Jun 232016
 



ALT TEXT

Hong Kong Ron

At that session two Fridays ago with Hong Kong Ron we didn’t just do bondage. Tamara had told them to do wax dripping. It’s about giving a person your absolute trust. I am good at it!

Bel is later back from teaching than usual. I’ve been happily awaiting her return because I’ve got a suggestion. It might get her out of herself. It might kick-start her Art Nude project with me.
    ‘How was your morning?’
    Bel drops her briefcase. ‘Crap.’ She undoes her coat but doesn’t take it off, and flicks on the heater beside her desk. It is noticeably warmer recently, with spring round the corner.
    ‘You seem to feel permanently chilly these days, Bel.’ I set down a tray laden with tea and Shanghai-style custard tarts. ‘Listen: do you want to make another life-room movie?’
    ‘I can’t. I’ve just been booking a flight to Antwerp. Lily Hong helped me.’
    ‘Oh!’ (God, can I survive here by myself?) – ‘I thought you’d decided there was no reason to go back.’
    ‘My brother’s insisting. There’s bureaucracy to deal with. I leave ten days from now and come back after two weeks.’
    ‘Two weeks?’ (Phew, I can survive that) – ‘Well, this life-room thing’s tomorrow at Qi Qi’s Café-bar in the French Concession. It’s some designer friends of Fei Mo Di. It’s an actual life-drawing session.’
    ‘Okay. Yes. I’ll do it.’ A slight, albeit wan, smile – ‘There’s two weekends before I fly when I can work on it. Should be able to get it finished.’
    ‘Brilliant! Hey – you could try and get some shots of me to start the ball rolling for our Art Nude project when you get back!’
    ‘Will you still be here when I get back, Suki?’
    Gulp. ‘Why wouldn’t I be?’ I feel a blush of shame.
    ‘You’ve got options. Do what you want.’
    ‘You need Lily Hong more than me. To survive here. I’m rubbish at helping you…’
    ‘Not true!’ Pause. ‘But I only want you to stay with me if it’s right for you.’
    ‘I don’t know what’s right for me, Bel.’
    Uncomfortable silence. Then – ‘If I were never to return, you’d have to decide something.’ She wanders off to the kitchen. Obviously a rhetorical musing that I don’t need to answer. Phew.

Afternoon. I head out – keep to my usual weekday routine, even though on Mondays Bel knocks off earlier. I need to leave her behind; her silence. But ten minutes after my arrival at the Delightful Peony the power goes off. With no heating or lights, the café is miserable. I quickly finish my latte and scurry home.
     The whine of the neighbour’s erhu is floating down from the upstairs flat as I let myself in. I urgently need to pee. The bathroom door is off the bedroom, so I storm on through. The quilt on Bel’s bed is puffed up high, covering the single trunk-shape of Bel and Lily Hong. Their twin heads look conjoined on the one pillow; their bodies must similarly be pressed close.
     ‘Sorry!’ I slam the bathroom door, yank at clothing, crash onto the loo. I understand it. Warmth. Comfort. I don’t know whether they’ve taken off their clothes. Is it sex too? It is silent out there. I bustle back through the bedroom without looking and scuttle to the kitchen. Then I pick up my iPad and go for a walk. Give them privacy.

I settle on a lonely bench on campus, near enough to the library to get a weak-ish signal. I’ve received a new email with photos attached. Sent at 04:00 UK time.

Hi – just quickie – Hong Kong Ron emaild me more fab pics fr that last session. They did good work wid u. Followd my instructions 2 letter. Am in hospital waitin rm. Tamara

‘Control freak’ is barely sufficient to describe Tamara’s megalomaniacal omnipotence. I like being controlled.
    I feel comforted.


 

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Jun 162016
 



ALT TEXT

Hong Kong Ron

I love the textures in this picture. Last night I sneaked off to the session with a Shanghainese Shibari bondage master arranged by Tamara’s photographer pal, Hong Kong Ron. Turns out he hasn’t just randomly popped up again in Shanghai. Tamara paid his flight as well as his fee. And the rigger’s fee.

Friday afternoon. The pollution is soaring. Very unhealthy: increased aggravation of heart and lung disease and heightened risk of premature mortality in people with cardiopulmonary disease and the elderly. Reduced exercise tolerance in people with heart disease due to increased cardiovascular symptoms such as chest pain.

When Bel walks in,coughing hard, from her afternoon class, I’m at the window.
    [splutter] ‘What are you doing?’
    ‘Thinking. Nothing. Look at that filthy air.’ I don’t say – One year ago today I gave birth.
    ‘The students say Shanghai’s no way as bad as Beijing.’ She drops her briefcase and immediately goes through, spluttering, to lie on her bed.
    Today is technically Bel’s third day of mourning. Two dead children are in the apartment with us. But we are silent on this topic. Today is also, I work out, exactly five months since the start of my life in Shanghai with this impenetrable, unhappy woman who is increasingly these days wracked by terrible coughing fits.
    I continue to stare, unseeing, out of the window. How could either of us stay here for ever? We can’t speak the language. There is no outlet for my work here. I can’t do poetry readings. I can’t share poetry. And internet censorship blocks out my world. What has Shanghai done for me? What am I now?

a) a writer and poet?

b) an art-nude photographic model (hobbies Shibari bondage and writing)?

c) a sad old tart?

If the latter, should I grab Cyril‘s marriage proposal and exchange exhilarating, dangerous, unstable, polluted Shanghai (and Bel…) for his native Melbourne?
    Aussie Cyril, or Bel? Edifying conversations about Art, or depressing daily bulletins about the end of the world?
    Would Cyril want me to whip him and lead him about by a chain? But might the material benefits amply compensate for having to do this – e.g. is Cyril rich enough to buy me a baby? Could he make me an ageing first-time mum?
    Cyril vs Bel. God. Rock and a hard place. Unless – might Bel change? Get happy? Could we ever get… close?
    Sigh. What other options do I have?

