an independent curator, some recent projects include the 4th Shenzhen Independent Animation Biennale (2018) produced by Li Zhenhua and the major exhibition project, Civilization: The Way We Live Now (co-curated with William A. Ewing and produced by the Foundation for the Exhibition of Photography and MMCA, Seoul) that started its tour at the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Seoul, KR (2018) and UCCA Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing. CN (2019), and will continue on to the NGV, Melbourne, AUS (2019) Auckland Art Gallery, New Zealand (2020), MUCEUM, Marseille, FR (2021) and other venues. During the Rencontres d’Arles 2019, she curated the Chinese artist Pixy Liao’s solo show in collaboration with Jimei x Arles International Photo Festival. On that occasion, Holly Roussell kindly answered our questions.

Marine Cabos-Brullé: How did you become interested in the photographic landscape in China?

Holly Roussell: I visited China for the first time in 2008. At the time, I was passionate about Buddhist art history and wanted to visit and document important sacred sites within China and India. I was very surprised when I visited some galleries in Shanghai and Beijing exhibiting Chinese photography and contemporary art. For me, it  was a very sudden turning point. Having very little exposure to contemporary art from Asia beforehand and wanted to return to China to continue to explore the landscape. That year (my final in university) I changed direction within Art History studies, and immediately following graduation moved to Beijing to focus full time on Mandarin so I could interact with those artists on my own terms. I wanted to be able to understand first-hand the conversations we were having together.

M.C-B.: How would you describe Pixy’s works to those who don’t know her?

H.R.: Pixy Liao is an emerging contemporary artist from China who has lived and worked in Brooklyn, New York for more than a decade. When I met her in 2016 on a trip to Shanghai, Pixy had some exposure in local art galleries in Shanghai, such as Capsule Shanghai (founded by Enrico Polato in 2016) and (former) Leo Xu Projects, but for the most part she hadn’t yet received international or institutional recognition for her work.

Experimental Relationship, a long-term project started in 2007, is a series of portraits exploring how national culture and gender norms may influence and dictate our interactions in romantic relationships. The project is made up of staged photographs of the artist and her boyfriend, together and individually before the camera. What is surprising for many in Liao’s work is that the artist often portrays herself in the dominant role, while her boyfriend assumes positions of submission. Liao structures her images to appear often above her boyfriend, looking from above down to him, or fully clothed when he is naked - these subtle compositional choices subvert how a man and woman “ought” to behave with or interact with one another in “traditional” heterosexual relationships. The work is both informed by their gender (expected roles of male and female), as well as their nationalities: Moro is Japanese and Pixy is Chinese. A final element is their age, as Pixy is five years older than Moro. She describes their age and respective maturity as important at the origins of their relationship when they met in Memphis [USA]. At that time, Moro was at a very different stage in his life; he just graduated from high school and started university. Pixy had already worked in Shanghai and was coming to study in the US, so they were different places.

All of these different factors come together to create a work that is about how is a modern couple that doesn’t follow the prescribed norms and stereotypes we have of what a couple should be. The work is about how do we actually move forward when the traditional cultural expectations about our own sexuality and behaviors do not reflect who we are. I think part of what attracted me to the work early on is that if we have a certain level of visual literacy, knowledge of Art History, or about Japanese and Chinese culture, as a viewer we can unlock humorous references and symbolism in her compositions. On the other hand, even if we are unable to read these visual cues, the photographs are still going to draw us in, provoke us, they are going to ask us to say why is she in the position of dominance, why is he nude and she is wearing clothes, why is she creating these juxtapositions, why does she treat her boyfriend in this way? Experimental Relationship is about pushing boundaries and testing out what is possible within a modern couple. These are not the images of male and female viewers are accustomed to seeing, and this work consequently forces us to question our own gaze and expectations as we observe their interactions.




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