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Nov 102016
 



ALT TEXT

Fei Mo Di

Fei Mo Di has slaved for two days to make me this amazing movie, ‘S’, as a goodbye gift. This photo is from it. We promise each other that we will meet one day in London for cake at Maison Berteaux on Greek Street.

It is seven months since I arrived here, at this airport perpetually seething with people. I’m squatted on the floor, reaching the end of Bel’s Christmas book. God – I’d find it impossible, having one Chinese and one British parent like Ben Chu does. How the hell do you behave, when you come from two – well, almost like, two species?
    The final page. I’m skimming it while shuffling slowly forwards in the queue for boarding. The man in front – British, suit-and-tie, middle-aged, big-bellied, wheezing – scowls in an obvious way at my book’s title Chinese Whispers: Why Everything You’ve Heard About China is Wrong, then turns away, handing his young Chinese wife his emptied MacDonalds paper-cup-with-straw for her to dispose of.
    Despair of humanity comes over me too easily.
    Meanwhile Ben Chu is telling off his readers. ‘Start thinking of the Chinese not as some homogenous and intimidating mass of humanity, but as individuals…’ The peasanty-looking Chinese guy behind me starts pushing – like, we’re all going to get on the plane faster if you do that.
    ‘…There are good and bad people among them, just as anywhere else’, writes Chu.

    ‘Some are corrupt, some upright. Some are brutal, some compassionate. Some are greedy, some frugal. Some are mean, some generous. Some are racist, some are tolerant. Some are narrowly nationalist, some are voraciously cosmopolitan.’

It’s high time, says Ben Chu, that we all moved beyond Somerset Maugham’s inability to empathise.
    I admit, I’m crap at empathy. Too quick to write people off as hopelessly alien when they don’t behave like me. Useless at fathoming another person’s mind.
    Once buckled into my seat by the window, I return to the final page that I’ve only skimmed, because I am keen to learn.

‘There is no unfathomable Chinese mind … There really is no Chinese mystery waiting to be revealed…’

I have to pause from reading to do my usual thing of manically gripping the arm-rests for the few moments of take-off – those seconds when the wheels leave the ground and you get tilted back as the plane soars steeply upwards…
    The wheels tuck in and clunk somewhere. I dare to peer down at the receding city lights, feeling the plane judder as though bumping into the curb, but no – there is no curb; it’s just air. Then back to the book in my lap. The final sentence.

‘To understand the Chinese, we need only listen to our own hearts.’

A flare in the corner of my eye. Below the plane a beautiful orange peony is blooming. No – a tangerine cloud, billowing towards us; no – a red flag unfurling until it entirely covers the sky and now gets spangled with a white-hot firework display.
    Exclamations fill the quiet of the plane – on my side only, the side from which the windows of the sideways-tilted and slowly-arcing jumbo jet have been offering a glittering cityscape until this fireball. Now hubbub; now urgent calling across the rows to other belted-in passengers who cannot see outside, until the fantastically-evolving light-show has a soundtrack – a clamour of excited exchanges, calls to the stewards, wails. Seconds become a half-minute, the multilingual cacophony of agitation building, unintelligible, now harmonizing into a collective keen. The jet distances itself from the city, then from the haze of electric lights defining the outer metropolis. Above the racket, an urgent-sounding announcement in Chinese begins. Distant human settlements are coming into view, speckling the darkness like far-away galaxies, while the receding tremendous ball of flame above central Shanghai has gained dark edges of nothingness; no lights from the city’s heart, all the glitter gone.


 

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Nov 032016
 



ALT TEXT

Bel

My favourite by Bel. I look like Alice in Wonderland. She took it while making the movie ‘Under the gaze’.


