Chinese photographer Yushi Li’s work is bold in its use of male nudity to challenge traditional gender roles. But what’s perhaps most disorientating and striking about Li’s work is her choice of domestic settings for her images, which manage to create both a sense of comfort and strangeness to this exploration of sex and heterosexual relationships in modern day society.
Across several bodies of work Li explores hookup culture, and the male form. In My Tinder Boys, Li invited app dates to pose naked, exposing her male dates in analogue images that remove the traces of their digital meeting. But most notably, by making these men vulnerable, a position often reserved for women, Li inverts the female gaze as here the male form is under the spotlight.
In her following series, Your Reservation Is Confirmed, Li goes one step further including herself in the images, clothed next to her naked subjects in the setting of Airbnb properties. By including herself, Li forces the viewer to question the inequality of the roles and stereotypes imposed on men and women. We expect a woman to be exposed, but in her photographs Li is the one in control of not only how her body is seen but how the man is viewed, a fact underlined by the camera’s shutter release visible in her hand.
But Li doesn’t overtly sexualize these naked men. Instead her models engage in domestic tasks, such as cooking and watering the plants. The man firmly embodies the traditional female role, and in a previous interview in i-D Magazine Li told me she was inspired by “erotic images of women with food”. Her photographs reveal the double standards and conflicting expectations placed on a woman who must excel at both the domestic and erotic. But Li’s men, who are quietly going about these tasks, unclothed, are forlorn and pensive, and far from the sexualized, staged depictions of women that we are used to seeing.
However, Li does sometimes evoke sex and desire more directly in her work. Li’s photograph The Dream of the Fisherwoman has a title that plays on Japanese artist Hokusai’s erotic painting The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife. In name alone Li elevates the woman, giving her a job and an identity beyond that of a wife, and that comparison extends to the image’s subject. Li captures a man lying in a bathtub with his genitals covered by an octopus, switching the gender roles of Hokusai’s painting. Li shows how a man can be the visual stimuli of desire, relegating to history how female desire for the octopus was a watched, erotic thing.
Li’s film photographs feel striking yet intimate, staged but natural, yet most of all they challenge the world’s approach to gender. It could be said that her work ultimately shows that men and women aren’t so different when you put their bodies under scrutiny, but there is always the underlying context that men have always been allowed a voice and the power to tell their own stories. Now, Li as a female photographer has that chance to speak, and readdress the balance.