Fascinated by the ancient Greek concept of “eros” – sensual or passionate love – Morrison Gong photographs friends, acquaintances, dates, and strangers, and reimagines them within complex erotic fantasises. Morrison first picked up a camera when they moved from China to New York at the age of 18, and initially used it “as a tool for damage control”. Arriving in America, “the foreignness of my Chinese identity created friction”, they tell It’s Nice That. Using this friction as a creative lens, the photographer began noticing the way their sitters affected their thoughts, feelings and creative vision. Morrison attributes this collaborative energy in their photographs to the “transformative power of eros”.
Their recent series Give Me Pleasure or Give Me Death explores the nude body in relation to nature and incorporates references to various Greek myths, gods and goddesses. For Morrison, exploring the metaphorical relationship between humans and nature provides rich creative ground for experimentation: “I often use flowers and foliage in my photos to draw the parallel between the intense vitality of life and of reproductive power in plants and in humans.”
The title of the series references George Santayana’s philosophy on the materials of beauty, explains the photographer. But it is also a satirical play on Patrick Henry’s famous quote “Give me liberty or give me death!” from his 1775 speech that advocated for the American War of Independence. Weaving these political and erotic meanings throughout the series, Morrison makes a comment on “colonialism and the capitalist state of American culture”.
Looking back on the images in the series, the photographer has a clear favourite. The photograph they call Commence Your Year like the Spring references a Chinese proverb that expresses “the beauty, ephemerality, and vitality of spring”, they tell us. In the photograph, Morrison’s androgynous model, Zeng, poses naked in the dead of night, reaching into the branches of a tree. The photographer describes a fantasy that forms in their head around the figure, transforming simultaneously into a “powerful god” and a half-human half-creature (“a centaur perhaps”) from Greek mythology. Merging with the budding branches of springtime, Morrison's model summons the sexual symbols associated with the season – “ice melting, flowers spreading pollens, animals mating…”
For their photograph Daphne, Morrison delved directly into the metamorphic Greek myth of Daphne and Apollo. This ancient story tells the tale of a river nymph who transforms herself into a tree to escape the lascivious advances of the god Apollo. In Morrison’s photograph, the story gets a retelling. From out of a lake, Morrison’s model and friend Tingying is depicted wrestling with the branches of a tree. Her powerful stance and direct gaze at the viewer reinterprets the often passive, fleeing poses of Daphne in art. This is a daring Daphne that encapsulates Morrison’s desire to present women as “the free and awe-inspiring beings that they are – who rebel against power and invert the myth of patriarchy”.
Interested in weaving their “personal interpretations of mythology and Oriental beauty” beyond the boundaries of photography, Morrison has been “fondling” with the idea of merging cinematic design with photography in the future. Concluding their thoughts on the series, Morrison hopes it will communicate the power of carnal lust to their viewer: “Eros exists in all our interpersonal relationships. Eros disrupts our narcissism; it invites us to grow, to explore others and to expand ourselves.”
Morrison Gong: Nymph with Yellow Lilies (Copyright © Morrison Gong, 2021)
About the Author
Elfie joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in November 2021 after finishing an art history degree at Sussex University. She is particularly interested in creative projects which shed light on histories that have been traditionally overlooked or misrepresented.