I’m going to marry you. This will stop you from taking off again and make you write. In two days you will be at a desk in my apartment with your exciting new manuscript. Can’t tell you how much am looking forward. Tamara

    ‘I’m getting married!’
    The apartment block’s landing is sunny on this April morning. I am perched on a stool outside my flat in order to use an electrical socket to power my netbook, and to receive internet access from a teacher across the hall who has kindly given me her password.
    The waiban has not repaired the flat’s electricity since the fuse-box exploded. They are keen to see the back of me. I am not, after all, an employee. Without you here, Bel, I am nobody. No electricity means I have no hot water for a shower, no landline, no cooker or microwave or means of making a cup of tea. The fridge-freezer is dead and defrosting onto the floor-tiles. But I don’t care; I’ve given up on food, anyway, and tomorrow is my flight. At Tamara’s I will write, write, write. The novel, then Part III of my trilogy, then the next thing, and the next…

Afternoon.
    Lily Hong shows up to help me carry seven cardboard boxes from the flat into a waiting taxi. She looks me up and down appraisingly. ‘Legs like bird legs. Break if you not careful. You need eat lot of rice.’ She leans across the small lake in which the fridge-freezer is now swimming, plucks from its door a tattered paper taped onto it, and stumblingly reads aloud my poem. It’s the one that Bel blogged about.

“The survivors”.

Stick-thin hipless bare-balconied oblong,
up top a penthouse’s smoked-glass pyramid,
at the foot topiary peacocks, a marble portico.
Its many square eyes stare down,
dark spectacles framed in chrome,
to where frogs chirrup and giggle
in a landscaped swamp among peonies,
willow, a large palm, privet cut in shapes.

On the day these blank-looking smoothed-off faces
rupture with black yowls, the day this concrete
topples into the car-parks, when girders snap
like breadsticks and cars get hammered flat,
when doors unhinge while lethal dust plumes up,

on that day these frogs will belly-flop happily
into the water pooling afresh among severed cables,
utility pipes up-ended, broken glass, detritus.
Across the trashed city these wide-lipped fat frogs
will plop goggle-eyed into water-holes, barking happily,
not squashed dead under rubble but smiling
slit-mouthed, fleshy-bottomed, belching happily
then belly-laughing in this freshly re-created world
amid the lushly-rotting corpses, succulents,
humidity, the vivid greenery.’

She finally looks across at me. ‘Not understand all words. Some words.’
    ‘You did great! Thank you. You did great. Really. Your English has really improved.’
    For once she doesn’t beam; remains pensive. A care-worn look. How old is she, in fact? Perhaps, setting aside the frills and bows, mid-thirties?
    ‘Please could you come to the post office with me, Lily Hong? I must be sure that these two boxes go to England – Yinguo – and the other five go to Antwerp, and I need a receipt.’
    ‘Of course I come with you!’ – at last she grins. ‘You help me a lot: promise find me husband!’

Ah, yes. A final issue to deal with.

Dear Cyril,
pls – a favour. Cd you meet up with Bel’s former colleague Lily Hong – that pretty girl you noticed at Trish Little’s preview? See her contact details below. She’s on Wechat. She wants to marry a foreigner and start a new life outside China. I think she likes photography. Well, selfies. Hope you hit it off. I wish you a happy return to Australia.
Suki x
PS I can’t marry you myself. Sorry. Am marrying someone else.



 

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Oct 272016
 



Dear Fei Mo Di, I want to achieve one last thing in Shanghai. For Bel. She wanted Still Life, the first movie she completed here, to have Chinese subtitles. Have you got time?’

Hi Suki –
okay I can do it. I’ve got a window tomorrow. One condition: we do one final shoot together. Outdoors. This morning. Now. Ok? FMD

Then he shows up at the campus: very spontaneous, very Shanghainese, a fresh daisy in the vase of his Volkswagen Beetle, and drives us to a woodland outside the city. We bicker for the entire journey – companionable, mates-together bickering ( – in truth, we have so much in common), and the scenery and freshness is lovely. I am naked in the wilderness, climbing trees, lying in bracken. Fei Mo Di despises breasts and excess flesh and loves my newly skeletal form. He produces a picnic lunch from a wicker hamper: strawberries; elderflower cordial. We are in a Merchant Ivory movie. It is heaven.

The flat, when he drops me back there, is ugly: the massive never-used Chinese TV; grubby whitewashed walls spattered with small red messes of swatted mosquitoes. Our things are all gone: everything boxed up ready to post tomorrow, or already piled beside my suitcase in readiness for my day-after-tomorrow flight. I sit on the hard wooden bench devoid of your cushions and automatically waken your iPad to check news – but then I can’t face it.

