The Bliss Of Conformity / Experimental Relationship Vol 1
Book Review by Rachel Marsden
The Bliss Of Conformity by Yingguang Guo
Published by: La Maison de Z
Experimental Relationship Vol 1 by Pixy Liao
Published by: Jiazazhi
The growth of discipline-focused galleries, fairs and festivals, art and photobook platforms have developed new international momentum for contemporary photography in and of the broader Chinese context. These include Jiazazhi Press (China), 3030 Press (Hong Kong), Closing Ceremony (China), Genda Magazine (Italy/China), Brownie Publishing (Hong Kong), La Maison de Z (China/France) and Photography of China (France/ China), the annual events ‘abC (Art Book in China)’ (Shanghai) and ‘Shanghai Art Book Fair’. Here are two examples of this trend, from two new publishers, with photobooks focusing on the development of long-term and marital relationships.
The Bliss of Conformity by Yingguang Guo focuses on the renowned marriage markets held in People’s Park, Shanghai. Seen as a national phenomenon and societal norm, it is where parents go to matchmake their children, both men and women, for forced or arranged marriages (although the author also describes it as for ‘women on the shelf’). Through a complex set of largely monochromatic images she shows the markets in progress. She includes covertly taken portraits, flora from the park, and blank, delicate pieces of white paper with text like those exchanged at the market. Yingguang attempts to present the vulnerability of both parents and prospective brides and grooms when building new relationships. The monochrome documentary approach she adopts is well suited to presenting what can be a hostile environment, fraught with parental and familial expectation, where children can go unacknowledged or be rejected.
The photobook is covered in a dense and embossed cranberry flock, its softness contrasting with the contents of the book. This unthreatening point of entry leads to images of pieces of torn, folded, pinched or sewn paper. These can be read as metaphors for the scars of the experience of marriage but also refer to the scar art movement of post-Cultural Revolution China. Furthermore, the images of paper are accompanied by short texts – soundbites from the marriage markets. These are contained by the photobook’s construction; when pockets and sleeves are unfolded from pages they reveal small, sewn-bound photo-booklets with bilingual translations of dialogues from the markets. A sensitive way for the artist to engage with this Chinese tradition.
Critiquing pre-conceptions of how people live together continues in the photobook Experimental Relationship Vol. 1 by Pixy Liao, which reflects honestly and explicitly on her life with her younger partner Moro. In the introductory statement she declares her intention to break with pre-existing models of behaviour. This applies to both her relationship and photography as she lives out, and photographs, different levels of intimacy. This is reflected in the design and construction of the publication: its bright yellow front cover has a thumbprint-sized window, cut out to show a pinch of what is to come – a woman’s hand with red nails pinching the left nipple of a man’s chest. This clearly positions Pixy as in control, apparently a consequence of her five-year age advantage over Moro.
The book includes multiple scenes of contact between Pixy and Moro, dressed and undressed, in different interior and exterior locations. The works are not voyeuristic, crude or pornographic. Instead, we are inescapably drawn to both Pixy and Moro’s eyes irrespective of their nudity. Their comfort in their closeness allows us to access a slice of their life and love (if not love-life). Standing out from the majority of these works are those avoiding eye contact which portray a deeper level to their relationship, tense with vulnerability. To interrupt this seriousness, a series of works are framed as sexual odes without gratification, acting as a playful and humorous counter-narrative and further showing different levels of intimacy. There is little reference to discord, aggression or anger, instead, as in the early stages of a relationship, we see an obsessive, intuitive connection, as when a partner is less familiar and so much is unknown. This emotional tension is also present in the complex sociopolitical history of Pixy and Moro’s mutual upbringings in China and Japan respectively – what she calls a ‘lovehate’ relationship – which sits in the background of the story of their first decade together.
The sequence of photographs are not a chronology, which only becomes clear in the visual timeline at the rear of the publication. As Pixy and Moro’s hairstyles, body shape and clothing trends jump and change between pages, we notice they become more comfortable with each other and their identity. This journey is further reflected in the titling of the works, showing insight into character, action, viewpoint, voice (whether man or woman), space and place. For example, Convex vs Concave (2010) portrays their introvert versus extrovert personalities; Get a firm grasp of your man (2010) reinforcing Pixy’s control over Moro, and Bite hard, Love deep (2015) and We are connected (2015) relates to their obsessive connection. The more recent works, show a clearer understanding of each other with an emotional maturity and respect, reflected in the simple titles: Pinch (2017), Head (2017) and Carry the weight of you (2017).
Fundamental to the creation of these photobooks is the process of collaboration between the photographers and their subjects, translators, book designers, publishers and publics. They are a form of artist-led research. Concurrently, they function as visual diaries, glimpses into how the artists translate their experience and relationships, whilst maintaining a responsiveness to the changing Chinese context in the transcultural era.