An Artist's Response to Objectification with Unsettling Beauty
Chinese photographer Yushi Li challenges traditional erotic imagery through her thought-provoking series, "The Smothering Dream." In a world saturated with objectifying images of women, Li sought to create a visual narrative from a woman's perspective, depicting naked men as objects of desire. The inspiration behind her work stems from a noticeable lack of such imagery captured by female photographers.
"Instead of being a passive, 'looked-at' thing, I want to be the one who is in control, who is creating the story, who is expressing my fantasy," explained Li.
By inserting herself into the photos, clothed and often the only person engaging with the camera, Li emphasizes her control over the narrative. Each image presents a fantasy world, suffusing it with a hint of violence concealed beneath the apparent pink and kitsch aesthetics. This distortion constructs her vision of love and eroticism—smothering the men she desires.
"The Smothering Dream," shot in 2022, recently featured in the group exhibition "A Quiet Gaze" at Photofairs Shanghai. The title aptly reflects Li's exploration of the dynamics between the male and female gazes, which persistently appear throughout her body of work.
Power Dynamics and the Fragility of Desire
"The Smothering Dream" references Lawrence Alma-Tadema's "The Roses of Heliogabalus," depicting guests suffocating in an ambiance of flowers. Li's interpretation, however, deceives at first glance. Despite its delicate setting of pastel colors and intricate furniture, her photograph suggests a more sinister undertone, challenging the notion of control.
Li's series extends beyond photography, as she herself becomes a central figure of power. In some shots, she defiantly perches atop unsuspecting male figures, defying seduction, while in others, poised with a bow and arrow, she calmly directs her gaze towards naked men in windows.
Li contemplates the complexity of gaze and control within her images, acknowledging the subjective nature of interpretation. "Some of these men (in the photographs) also look at me, and the viewer also looks at all of us," she explained. In the digital age, these dynamics become even more intricate, with constant exposure altering the traditional power structures surrounding aesthetic appreciation.
"There's the gaze from the algorithm, and the gaze from the screen that reflects yourself when you look at it... the internet (means) we're subjected to the gaze more, in a way," stated Li.
A Multifaceted Exploration of Desire, Identity, and Representation
Li's series "Paintings, Dreams, and Love," to which "The Smothering Dream" belongs, delves into the complexities of desire and representation. Her wider portfolio showcases softly-lit nude portraits of strangers scouted through a dating app, stripped of their character as they engage in mundane activities, devoid of their clothes. These images challenge societal expectations and preconceived notions surrounding erotic symbolism.
Inspired by classical paintings, Li draws influences from Henry Fuseli's "The Nightmare," which she reimagines with an Asian female subject. By recreating historical works with her unique perspective, Li confronts the stereotypes surrounding Asian women perpetuated by Western male artists.
Li's photographs have elicited a sense of empowerment among women who connect with her work. As an Asian photographer, she encourages women, irrespective of their cultural background, to express their own desires and challenge societal norms.
A Powerful Gaze: Examining Identity in the Modern World
Yushi Li's "The Smothering Dream" disrupts conventional notions of desire, power dynamics, and representation. From a woman's perspective, she skillfully explores the complexities of the gaze and the evolving nature of control in the digital age. Through her ongoing series, Li envisions a world where every individual has the agency to express their desires freely and challenge the established aesthetic norms.