I am seated, reading, wallowing in this loneliness, when a Skype call sings out of the iPad.
    ‘Tamara! Hey – this is great!’ The signal is strong for once. She looks terrific: casual in cap-sleeved top and sweatpants, yet elegant, against the backdrop of her apartment’s acreage of clean-lined, oak-floored, clutter-free space.
    ‘You’re crying.’
    ‘No. Yes. Coz I’m re-reading Lee Miller’s life. Comparing her to Bel.’
    ‘And you’re frighteningly scrawny. This is worrying. I’m going to put you on a diet.’
    ‘This book about her being a muse – it describes Lee at the end of her life as “a soul in hell, cut off from the work and the life she loved” due to alcoholism, drug abuse, manic depression and creative frustration.’
    ‘That doesn’t sound like Bel’s state.’
    ‘She was really obsessed with Lee, though. I’m just looking for… trying to understand. Lee’s son says she lost her looks after his birth and that’s when she really degenerated into a slob, and got really difficult and quarrelsome. In the end she was a total mess: alcoholic, obsessive, frumpy, entirely in the shadow of her husband who’d made himself a VIP in the art world – you know, the guy who started the ICA?’
    ‘Your Bel was an independent woman. Still working and functioning. But clearly she had some long-term mental health issues.’
    ‘She’d become really depressed… anxious… introverted…’
    ‘Suki. You’ve just spent half a year holding the hand of a dying person.’
    ‘I was useless at getting her to talk…’
    ‘You are remarkable.’
    [sob] ‘I just don’t understand it…’
    ‘You need some looking-after now. Which it is my privilege to offer. It’s ten months since you left Engl…’
    Crash. ‘Aagh!’
    ‘Suki! What the..?’
    I’m on my feet – ‘Christ!’
    Tamara’s voice – ‘You’ve gone dark – ’
    I reach for the wall to steady myself.
    ‘Are you alright?’
    ‘The electricity’s out – this iPad’s on its battery. I think the meter box just exploded – ‘
    ‘I saw a flash – ?’
    ‘The metal front panel’s gone flying across the room; there’s wiring and stuff from inside it scattered about in bits …’
    ‘But you’re okay? Are you okay?’
    ‘I’m intact, thanks; honest.’
    ‘Is anything on fire?’
    ‘Don’t worry! Look, I need to call someone – I’ve got no electricity. I need to call a staff member. Got to go.’

I am waiting in the dark for Lily Hong. Jeezus Christ, if I’d been sitting over there instead of here…
    But it has been a Eureka! moment. I’ve just learned I would hate to die.


 

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Oct 202016
 



ALT TEXT

Aussie Cyril

Cyril says this informal snap after one of our sessions is akin to fashion photographer Jeanloup Sieff’s personality-portraying nudes, contrasting to the sterile poses in which fashion models are typically placed. Like Duane Michals, Sieff also worked in fashion photography, which was very much about stylized, uniform ‘ideal types’. Sieff’s nudes, however, are exceptional because his photographs retain the models’ particular identities even when their faces are not shown – achieving ‘a perceptive feeling of intimacy’ (to quote, as always, the expert Peter Lacey).

It’s three weeks since you died. I am in the French Concession without you and am lost. In the sense of, unanchored. I could end up anywhere.
    I forgot to charge my phone overnight so I find it dead in the bottom of my bag, but even if it were not dead, I cannot check in with you like I normally would do; let you know my whereabouts. My touchstone, my protector, here in Shanghai.
    So here I am in a poky vintage tea-room, Edwardian-style: mirrors, chandeliers, oak panelling, deep plummy draperies and half-darkness. Once I’d stepped in to find out where the quaint entrance led to, I got ushered – so was too embarrassed to leave. So here I am, drinking lemon tea in place of lunch. A strange, absolute solitude in seething Shanghai.

Back in the flat I pick up Cyril’s latest email offering. Once sober, he is his usual docile, pedagogic, avuncular self.

Darling Suki, I do hope you love this snap of you as much as I do. It is après Jeanloup Sieff. Sieff and others started to look for and celebrate the model’s personality, giving a final ‘up yours!’ to the academic art world wherein the nude had always been elevated to the realm of the exotic, classical or sentimental; a realm in which the nude must never come across as “herself” – a real, individual personality.
    Your Great British Institution, Sir Kenneth Clark, once made the bald claim that the erotic is, and must always be, present in the nude. In the ‘sixties there were these two strands of debate going on: whether or not the erotic is pornographic, but also, more significantly, the contention of the establishment that photography did not and could not quite attain the level of fine art.
    But anyway these guys Michals and especially Sieff were at last, from the 1960s, showing the nude model “as she is”. Your thoughts?
    And can we please meet to talk about our future, since you imminently have to change abodes? Much, much love, Cyril xxx

Dear Cyril,
why did you take the colour out? Bel was really against turning photos into black and white. She said it was fake nostalgia. Have you seen the most expensive photograph ever to be sold? A dramatic landscape, reproduced in black and white, bought in 2010. As Bel said, in the end it’s just an arty special effect in Photoshop. Anyone can do it. Suki

His response, as always, is immediate. He spends his life waiting on me.

