Yushi Li's nude portraits reimagine Renaissance paintings
Inspired by erotic depictions of women throughout art history, and her own desire, the photographer flips the gaze towards men she finds on Tinder.
Photography Yushi Li
Naked men are vulnerable before Yushi Li’s lens. Shy, awkward and at her camera’s mercy, they water plants, play at a grand piano, eat food in their kitchen and lounge on a green velvet sofa — always watched by her penetrating gaze. It’s a state of being she has seen depicted throughout art history, but for millennia the voyeur has been male. “When there is an image of a woman, we think the viewer is a man,” the photographer says. “But if it is of a man, we still think the viewer is a man. I want to make work to show women’s desire for men.”
Although homoerotic art by the likes of Robert Mapplethorpe caught the world’s attention in the 80s, with images of penises and provocative acts of sadomasochism — George Platt Lynes, Arthur Tress and Duane Michals also capture the male nude in various states of love, fear, sexual arousal and hope — art for the pleasure of straight women has always been lacking. In 2018, when Yushi first exhibited her work Tinder Boys at the Royal College of Art, where she was studying for her masters in London, visitors repeatedly asked if her unnamed portraits were taken by a man. She captured her subjects on a medium format analog camera in a soft, tender and intimate way, unapologetically voyeuristic in a style that wasn’t feminine to her audience.
But Tinder Boys was always intended to reimagine the canon in more ways than one – a parody of the erotic images of naked women eating by the great masters of the Renaissance and the lust exhibited in homoerotica. Inspired by the dating app that she was using at the time, the photographer reached out to more than 300 men (after matching with more than 1,000) asking them to pose for her naked. Only 15 agreed. ‘‘The success rate was quite low,’’ she adds with a laugh. ‘‘A lot of them thought it was a scam or that they would do it if I had sex with them.’’
The men that agreed are normal looking – they have an awkwardness in their facial expressions and poses that’s endearing – and have been photographed in corners of their also very normal looking kitchens. They sit on wooden countertops with Fairy liquid behind them and eat melon or lean over a countertop with dirty dishes in the background. In the traditionally feminine realm of the kitchen, the imagery is a satire on gender roles, asking us to question our place in society and it’s expectations.
In her newest work I Hope You Like What You Have Seen, a video she began pre-Covid of men performing mundane tasks, like cutting fish in the kitchen, taking a bath or folding clothes, naked via Skype. It’s part of her PhD research about how the gaze has changed in the Internet age. In the video, she directs the men from a blocked out camera: ‘‘I’m trying to be the gaze that is looking at us all the time, which is not a man or a woman, but a ubiquitous gaze all the time because of the internet. This constant connection with the other.’’ She adds, “We’re not only living under the gaze, we’re also living in the gaze.”
Yushi’s series, Your Reservation Is Confirmed, further challenges the binary view of gender and domesticity, with the photographer renting her perfect home on Airbnb and filling it with men that she booked through a life modelling website. “I find it interesting that nowadays we can just get what we want by clicking on things on the internet,” she says. Later, she inserts herself, fully clothed, into the images – a reimagining of Édouard Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe, where a nude woman is accompanied by two fully-clothed men at a picnic. They skip with her in a living room filled with books and plants, they do yoga, shower and climb up a spiral staircase behind her.
All the men in Yushi’s body of work so far are white, which happened organically because they were the ones that agreed to be photographed. But she likes the way the images turned out. They are an antidote to the fetishisation Asian women experience in the West — her clothes giving her power in the same way they gave the men in Manet’s painting control. “I feel more comfortable working with men who are not the same race as me,” she adds. ‘‘I feel Asian men, naked Asian men, remind me of my dad a bit too much, which makes me uncomfortable. I feel like I can see white men as a subject.’’
Yushi was born in the Hunan Province of China, where TV shows and movies are censored for nudity and sex. ‘‘For quite a long time, I felt like it was a little bit shameful,’’ she says. ‘‘I think that is one of the reasons I decided to make work about sexuality, about desire.’’ Even though her parents are fairly liberal compared with a lot of other Chinese parents, the photographer was scared to tell her parents about her work.
When she graduated from her MA, she lied about having a degree show – not wanting her parents to see her images of naked white men. Eventually she told her mum who said, ‘‘It’s art so it’s ok. It’s not like you’re doing anything pornographic,’’ but added that she would be unhappy if Yushi, herself, was naked in the images. It’s for a different reason, though, that the photographer feels uncomfortable inserting herself into the images unclothed. ‘‘[Women’s bodies] are still very sexualised,” she says, “so I don’t want to contribute to that personally.’’
Unlike 70s feminist art, where women used their own bodies as both subject and object to disrupt male spectatorship — reimagining the traditional role of women in photographs — what Yushi is interested in, is a gaze that is equally active and aggressive, but focused on men. ‘‘I don’t try to show men in any sort of degrading way, I don’t want to be like I’m dominating. But I want to show what I desire and love.’’