When I give you a sense of security you need to keep me safe.
There is no tradition of the nude in Chinese art. Confucian values did not include the human body. In the west, traditions pull in two directions: the idealised nudes of ancient Greece were the embodiment of civic pride, while in the Judeo-Christian tradition the naked body was associated with the sinfulness of sexual immorality. In contrast, the principal focus of Confucian ethics concerns the proper forms of human conduct and relationship. There is little emphasis on physicality or how one looks, but much on how one behaves. Upon humaneness, restraint, loyalty, and filial piety in the pursuit of social harmony. Compared to these high ideals, imagery of the naked body was simply considered vulgar.
In recent decades, globalisation and the internet have seen an expanding range of art practices in China and the nude is no longer the taboo it once was. But neither is it simply an extension of the symbolic associations of the western genre… Which brings me to the work of the Chengdu-based artist Li Aixiao. Much of her work has involved the unclothed body, but the emphasis is less on erotic beauty than on the aesthetics of human interconnectedness. Of the importance of trust, empathic sensitivity, and what is means to be authentically oneself.
In her later work this quest to visual connectedness is set in poignant counterpoint with the strictures of pandemic lockdown and enforced separation from others. Here, the desire to connect has come to enfold the artist herself within the artwork. She enters the frame, not simply appearing in the image, but inhabiting the role of complementary other – both mirror and twin. While the final outcome is a photograph, it is not so much what is shown as the way in which it is created that invests these images with their restrained intimacy. An intimacy which seeks that deeper sensibility that flourishes when one opens to the idiosyncrasies of another individual and finds within them the roots of a common humanity.
You use photography within a wider art practice. What draws you to photography in particular?
When I was a child, my father often took pictures of me and so, from a young age, the camera was no stranger. When I went to university at the age of eighteen, he gave me a film camera. He didn’t say anything about photography, but it was like a seed had been planted deep in my heart waiting to germinate. As it grew, I discovered that photography is what I do best. It is my most important medium of creation, the source of all my art.
What would you say are the main themes that run through your oeuvre?
People and life. I have always been interested in people, observing how they behave. I am also very interested in observing myself, understanding how I behave. There is an ancient saying that among any three travellers there will be a teacher… meaning that we can always learn from those around us.
In making my work, people have told me about their love, dreams, past life, their secrets… Their delicate and profound feelings, their sense of kinship, have touched me. I have been astonished by their calmness in the face of life’s challenges, failures, death… They have experienced things in their lives that have amazed me. It is as if they have opened for me a door onto a different world.
How did the series ‘Personal Belongings’ begin?
On 1 November 2013, my good friend Wen visited me. While she was there, I took pictures of her naked. During the shooting, I sensed a particular sincerity in her presence, and I felt an emotional connection that I hadn’t felt previously in all the years we had been friends. It was the first time I had observed someone’s body through the camera lens. It was a mysterious experience. Visual. Silent. The only sound, the clicking of the shutter.
Those photographs marked a vital turning point. I came to understand how photography could allow me to communicate deeply with others. And I knew that I wanted to experience again that sense of trust and emotional connection that came with taking pictures. This was how ‘Personal Belongings’ began…
How did you go about making this series?
Each year in March or April I posted a request for participants on social media, asking them to respond to the question What is your most important personal belonging? and to send me a snapshot of it. I selected people based on their response and the object they chose, and then contacted them via WeChat so that we could get to know each other a little better. After that, we set a date for the shoot.
On the day, they came to my studio, and I recorded an interview with them for a couple of hours. Once they were feeling relaxed, they disrobed, and I began photographing them with their chosen possession. Later, I made notes about the feelings that had arisen during the session. Some participants also sent me feedback about how the experience had been for them, but not all. Drawing on this material, I composed a concise text to accompany the picture I selected from the session. The project lasted for six years [2013–2019] during which time one hundred people took part.
You describe the way many of the participants in this project found the experience emotionally charged, perhaps even cathartic. Why was this, do you think?
People need a channel to express their feelings and to talk about certain experiences, but they often fail to find a suitable person to talk to. Despite the well-developed internet we have today, I still prefer the feeling of face-to-face communication. I believe that we maintained the truest state of human-to-human communication when we are each able to look the other in the eye while we are talking. That was the situation in each of those photographic sessions. It helped them relax and feel trust.
[Left] © Li Aixiao – from the performance ‘Li Aixiao and Her 100 Pictures’ 2019
[Right] © Li Aixiao ‘Li Aixiao and Her 100 Pictures’ 2019
Tell me about the performance work ‘Li Aixiao and Her 100 Pictures’.
This was the conclusion to the ‘Personal Belongings’ project. I invited all the people who had taken part to come to the performance. I was naked and placed a blindfold over my eyes. The photographs from the series had been prepared as transfers. I invited them to each select a part of my body, press their image onto my skin, and peel away the backing paper until I was covered in photographs.