My dearest Suki. You had something special with Bel, didn’t you. You never explained… I am sorry for my lack of understanding. I am truly sorry for your loss.
If there is anything I can do… Well, you know.
All my love,
Cyril
Please let us meet

Ping! A reply from Ilka!

Dear Suki – “need my independence”? Don’t you really mean, “incapable of committing”? Your problem is, you are incapable of submitting and letting the journey of a fellow-traveller alter the path of your own life. Oblivious to the needs of anyone you are with, you gallop on relentlessly (randomly, chaotically) on your so-called “quest”. You are all about your own survival. You are not able to support anyone else, because you just move on and on.
    Accept the marriage proposal! That’s my advice. Ilka

She’s right, isn’t she, Bel.

Dear Ilka, I cant look afta anyone. Emotionally. Or cooking. Am insensitive. Hav no intuition. Cn barely look after myself. All my life hav failed badly. Deep regret. Suki




 

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Oct 132016
 



ALT TEXT

Aussie Cyril

Aussie Cyril took this on his phone and gave it a ‘magic lantern’ effect.

I’ve lost you. I’ve lost Ilka for good, too. And I’ve lost sight of my manuscript.
    What has Shanghai done for me?
    What did it do for you?

Dear Suki,
Thank you for all your assistance in my communications with Bella’s Shanghai employers in the last week. Thank you also for boxing up and posting Bella’s possessions, I am most grateful. I will of course refund all postage via your UK account if you could please provide your bank details – thanks. Pls let me know how many boxes will eventually be in the post and the approximate date of arrival. Below is a link to Bella’s obituary from the Guardian in case you have not seen it. The Guardian is one of the newspapers which used to publish Bella’s photographs.
Thanks again for your assistance at this sad time.
Best wishes, John

Did you find out you were terminally ill, Bel, and so decided to kill yourself? Was it not really about your daughter, or anything else? Did you not, after all, have it all planned before you left me?

Well. Your obituary is an eye-opener. Born in Surrey. Dutch father, Polish mother. Guildford Grammar School. Kibbutz before Cambridge. Dropped out of English Literature to go travelling with artist husband Eli Esteban in the Middle East – ‘an odyssey that stimulated Bella’s award-winning career in war journalism which brought an early end to the marriage. Their only child, Elise, was brought up by paternal family members. Bella’s recent loss of her daughter, who took her own life, may have been a factor in Bella’s suicide…’
    Things I knew: unsettled, questing, idealistic, brave. A love-child made with a stranger. Private – no: secretive.
    Things I didn’t know: divorced, award-winning, Jewish, your daughter died at her own hand. A medal for bravery.
    Things your in-laws probably didn’t know: their grand-child’s true parentage. Unless they did know but were compassionate?
    Was your accidental child the reason why your marriage failed?

Another Guardian Online obit, referenced in the sidebar, catches my attention: Astronaut Ludowic Kendal dies aged 87, Cornwall…

I’m just waking up your PC from sleep mode. There: your qq account’s now on-screen. Dozens of new emails are waiting to be opened. What am I supposed to do about them? I don’t know how to close down a life. I have no experience.
    Desk clearance is more straightforward. I’m binning all your printed-out articles – sorry. I can pack this last handful of books into one of those half-filled boxes. Hey – my poetry collection has a page-corner turned down. Christ, Bel. The poem on that page is Running joke – about suicide. Were you thinking of it?

The college’s waiban has issued me a deadline of fourteen days to leave the flat. I hate being here anyway. Empty of you. Empty of your stuff. Empty of food. That retch-inducing stench in the kitchen.
    I want to hear you ranting about another imminent catastrophe. I’ll pay better attention. Promise. Please come back.

