The photographer taking couple selfies to the extreme

Mallorca, Spain CNNIn one of Pixy Liao’s photographs, she wrestles with her boyfriend Moro in a hotel room; in another, she flings his naked body over her shoulder and carries him in the way a fireman might rescue someone.

The images form part of her ongoing project “Experimental Relationship” — first profiled by CNN in 2019 — which began in 2007, a year after she met Moro. The series playfully explores the intimacy and dynamics of being in a long-term relationship.

When I meet Liao, she and Moro are crouching in picturesque window arches at La Residencia hotel, overlooking the beautiful countryside of the Spanish island of Mallorca. As she carefully orchestrates images of the two of them — standing, sitting, pointing, holding a mirror to the camera — a nearby couple takes smartphone selfies in the sunshine, kissing. Liao is undertaking a two-month residency here in the art-steeped mountain town of Deià to continue “Experimental Relationship.” Naturally, Moro is along for the ride.
Liao met Moro — five years her junior — at the University of Memphis, Tennessee, where she studied photography. When she started to take pictures of him, it became a vehicle to explore what kind of relationship she wanted — and her own identity. “Growing up in China, I didn’t see any examples of female role models that I wanted to be,” she said, sitting in her temporary studio at the hotel. “It was like being the second best or supporting role, and I didn’t understand why it had to be that way.”
Liao is expert at balancing the banal with the erotic, and exploring the power dynamics at play when humans engage in physical and emotional intimacy. In early photographs, Liao appears in a position of domination; deploying the female gaze and exerting power over Moro. One image (“Start your day with a good breakfast together,” 2009) shows Liao eating breakfast off Moro’s naked body, staring into the camera, as he lies awkwardly on the kitchen table.
But as her and Moro’s relationship evolved, so did the project. “As we grow older together, our relationship changes,” she explained. The tongue-in-cheek eroticism is still there, as is the playful subversion, but in more recent photographs, Moro plays a more active role, in and out of the picture. “He’s really involved in the creation process,” Liao said. “He sometimes knows what I want before I do.” It is often Moro, rather than Liao, operating the remote cable release control to take the photograph. Part of this, Liao explained, is about “sharing power with him.”
Does the project cause tensions in their relationship? Liao doesn’t think so, but noted that it’s hard to work on the project when they’re fighting. “He refuses to collaborate with me,” she said. “My main task in life is to keep a good relationship with him,” she added, laughing.

Liao believes the two most important things for “Experimental Relationship” are the ideas and the locations. The ideas — from making a naked Moro into human sushi, to screaming at each other, to bending over in underpants and peeking between their legs — are steeped in a kind-of fantasy. “It’s not exactly us, it’s another pair of us in a parallel universe that’s kind-of similar, but maybe something we would never do in real life,” she said. “It’s like a role-playing game.”

The settings, meanwhile, shape the feel of the images. Liao looks for locations imbued with a sense that “stories can happen there.” We often see the couple in domestic interiors, whether a bare-walled, drab house or a slick New York loft. But the series also transports us to more surprising settings: a rural hotel in Japan; a peaceful forest in Woodstock, New York.

Liao doesn’t want the locations to be “too beautiful,” she said, so while in Deià she has been looking for things that are “a little weird,” like a gnarled olive tree trunk with holes that she and Moro could poke their faces through. The concept of play infuses much of her work. “Fun is the most important thing for me,” Liao said. “My priority is to satisfy myself, to entertain myself.”

After her residency completes at the end of October — the last of a series of three this summer for the hotel, also including Anastasiia Podervianska and Sislej Xhafa — Liao will return home to Brooklyn with Moro. The work she creates will go on show in the hotel once it reopens for the 2024 season next March. And what of the future of “Experimental Relationship” — is there a planned end to the project? “I definitely want to do it as long as we’re together,” she said, smiling. With that, she goes off into the idyllic landscape on another photo shoot with Moro, living out their fantasies.