I had never before participated in an event of such tranquillity, peace, and mutual trust. It was deeply moving. Towards the end, someone played music and, when I took off the blindfold, everyone took turns hugging me. I felt so lucky… Later, I went back to the studio and took a picture of myself (front and back) with a double exposure. The last in the series.
What was the concept behind ‘What You Think Is What You See’?
I was in a group exhibition with three other artists. The show was sponsored by a hospital specialising in plastic surgery and we were each asked to improvise on the theme of beauty. I invited two women to participate in this project. They were of different nationalities and strangers to each other. I asked each to bring something they thought was beautiful and something they thought was not beautiful. My original idea had been that the project would revolve around the interaction between each object and body. However, as the shoot progressed, a mutual trust developed and the two women began interacting with each other, together exploring the natural beauty of the body.
What did you learn about the nature of beauty through making this project?
As the title suggests, the way one thinks determines one’s perception of what one finds beautiful. When you accept yourself as you are and begin to focus outwards, you will not care so much about whether you are judged to be beautiful or not.
How did ‘I Am with Me’ begin?
When the Covid-19 pandemic broke out in early 2020, I was forced to stay at home for a long time. I felt suffocated by being closed in and by the dragging sense of time. While everyone was social distancing, I wanted to escape my confinement and the reliance on virtual connection. To connect with people in the real world. So, I began a project to explore the personal spaces of strangers.
What was your process for making this work?
With ‘Personal Belongings’, people came to my studio. I realised that this must have been challenging for them. They had to enter an unfamiliar environment, let down their guard, take off their clothes. For me, it was all pretty safe. So, in ‘I Am with Me’, I decided to enter each participant’s personal space and experience directly how it felt to open myself up in an unfamiliar environment. At the same time, black-and-white photos and studio lighting were no longer an option. The time was right for me to leave behind the safety of making photographs in my familiar way.
Most of these photographs were made in the participant’s home, but some chose to go somewhere else, away from people, where they would not be disturbed. First, we started a relaxed conversation and did everyday things together. Then, they took off their clothes, which I put on so that I could ‘become them’. There was a sense of intimacy as soon as I did this. I could smell the scent of their skin, feel the warmth left by their body, which all helped me imagine being them. They were now naked and, in turn, found it fascinating to see me wearing their clothes. A tacit understanding grew up between us: when I give you a sense of security you need to keep me safe. In the process of this kind of personal interconnection, we shared so much personal information that a sort of transfer took place so that, during the photo session, we each became the other.
What ideas did you want to explore in this project?
To make this series together with people, during the epidemic, was very meaningful for me. Through our interactions, I explored what it was like to experience unfamiliar environments, different lives. At that time of social distancing, I wanted to suggest kindness and trust among people. The more isolated we became, the more we longed to embrace each other, however difficult that may be.
Nudity plays a significant role in your work. Why is this?
When it comes to nudity, sex is often the first thing people think of. But sexuality is not what I want to explore here. For me, nudity signifies the unique authenticity of each human being. We are born naked. The clothes, the jewellery, all the adornments with which we beautify ourselves, are also a form of camouflage. If you wear different clothes, you can appear to be a different person. Taking off all one’s clothes is not just about undressing, it is a process of removing the camouflage, letting down one’s defences, revealing oneself not just physically but psychologically.
What is it that is revealed in this way?
I have found that most of the people I photograph begin by trying to look indestructible. But there is always a private part that, like the soft belly of a hedgehog, few can reach. In my experience, photography is the perfect medium to encourage an unfiltered interaction between people in a way that truly reflects our deepest feelings. It is through photography that I have come closest to people’s hearts, allowing me to capture their true emotions and authentic personalities.
How has your work been received at home and abroad?
Inevitably, the cultural context is always significant. Before the epidemic, my work featured in a number of reports in the Chinese media, but there have been few opportunities to exhibit at home. I travelled to Austria in 2018 for a residency in Vienna where people were happy to participate in my project. Last year, I exhibited at Head On Photo Festival in Sydney. Sadly, I was unable to travel to Australia because of the pandemic, but the audience response has been very encouraging.
What have you learned about yourself in the process of making this work?
I’m grateful that people have put their trust in me… and in the process, I have become a good listener. I have witnessed hundreds of different ways of living, of experiencing life. Each is like a mirror in which I can reflect upon myself in a new context. And, through it, I have come to realise just how meaningful photography is to me and to those I photograph. It has had an enormous impact on my professional life and opened up a true (and unexpected) way to grow personally as a human being.
Li Aixiao was born in Sichuan, China, in 1987. She has degrees in journalism (2009) and applied psychology (2009) from the Southwest University in Chongqing, China, skills she has used in her ongoing creative practice. She has exhibited extensively in China and also in Australia and Switzerland. In 2018, she was named among the Art Nova top one hundred artists in China and won Artist of the Year at the SAYA Embrace Project, Vienna. In 2020, she won the Jury Choice Award for a self-published book at the Second Wuhan Photo Art Fair. Her book ‘Personal Belongings’ was published in 2020. She lives and works in Chengdu, China.
This interview is a Talking Pictures original.