Afternoon. Your students enjoying the cancellation of their class.
    Poor, miserable Lily Hong has just helped me book my flight. We’re on our way now to visit an exhibition – Cyril’s recommendation – by the photographer Adou. But on the Metro she’s inconsolable. What can I do?
    ‘Bel my best friend [sob]. I speak Bel all my sorrow [sob]. I lonely now.’
    I can’t help her, Bel.
    In the gallery she breaks down again. ‘My father at prison.’
    ‘Oh god – I didn’t know. That’s awful.’
    ‘Not bad man! Government say he corruption. Every businessman corruption. He only same. Government make example.’
    ‘Is there anything I can do?’ Stupidest question in the world.
    She trails after me into the gallery café, slumps mournfully at a table. What to do, Bel? I get her a latte.
    She looks up at me. ‘I want to go outside China, start new life.’
    ‘Where do you want to go? How?’
    ‘I tell Bel I want marry a foreigner, but she say “all men are bastards”. Not help me.’
    ‘Hmm…’
    Look, Bel. Sometimes pragmatism can work for people. This is what I can offer her.
    ‘…would an Australian be okay?’

On the Metro home I notice a new text. It’s always – ridiculously – disappointing when I see it’s not from you.

Dear Suki – saw Guardian obit for your Bel – my god, what’s going on? You must be in shock! Can I do anything?
Tamara

God. I haven’t even acknowledged her own bereavement.


 

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Oct 062016
 



ALT TEXT

Bel

When I went onto your laptop last night I discovered you’d installed this pic as the screensaver. One from your movie about me, STILL LIFE, made soon after we first met. I look then how I now feel. Was I having a premonition about you? Is there such a thing as a ‘suicidal nature’, and might I have sensed it?

Just checking your emails. S’okay, none are personal. Just spam and stuff.
    ‘Scuse me while I check my own emails. Oh! – your brother again:

…basic details are, one week after her daughter’s funeral Bella took Élise’s ashes onto the Ostend-to-Dover ferry to scatter them at sea. Remarkably Élise had managed to write a note asking for this, indicating a rare moment of rationality. The note compounded the tragedy for Bella by proving Élise’s suicide was pre-meditated.
… passengers saw Bella jump, but the rescue was not quick enough to save her life…
…have no idea about a chest x-ray. Are you sure? She never mentioned…

I think John thinks I’m just the person you were sharing a flat with.
    I suppose he’s not wrong.
    And here’s a long email from my ex, Ilka!… Well well… She’s going to marry a 72 year-old widower who likes art, because she’s lonely. I’ll just quickly acknowledge it:

Dear Ilka – CONGRATS! Wishing you peace & contentment & hope ul be happy. He sounds good person. No need get defensive about going straight. Have had marriage offer myself. New life in Australia. But need my independence. To be honest sth horrible hs happened here will write more v soon not now. Sx

We’re wondering, Bel… did you leave us a note? I’ve been searching this desk, but there’s nothing much… My last poetry collection; a couple more books: ‘Chinese Whispers’ by Ben Chu, ‘The Good Earth’ by Pearl Buck; all these print-outs of articles that I’ve kept for you in a neat stack… You’ve put a big red circle round a paragraph on this first one, the Paul Verhaeghen:

‘…the freedom we perceive ourselves as having in the west is the greatest untruth of this day and age… We are forever told that we are freer to choose the course of our lives than ever before, but the freedom to choose outside the success narrative is limited. Furthermore, those who fail are deemed to be losers or scroungers, taking advantage of our social security system.’

Exactly what Tim Lott said. The culture of our homeland sets us up for terminal frustration, disappointment and a sense of failure.

I, too, hate this world. But as you say – which corner of the planet to run to?


 

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Sep 292016
 



ALT TEXT

Greg-I’m-A-Kiwi

Greg-I’m-a-Kiwi says this photo is après Duane Michals. Most of Michals’ work isn’t Art Nude; he worked as a fashion photographer on Vogue etc. Also, a lot of Michals’ photographs have a hinted-at, if not strong, narrative, which is what Greg has aimed for in this photo. Greg experiments with interesting settings or situations for nudes; stuff that suggests a back-story. And perhaps due to being in the Orient, he has got into – of all things – paper-cuts.

