Exploring the economy of exposure in the work of Yushi Li

View Gallery 5 Photos
Reading Time: 4 minutes

As the photographer’s work goes on show in a new exhibition, Li discusses her practice, which addresses the ubiquity of the gaze, and the relationship between power and desire

In 1948, the French photographer Robert Doisneau captured an image he named Un Regard Oblique, which depicts a man and woman contemplating the display in the shop window of a gallery. The woman is centred by the frame, looking at and commenting on a canvas of which we can only see the back. The titular ‘oblique gaze’ takes place in the photograph’s margins, where the man is surreptitiously peering at a different painting of a female nude on the wall. Writing much later in 1991, the art historian Mary Ann Doane analysed Doisneau’s photograph in terms of its implicit gender politics. “The female gaze is left free-floating, vulnerable to subjection,” she wrote, “The object of the male gaze is fully present, there for the spectator. The fetishistic representation of the nude female body, fully in view, insures a masculinisation of the spectatorial position.”

The photographer Yushi Li, currently undertaking her PhD at the Royal College of Art, similarly explores this economy of exposure, deconstructing the male gaze to subvert the power imbalances implicit in cultural spectatorship. In Li’s photographs — such as The Nightmare (2019) [above], which appropriates the 1781 Henry Fuseli painting, or The Dream of the Fisherwoman (2018), a play on Hokusai’s 1814 erotic original — she restages art historical images, casting nude men as objects to be viewed. Recent works, including The Feast (2020) [below] and the Artist Portrait (2019) series, are due to be exhibited from 15 to 30 May in Postures & Posers at FILET, London, curated by Brenna Horrox, co-director of Hi-NOON.

“Throughout the history of art, women have been represented as an embodiment of both the male artist’s and the male viewer’s desire, and not as an active subject or an active creator,” Li explains over Zoom. Her work has typically featured naked, white and Western men, shown as acquiescent or vulnerable, while she is clothed and assertive, meeting the viewer’s gaze. However, she stresses that the images are not personal, rather more complex and symbolic: “I am playing a role in the picture, it is not about who I am. I see myself as a prop for the type of scene I want to create so my position is more complex”. She continues, “I am an Asian woman, so putting myself in the image gives a more direct message about the subversion of power, with the viewer seeing the contrast in an obvious way.” 

A psychoanalytic framework has guided Li’s recent PhD research, which has encouraged her to consider the notions of power and desire as something more ambiguous and fluid. She cites the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, for example, who interpreted the active/passive nature of the gaze as motivated by the subject’s desire to control the object it sees. “I always try to be the one who has the power in my work, the person who is in control,” she continues. “However, this power might be a kind of fantasy. It is not fixed and can change between the looker and the looked at.”

The artist portrait (gallerist 1). 2019 @ Yushi Li.

For her earlier series My Tinder Boys (2019), Li scouted her models through the dating app, while the men in the Artist Portrait series [above] are collectors and gallerists, who have a more tangible relationship to her career. “The Tinder images had an undercurrent of sexual tension, which these pictures don’t have. I decided to play with the roles a bit more, by asking them to paint me or photograph me, in the image,” she says. In one photograph, Li’s naked male counterpart is seen working on a canvas placed on an easel, while in another, a different man is reflected in a mirror, positioned behind the camera, as if taking Li’s photo. The latter is a fiction, as the camera’s shutter release is evidently placed within her closed hand. Her expression is nonchalant, with her arms folded, as if bored or unphased. 

The concept of a cornucopia (the horn of plenty) inspired The Feast (2020) [below], which was a collaboration with the photographer Steph Wilson. The mood of abundance is palpable, with Li creating the environment of a party. “I wanted to have a feast of men. That’s quite a common male fantasy, from Playboy to old paintings, you often see these groups of naked women together,” she explains. “I thought it would be interesting to have another woman join my feast, and the group of men are far more diverse, from their race, to their hairstyle or body shape.”

Last year, Li’s exhibition at Union Gallery was titled Women act, men appear, a satirical inversion of a quote from John Berger’s 1972 book Ways of Seeing, in which he argues that the tradition of the nude can be seen as a “relentless attempt” to put the female body on show. Berger wrote, “Men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.” In Li’s contemporary visual landscape, she advances this proposition in relation to the gaze of technology. “The ubiquity of the internet has changed the nature of looking,” she says. “There are so many images. Everything and anything can be seen. There are no secrets, mystery, or intimacy. We are always looking and always being looked at.”

Postures & Posers is on show at FILET, London, from 15 to 30 May.

Philomena Epps

Philomena Epps is a writer, editor, and art historian living in London. She writes regularly for Artforum, Frieze, and Flash Art, among others.