exploring sex, dating and digital intimacy through art
How does a digital-first world change what human relationships look and feel like in reality – and art?
Your Reservation is Confirmed, by Yushi Li
Yushi Li stares into the chest of the naked man she is skipping with. His elevated penis mirrors her in-flight ponytail, but a fully-dressed Li seems preoccupied, and her tensed hand around the shutter release reveals the reality. She is the photographer, he is a stranger, and this intimate scene is her creation.
The image comes from Your Reservation Is Confirmed, the follow up to Yushi’s series My Tinder Boys in which the Chinese photographer asked 300 men over Tinder if she could take their image, of which 15 agreed. Seeking to “question the idea and the accessibility of intimacy in the current internet age”, Yushi used modern technology to find her subjects, before shooting them using analog film in domestic scenes. The resulting photographs feel both intimate and alien.
In our “there’s an app for that” culture, where we don’t think twice about using our phones to order a meal, book somewhere to stay, and of course, find a date, technology has become so ubiquitous it doesn't actually exist anymore. In fact, in September 2018, the Global Industry Classification Standard removed tech as a category, and dispersed tech companies across different industries. But how does a digital-first world change what human relationships look and feel like in reality and art, if at all?
Yushi tackles that question head on, challenging what a hook up culture fast-tracked by technology does to intimacy. By inviting dates to pose naked in My Tinder Boys, she strips away the distance created by the app and the screen, and puts these strangers’ bodies under scrutiny. Later in Your Reservation Is Confirmed she places herself in uncomfortable proximity.
In all of her photographs, she demands that we question traditional gender roles. By presenting her subjects as perched on the kitchen sink or eating pasta at the table, these men take on the traditional role of a woman, bound to the home. Yushi admits that she “was inspired by erotic images of women with food”. When a fully-clothed Yushi is in the frame with them, they are naked, vulnerable and gazed at, as we have come to expect a woman to be. Yet, strikingly, two things are missing from this exploration of digital intimacy: sex, and screens.
Yushi doesn’t seek to sexualise these men, and sex is replaced by the quiet comfort of the domestic, while the digital root of how she met these men is disregarded as she captures them on analog film. Not only that, but she eschews any hint of tech in her props. The men play the piano, take a shower, and water the plants, in an approach that confronts you with all that she knows about these strangers: that they are human. You may find someone to have sex with in the second it takes to swipe, but real intimacy has to be worked on.
There is an obvious parallel between these images and Chinese artist Pixy Liao’s 2017 series Experimental Relationship, which captures her relationship with her Japanese boyfriend Moro. Yushi and Pixy both use the same process of shutter release, so that they can also be seen in the image, and the use of analog film feels like a purposeful nod to the past.
The way in which Pixy uses photography to explore the boundaries of intimacy -- revealing that she, as the woman and photographer, is in control of her relationship -- is a reversal of traditional gender roles that we also see in Yushi’s work. One of the most striking images -- Pixy eating papaya from her boyfriend’s naked body -- is unapologetically staged, and contrasts what we expect from the intimate couple photograph.
We are accustomed to intimacy in photography as a synonym for candid. We expect a hidden world, an insight into a human landscape that recalls the imperfection of our own loves and lives. We want stained sheets, a knowing glance, something to learn from and connect with. Yushi’s images remind us of the intimate scenes we are used to, but in deviating from expectation, they force us to consider what role the digital world has had in altering the scene, and therefore reality itself.
Queer artist Pedro Moreira, who is also known as the digital artist persona Ped.Moreira, doesn’t seek to replicate one relationship dynamic in their Significant Other installation, but what tech does to all human interaction. They invite you into a bed, where a screen on a pillow acts as the head of the character Significant Other, played by Pedro. This connection -- powered by Skype -- ponders intimacy and how it exists in a tech-focused world.
The viewer can stare into this character’s eyes and hear their voice. They are there, in all but touch. It conjures up those texts and digital messages sent late at night or early in the morning, to a person we want to summon to us. Yet the propped-up screen also seems to stand for entertainment: catch-up TV, streaming films and porn. Pedro highlights how our real lives mimic fictional narratives more than ever before, as we live our friendships and loves through a screen like an interactive experience.
This virtualisation of everyday reality makes us wonder about how effective technology is at really bringing us closer. Yes, we can talk to a potential lover, long-standing partner or family member by video call or message. But if you are apart, and you can’t reach out and hold one another, where is the intimacy and is it real?
For Pedro, whose work often uses the virtual world to explore reality, this blurring with fiction is familiar territory, and the online intimacy they present is a positive story, one that reflects long term relationships, with one person. For Pedro, it appears that intimacy, and the ability to have a ‘significant other’ in whatever form they take, can exist in a digital realm... it’s just simply a different interface to the reality we know.
But when I ask Yushi if she thinks it is harder to connect with people today, her message is more cynical, suggesting that the “our endless desires for 'more and better' have flattened and depersonalised everyone on the internet”. But she admits that ultimately it comes down to old-fashioned effort: “The internet makes everything seem more accessible, but doesn't lower the amount of effort you need to make to have a genuine relationship with someone.” Life may be digital, but it takes human strength to keep in touch.