Dear Artists and friends of Bel! Party at Qi Qi’s Café Bar, tomoz 8pm, to launch Bel’s fantastic ‘Qi Qi’s Life-room’ movie – some of you are its stars! Be there or be square! All welcome, pls spread word. Suki x

It’s a full turn-out.
    Mike Little has chipped in with champagne and canapés, and has got some press representatives to come along. Trish has over-excitedly parcelled her bulky form into a black satin evening gown topped off with a net-festooned purple hat. Besides Greg-I’m-a-Kiwi and his artist friends there are half a dozen Art Nude group members, including Cyril, who inevitably heard on the grapevine, plus a bunch of Fei Mo Di’s designer friends and Alvira, Wei Wei, Qi Qi, Lily Hong…
    Where’s Bel? Everyone asks. It feels strangely like a Bel memorial event.
    Lily Hong pats my arm, as though comforting me: ‘She come back soon. Three days.’
    As if I’m not counting.
    How ironic, that a circle of international arty friends seems to have crystallized since Bel left.
    Could I stay on here, after all?

Midnight. A drunken conversation between die-hards Cyril and Greg-I’m-a-Kiwi who are propping up the bar. The talk meanders around photographers, sex, relationships, sex.
    ‘…Whereas Lee Miller, being both model and photographer, is totally outside the box.’ Greg drains another pint of Vedett Extra Blond. ‘She’s hard to categorize. Like, I totally agree with the photographer Duane Michals, that the nude figure implies both vulnerability and sex; but Miller, as a woman – whether as nude model, or as photographer of women – well…’ he sets down his glass – ‘she may not have seen either vulnerability or sex as part of the equation.’
    ‘Vulnerability and sex?’ I knock back the rest of my glass. ‘She’d certainly have disagreed with you about sex being automatically implied by nudity. Nakedness can be so unsexy. As for vulnerability – in my experience there’s a paradoxical combination in nudity of both vulnerability and strength.’
    Cyril is hunched over a Jack Daniels. ‘I share Michal’s view that the photographer of the nude is intensely aware of the presence of the body and is taking pleasure in looking at the body.’
    ‘Ha – honesty at last!’ I stab a finger at Cyril. ‘You’re motivated by sex, not Art.’
    ‘I’m simply quoting Michal’s words.’ Drunk, Aussie Cyril reveals a totally different side of himself. Assertive. ‘The viewer of the nude inevitably “responds out of a sexual curiosity”.’
    ‘Rubbish. That would mean, no gay guy would be motivated to photograph a female nude. So Robert Mapplethorpe disproves that, for a start.’
     ‘That pervert,’ Cyril snorts.
    ‘I think Michals was gay,’ Greg chips in. ‘He produced at least one gay-themed picture-series.’
    I gulp my wine (fourth glass). ‘To get back to Lee Miller – did you know she was into polyamory before the term had even been coined? As in, she actively encouraged her lovers to have other lovers.’
    ‘Loada crap,’ Cyril growls from his corner.
    ‘And obviously she didn’t expect her lovers to have a problem with her sleeping with others.’
    ‘My second wife was full of that shit.’
    ‘Well, I personally would like the kind of marriage Lee had with Roland Penrose. They let each other sleep with whoever they wanted.’
    Cyril knocks back his whisky. ‘As a matter of fact, the agreement between Lee and Penrose was that their love for each other would remain “sacred” – as in, they would be absolutely faithful in that respect. They just permitted each other to sleep around. Which is still a loada crap.’ Cyril looks directly at me. ‘I mean, what does wife mean, if not “belongs to husband”?’
    I look directly back at him: elderly, fat, slumped; his chin almost resting on the bar.

Dring dring!
    Eight a.m., the sun too bright. Jeezus. I crawl from bed to answer the landline. It’s Lily Hong.
    ‘Oh. Lily. Think my head’s going to explode. How’s yours?’
    ‘Miss Suki, please come now. We wait you in Foreign Affairs Office.’
    Lily Hong stands up when I walk in, her lip trembling at me like a little girl’s. The Director of Foreign Affairs gently tells me they have received news that my colleague Bel is ‘deceased’.

I am then left for some time.

By myself.

Peace and quiet.

The office is very simple.

After a while, green tea is served.

It is late evening when I finally get a message to your brother. I have to go on your laptop – sorry – and look in your contacts for his email address.
    John.

It takes him more than 24 hours to reply.


