Yushi Li's work takes a sideways look at agency and intimacy for the Tinder generation
“With Tinder, if we have a date and it doesn’t work, that’s fine. I get ten matches a day,” says Yushi Li as she splashes milk into a still-steaming cup of tea in a busy Soho cafe on a Thursday afternoon that’s edging into the stolid chill of a Thursday evening in January.
A graduate of the Royal College of Art’s postgraduate programme in photography, Yushi is now studying at the august institution for a PhD in arts and humanities. Inspired by photographers and practitioners like Jeff Wall, Jemima Stehli, and Sophie Calle, Yushi thinks of her chosen medium as one that is “intrusive and penetrative,” imbued with the power to make everyone involved – photographer and subject alike, as well as us, the gallery-going, book-reading, website-skimming audience – consider what exactly what power is.
“I don't want to think my work is just about reversing the gender roles traditional to the form. It is about questioning them”Yushi Li
The Hunan-born photographer caught our eye towards the tail end of last year when her work was included as part of 2018’s Bloomberg New Contemporaries show, staged at the recently-revamped South London Gallery in Camberwell. Exhibited alongside painters, filmmakers, and installation artists, her contribution to the show was a photograph featuring all the hallmarks of Yushi Li’s work to date.
Taken from her ongoing series My Tinder Boys, the portrait on display is physically bold, emotionally bald. A male nude – and this is, to use the distinction drawn up by art historian Kenneth Clarke in the mid-1950s, very much a nude form rather than a naked one – sits glumly on a kitchen worktop. He holds a strawberry, joylessly, in his right hand. This, the caption tells us, is Edric. He’s 24 years old. He was located 13 kilometres from the photographer when they first established contact.
“I messaged loads and loads of people. I was upfront from the start. I asked if they wanted to be my models,” Yushi says when we ask how My Tinder Boys came to be. “I asked more than 300 men and most of them ignored me. In the end, I photographed 15. Many people said no, or something like, they’d do it but only if I had sex with them.”
In a previous interview, Yushi says of the work that, “by putting these men in a stereotypically feminine and domestic space – the kitchen, I try to present them in a non-masculine and vulnerable way.” It is typical of her practice – which, in our eyes, is a taxonomic analysis of the relationship between the body and the notion of desire in a contemporary moment in which the importance of the real has been supplanted by that of the digital.
This psychic chasm between expectations and reality is at the heart of Yushi’s photographic practice. She is, in her own words, hugely invested and interested in, “the idea of the ideal.” Ideal men (the aforementioned My Tinder Boys), and ideal homes (in the series Your Reservation is Confirmed) populate her work, but these representations of an ideal are only that: representations of something that cannot transcend the imagination and find form here in the physical world.
Despite her success and evident understanding of what a communicative medium photography can be, it wasn’t necessarily the path that Yushi thought she’d follow. She holds an MA in Environmental Systems Engineering from University College London and only started shooting in earnest five years ago. Having watched friends derive pleasure from photographic work, she picked up a camera and discovered that the interplay between control and relinquishment inherent to the medium was a natural mode of communication for her.
“With photos, you take photos of something that is already there, or that you’ve set up, but you don’t decide everything. I like that”Yushi Li
In conversation, she is at pains to delineate photography from other creative possibilities that exist as a means of probing the human condition. “If you’re a painter, you sort of have to decide everything by yourself; the colour, the canvas,” she says. “With photos, you take photos of something that is already there, or that you’ve set up, but you don’t decide everything. I like that.”
Unafraid to admit that she is “controlling” when it comes to working with the models who eventually put themselves forward to sit, she says “I will tell them how to pose. What to do.” This exertion of directorial control lends her photos a peculiar – and unique – atmosphere.
At once intimate yet isolated, filled with candour and somehow reserved, Yushi’s photographs draw the viewer in before abruptly shooing them away. “I got a lot of feedback on this project,” she says over the din of a coffee shop that seems to have trebled in population since she walked through the door with a shy wave. “The first time I showed these images [from My Tinder Boys] in a workshop, a guy got really irritated by them. Quite a few people thought they were actually taken by a gay, male photographer. And that is interesting.”
On the topic of garnering attention, when asking Yushi why photography fans should pay special attention to her development as a practitioner, Yushi is firm and fantastically forthright: “In recent years, gender has become a massive topic across the whole world and my work questions a lot of things in terms of how we think about gender and masculinity and femininity and also I think, because I am Chinese, there isn’t a lot of work made by or about the Eastern world in this context,” Yushi says as she sips the last of her tea. She smiles. “And that is why you should pay attention to my work.”
We will. And you will too, if you know what’s good for you.
“When I get into something, I want to know everything I can about it. I get obsessed with it. I need to figure out every single thing I can”Yushi Li
A few weeks after we’d both made our way into the strip-lit tundra of the Soho night, we caught up on the phone. Yushi tells me that she’s currently preparing her for her first solo show, which will see work old and new make its way over to Sweden in late March. She also sounds enthused about a forthcoming RCA group show (The Same Tendency) at Edinburgh’s Summerhall’s Basement & Library Galleries.
“The new photos are more similar to the octopus images I’ve previously made,” Yushi tells us. “Another thing I’m working on is making more photos that aren’t related to the internet stuff, but are about exploring, through representation, the idea of men as neurotic subjects. It’s all related to fantasies and dreams.”
During that second conversation, thoughts turn to what the photographer has up her sleeve next. Video is the answer. Sort of. “Recently I made a video through Skype,” she says. “It’s more like a moving image piece, than video, though… The problem I have with video is thinking about why I want to show things as a moving image – as opposed to a still one,” Yushi says.
Although admitting that while she’s not currently the most technically able filmmaker out there, she hints that the challenge is one she’s up for: “When I get into something, I want to know everything I can about it. I get obsessed with it. I need to figure out every single thing I can.”
And that, it seems, is Yushi Li all over.