In 1972, John Berger pointed out something a lot of us already knew. “Men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.” In Ways of Seeing, Berger finally lifted the lid on the ruse: that women had been portrayed solely as objects of male desire, removing our agency as both subject and spectator.
Yushi Li is a PhD student at the Royal College of Art (where she also completed an MA in Photography in 2018), who decided enough was enough. Young, Chinese and a woman, Yushi represents a triple threat to the male gaze, and armed with a camera she decided to set about reversing it. Her early projects focused on objectifying male bodies—particularly white, Western male bodies—treating them as sexualised and politically charged, rather than neutral or default: a site onto which female desire might be projected.
“The male figure becomes a blank canvas for her active, subjective desire”
“The main reason most of my models are Caucasians is that I think of my work as a response to the infatuation for Asian women, who have been considered as docile, delicate and exotic objects of fascination in Western societies,” Yushi tells me over email. “By photographing those male nudes, especially with myself in the same scenes, I try to use the contrast between me the clothed Chinese woman and naked Caucasian men to demonstrate my desire to return the Western gaze onto those men, and question the exoticisation and eroticisation of Asian women like me.”
First, she wrote to hundreds of men on Tinder asking them to pose nude for her—most refused, but she found fifteen men who were willing to be photographed, and turned them into the series, My Tinder Boys (2018). They appear in her kitchen, eating suggestive foods, their genitals carefully covered. The pervasive mood is awkwardness. In another series, Your Reservation is Confirmed (2018), Li rented out Airbnbs and this time got in front of the camera, fully clothed, with her men fully naked and infantilised. She has them playing with children’s toys, using a skipping rope, and even in a particularly revealing yoga pose. Her power in this dynamic is scintillating—and they are pretty hilarious pictures too. A slow clap for the female gaze.
Women Act, Men Appear was Yushi’s most recent exhibition, on show at the end of 2020 at London’s Union Gallery, bringing together newer works including the satirical The Feast, a tableau dismantling of the male gaze. Two group scenes allude to classical oil paintings of female nudes throughout art history—such as The Nymphaeum (1878) and The Turkish Bath (1862)—and their lascivious gaze on bodies, a strategy Yushi employs deliberately to unfurl her attack. This time, she hired a private house in Chelsea with a tropical garden and appears with the photographer Steph Wilson, with whom she collaborated to create the works: the two female artists remain clothed, surrounded by naked men who assume statuesque and blank looks—the objects of the women’s gaze. “When I was making these photos, I was trying to create a cornucopia, which should be as varied as possible (skin colour, hairstyle, body shape, etc). Generally speaking, I portray the body I desire.”
“Berger finally lifted the lid on the ruse: that women had been portrayed solely as objects of male desire”
In another two-part work, Yushi reinvents the power dynamic between artist, collector and gallerist—drawing an analogy between the male consumer and the male viewer—by choreographing them (you guessed it, without their clothes). It’s as if they are the creators of her images, except, of course, we are all too aware of who is really in control: the woman who appears in front of and behind the camera. The male figure becomes a blank canvas for her active, subjective desire.