 

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Sep 222016
 



ALT TEXT

Tom Wood

The point of including this photo is to educate Aussie Cyril. Artist Tom Wood, who took the photo, has painted me looking like a boy lots of times. Both of the figures in this painting are me.

A whole week spent by myself. One more week to go. I am pleased with myself that I am managing alone. I have lost 2.3 kilos. I email Mike Little and Fei Mo Di to organize the launch of ‘Qi Qi’s life-room’ before Bel’s return so she doesn’t have to suffer a social occasion. Yes – me, mustering a party! Does this mean I do have friends in Shanghai?

At last I tidy up. Strewn all around the flat are print-outs of articles that Bel has found important. The fuel for her apocalyptic visions. I pile the sheets on her desk. Or should I bin them?
    I skim through the familiar ‘anti-capitalism’ one by Pankaj Mishra.

‘…More and more people feel the gap between the profligate promises of individual freedom and sovereignty, and the incapacity of their political and economic organisations to realise them… Frustration tends to be highest in countries that have a large population of educated young men … find themselves unable to fulfil the promise of self-empowerment… For many of them, the contradiction has become intolerable.’

The next paragraph has China!!! written in the margin:

‘…Xi Jinping and other demagogues of developing countries deploy… jingoistic nationalism and cross-border militarism as a valve for domestic tensions…’

There’s more about the Chinese government’s “self-legitimizing narrative”: a hybrid of national heritage, i.e. Mao-plus-Confucius…

‘…They have also retro-fitted old-style nationalism for their growing populations of uprooted citizens, who harbour yearnings for belonging and community as well as material plenitude.’

This is happening right here, where I am. I look out over the university campus’s high wall, see the bolted-together uniform metal huts along along its perimeter. You see them everywhere. Housing for the new migrants. Dormitories with shared outdoor hot water taps and a toilet block. Country folk who are marshalled into building the new apartment blocks, but can then only hopelessly stare up at them. The ‘good life’ fairytale is far out of reach for so many people.

I can’t read more of this worrisome stuff. I retreat to the bedroom, my makeshift desk, my iPad.
    God. Another email from Cyril. Don’t know if I can bear him any more.

Darling Suki,
a propos your remarks about portraits of you by artists being easier to distance yourself from than photographs: I have been browsing online and found various painted portraits of you by several of your former employers which unkindly make you look masculine. See here, here and here. I do not understand how you can be unperturbed by such as these, while rejecting my photographs in which you look so beautiful.

Sigh. He doesn’t get it. He doesn’t get me.

Cyril, I like looking like a man.

I don’t send it.
    Ping! An email arriving from Bel!
    It’s sent from her phone. No words, just a link – uncanny, I can hardly believe it – to this same Pankaj Mishra article. Telepathy? At least she’s alive – but still obsessing over bad news.

Hi Bel, how did the funeral go? Are you okay? How are you?



 

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Sep 152016
 



ALT TEXT

Aussie Cyril

The original portrait was by Aussie Cyril. Bleagh. I’ve had to crop it.

My dearest Much-More-Than-Muse Suki –
Yesterday’s shoot was wonderful. Boy, that was a long time of concentration… Wiped me out. A very intense five hours! We worked hard, thought hard, shared lots of ideas, achieved great things. I loved it. Lots of interesting poses, angles, etc… Perhaps you’ll find me a sentimental old fool for sending this one along first, but there is something very special about this photo; the completely relaxed directness… For me, it is close to some of Rembrandt’s, suggesting a mysterious moment; a strange sectioning of time. Strange also because I arrived at this via an intriguing colour version and then a very different black and white, and then experimenting with more contrast…
It will grow on you.
Cyril

I hate it.
    But it’s great I managed to spin out the session for five hours. Cyril pays me an hourly rate.
    I have no money left apart from what is in Tamara’s envelope.

