Elise’s funeral will take place tomorrow. My ‘How’s it going’ email to Bel has had no answer.
But I get distracted from my anxiety. Wonderfully. A one-off booking with an artist pal of Fei Mo Di devolves into a playful romp!
David Rodriguez’ studio is in an attic in a dilapidated, picturesque 1930s low-rise apartment complex. It’s only a few blocks as the crow flies from Aussie Cyril’s villa, but this district has an altogether different character from the leafy elegance of Cyril’s address. Lanes, alleyways, looping electrical cables; steep, dark wooden staircases; shared stone sinks on each landing, washing lines and dangling wash-cloths, hubbub of family life in nooks and behind doors.
I reach the top of the house. His door is open, last night’s lover just leaving – a pretty, childlike thing: long bony legs; wire-rimmed small, circular glasses on her cute nose; a whimsical straw bonnet.
David: Latin-American, laid-back, charming, disarming, his welcoming grin ear to ear.
I’ve met the other two models once before. Fei Mo Di made brief introductions at Trish Little’s glitzy preview night a few weeks ago, then gossiped to me about them later. Alvira, a New Yorker, voluptuous, Afro-Caribbean heritage, Harvard-educated, feminist, lesbian, in Shanghai to start up a company manufacturing sex-toys. Wei Wei, Taiwanese, spent a dozen years in Paris, works in perfume design. Taiwan isn’t China, pointed out Fei Mo Di, which is how come Wei Wei is able to be, in her behaviour, quite a Lee Miller type: liberated, uninhibited, free-thinking, and knowledgeable about the world, as well as elegant and beautiful.
Before the shoot starts we strip off and sit about, naked, comfortably warm – it is almost April – drinking Columbian espresso. The flat is three decrepit rooms filled with David’s oil paintings hung randomly or leaning haphazardly on walls, none of which, he moans, have fully dried, due to the humidity. Is that why the medium of watercolour has always prevailed here?
Garulous Alvira puts David on the spot. ‘So. Is this about race? About femaleness? Or are you into erotica? Do you want porn?’
‘I don’t know yet.’ David puts his laptop on the table in front of us.
‘I show you images of three women I found by other photographers. See this one – Terry Richardson is well known as an erotic photographer so the idea to please men, the pleasure, is really a part of his choice. But this one here – a woman photographer – Ellen von Unwerth is more ambiguous. And next, John Currin: a part of his work is also related to pornography… But it is also about clichés in popular imagery. See – it is complicated. I mean, is his motive ironic?’
We discuss all of this boisterously, drink coffee, crack sexist jokes, tease David. He breaks into our messing about, wanting to explain more.
‘See here: these are artists’ depictions of The Three Graces. In these classical paintings I cannot really say whether the idea was to please the looker, as we conceive it now, but yes – most of these were painted by men.’
At last he picks up his camera. We are still sprawled, chatting, relaxing, a pleasant window draught keeping at bay the first mosquitoes.
‘So, ladies, I do not think it is essential to refer ourselves to those images, or the conventions, but I think we cannot ignore them neither. And as for the voyeur who is witnessing the moment… myself, the photographer… well, you should completely ignore me. I am not looking for a particular pose but rather to be able to extrapolate moments from the interrelation between the three of you. I am not asking you to please me somehow.’
Four nationalities. None of us mainland Chinese. A morning spent under a wooden roof with skylight views onto makeshift roof-gardens and rickety balconies and crammed-in house-fronts decorated with lines of washing strung like bunting. And yet we are disengaged from the world beyond David’s rooms, from Shanghai and the Chinese, enjoying the solidarity of thrown-together aliens.
It does me good. For three hours, my worries are suspended. We have such a laugh. I am ready to laugh, after yesterday’s desolate goodbye.
How to go on being pleasurably distracted?
I have forward-planned for this afternoon. I’ve brought the J.G. Ballard autobiography that Bel went on about, ‘Miracles of Life’, about his childhood in Shanghai’s elite international community in the 1930s followed by the gloom and doom of England. I will find a Starbucks and settle in.
Anything rather than return to the empty flat.
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