Dear Cyril,
The breast has to go. There is simply no reason to have a naked breast on a study of an ugly-but-interesting face. The naked breast makes this picture tacky, tawdry and embarrassing. My version makes my right eye the focus, by cropping to just above my collar-bone. See attached. As you know, I rarely like photos of my face, whereas an artwork depicting me is a different matter: I have more distance to those; I don’t care so much about how “I” look, because drawings or paintings say probably more about the artist than they do about me.
S

Suki.
Is your cropped version an April Fool’s joke? It is a crying shame to crop it as you have done. I cannot see anything tacky or tawdry. My intention is always to depict the model’s personality, at the same time indicating something about the model-photographer relationship. This seems to me an incredibly tender but very honest portrait. I think it beautiful. If I were a real artist I might hang a 5-foot version of it in my living room.
Your
Cyril

Cyril
As said, there is no reason for this picture to be a nude in order to communicate the model’s personality. In my opinion the picture is about the face – and also, compositionally, the lovely arm and hand positions. It is simply tawdry for this older, serious-looking woman to be naked. In this picture I am neither (a) beautiful, nor (b) interesting for being hideously grotesque. The breast is extraneous, hence embarrassing. My crop turns it into a straightforward portrait. I don’t want to be 100% negative. I appreciate that you paid so much attention to getting this image to black and white, which is self-evidently far more effective than the colour version. Suki

I am tired of incessant emailing with Cyril.
    Why nothing from Bel? Could my theory be right? A chest x-ray that showed up something terrible?
    She’s been gone seven days. Without Bel, what is my raison d’etre, here in Shanghai?

I am an April fool.

Bel, pls let me know how things are going. Hard time for you. Take care Sxx


 

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Sep 082016
 



ALT TEXT

David Rodriguez

Have I ‘gone anorexic’, as Loiza commented? My backside in this photo by David Rodriguez looks hideously puckered. What can I do, though? I can’t jog in this pollution. Must eat even less.

No email from Bel. It is four days since the funeral. What has it done to her?
    I’ll email her one of these wacky pics from David’s shoot. Maybe it’ll stimulate a response.

Dear David,
Again –
Gracias – a brilliant session! Fantastic pics – thanks for sending!
    This one disturbs me though. Reminds me of Nazi concentration camps where people had to line up naked just like this to be photographed. Sorry for this macabre association. Call me paranoid. I think it’s because yesterday afternoon I started reading J.G. Ballard’s autobiography: he was in a brutal Japanese prison camp at Lunghua right here in Shanghai… Then later I was looking at my flatmate’s books including war-photographer Lee Miller’s photographs of the liberation of Buchenwald death camp. So I’m a bit too focused on human brutality at the moment.

Dear Suki,
SHANGHAI TURNS ALL CREATIVE PEOPLE EITHER PARANOID OR CRAZY. Yes I know about the beautiful Lee Miller: I love the work of Man Ray! I try with his solarisation effect but not very successful. Getting the effect digitally is only fake.

Tuh – typical! Lee Miller recognised only as an appendage of Man Ray.

Dear David,
solarisation was Lee Miller’s invention as much as Man Ray’s. She does not get the recognition she deserves as a photographer. She photographed political assassinations. She photographed the suicided bodies of the mayor of Dresden and his wife and daughter. She’s got loads more WW2 photos in a book I’ve got here documenting bombed-out London. She took loads of photos of women at war and women in the armed forces.
Suki

Dear Suki
I know that Lee Miller was not just a pretty face (although, saying that, she was painted six times by Picasso). I know that she understood the Surrealist movement – after all she married the Surrealist painter Roland Penrose. His work I find kitsch and derivative so I am not surprised he became an organiser/administrator in the end. By the way, I have an email conversation with the current Director of Exhibitions at Penrose’s glorious foundation, your Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. I pitch an exhibition concept to him. Wish me luck!

Dear David,
Picasso didn’t paint pretty faces.
Best of British luck with your ICA pitch!
Actually I’ve always thought it a bit weird that Roland Penrose got off with Lee Miller. As a pacifist and conscientious objector, how could he be together with someone whose adrenalin was fired (maybe even enthusiasm is the word) by seeking out and capturing human brutality on film?

I love sparring with fellow-creatives – something that is impossible with Aussie Cyril, my wet, malleable, acquiescent devotee.
    At this afternoon’s shoot, Cyril keeps popping truffles into my mouth.
    I must think positive. Melbourne has no brutal war history, no concentration camps. The sun is always shining. I could live off him and write without having to find paid work. No more modelling!
    Could I be plump and happy with doting Cyril?

Before bed, a final check for emails, texts. Nothing from Bel, despite the pic I sent.
    Wonder if she’s had her chest x-ray?
    Maybe that’s it. This silence. She’s found out she’s got cancer.


 

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