I deliver a cup of tea to Bel wheezing asthmatically in her bed. I want to talk about our children. There are two elephants in the room. But Bel is closed off, scowling into her iPad.
    So I sit at my desk, check my inbox.
    One new email. Tamara.

Hi – just got Hong Kong Ron’s fantastic photos from last night’s session. Guy I booked to do rigging tip-top! Learned his craft in Japan. You’ll like this Japanese photographer Nobuyoshi Araki – pics of incapacitated women – his aim is, free women’s souls by tying up their bodies. Says his images not depiction of a woman but of his relationship with her, and that his images are intended to empower women.
    Soz for long silence my end, Dad getting poorly.

Tamara is so bloody brilliant at making things happen for me. Or should I say – to me. Is returning to Blighty and crashing indefinitely at her designer apartment my best option?
    But…
    The thing about marriage is, it’s SECURE. No financial worries, ever again. Secure, secure… When was I ever?

Bel, emerging from the toilet, spots an Araki image over my shoulder. ‘You still into bondage?’
    Does this mean she’s up for talking? ‘Yes. It fascinates me. At least, looking at images of it.’
    ‘Araki’s got a terrible reputation; he’s mostly written off as a pure pornographer.’
    ‘Oh, but it’s not ‘real’; it’s stylised enactments of power roles. I find it aesthetically pleasing. Being tied up is just symbolic…’
    Bel has gone to poke among her stacked-up books. ‘I bet you don’t know that Lee Miller did sub-dom role-play with Man Ray.’ She starts leafing through the biography. ‘In about 1933 they were spotted in Montparnasse connected by a gold chain. Here: “the woman was taller than the man and strode along in spite of being tethered”. The person who saw them said it was obvious he was more attached to her than her to him. Huh. Lee would’ve been rubbish at being a subordinate.’
    I see an opportunity. ‘D’you think Lee Miller was inured to death?’ – I’ve cleverly managed to bring up the ‘d’-word – ‘Like, didn’t feel anything about it?’
    Bel’s face snaps shut. ‘No. Why?’
    ‘Well, she seemed so unfeeling. Even before she saw all the blood and guts in the war.’
    ‘I don’t know what you mean.’
    ‘Well, for example, why wasn’t she affected by the suicide of her fellow-model, the beautiful Nimet – considering she may well have played a role? I mean, it happened soon after Lee started shagging Aziz – Nimet’s husband, the old Egyptian guy – which was pretty treacherous of Lee, especially when she’d photographed Nimet herself, which shows they definitely knew each other socially. Could it have been to do with the rape when Lee was seven? Childhood trauma? Like, she learned to just blank people out? No empathy?’
    But Bel is now answering her phone. Brother, she mouths, and goes out onto the balcony, leaving me staring at the page about Lee Miller.
    Should I just give up on trying to live with Bel?
    What on this earth induced me to come to Shanghai? If I had known there would be days like today – our flat nightmarishly patrolled by two ghost children…

If someone would only take the reins of my stupid life out of my hands, I would submit to their every wish.


 

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Jun 092016
 



ALT TEXT

Aussie Cyril

Aussie Cyril’s photo. My radical crop.

This morning’s Air Quality Index for Shanghai is only a slight improvement on yesterday’s: ‘unhealthy for sensitive groups’.
     ‘Morning! How are you feeling?’
     Bel coughs hard. Rubs her eyes. ‘Lily Hong says the air’s going to be [splutter] better in March.’
     ‘Good! Only a couple more days of this, then. Here – thought you’d prefer tea first, before the champers.’ I set down the cup at her bedside. My head is full of last night’s incident, of which I cannot speak.
    ‘Thanks, but the champers’ll have to wait til I knock off teaching.’

When I awaken my laptop I find among the morning’s freshly-arrived emails – bugger – one from Cyril, which I quickly skim:

…how wonderful every day would be, to be witness to that heady combination of your enthusiasm, creativity, and joie de vivre… As said, …so much materially to offer you… little me…
     Your servant,
     Lots of love, Cyril

Hey – there’s also one from Tamara’s photographer pal, Hong Kong Ron! Recently arrived Shanghai, wants to photograph another Shibari session, Tamara has put him onto a master rigger, am I available this week?
     Bel, creakily sitting up in bed, glances over, then searches my face. ‘What’s up?’
     ‘Uff,’ I half turn – ‘nothing up. Just another booking for this week. All good.’ I hesitate. ‘To be honest, I’ve got a bit of a Situation.’
     ‘Oh?’
    ‘Cyril’s asked me to marry him.’
    ‘Told you.’
    ‘Actually it was late last night when I went out for that fag. Sorry. I’ve been in shock till now.’
    Bel flings herself out of bed – ‘I always said “ulterior motive”’ – and slams into the bathroom. Is she that upset?
    ‘As you know, I find him physically repulsive,’ I call through the door.
    ‘There’d be plenty of advantages,’ she calls back. Crash – ‘Ow! Shit.’
    Advantages? Having to dominate Cyril? I want to be the subordinate one. Told what to do. I want someone to take over my stupid life and govern it better than I do. But not Cyril!
    There is no more talk. Bel slams off to her class.

Later I email Hong Kong Ron back, fix up a session for tomorrow night, in the Bondage Master’s apartment. For an evening I will gratefully be guided, led, controlled, instructed. All I have to do is obey. Submission is so uncomplicated. And furthermore, highly valued. It’s a good bargain for both sides.

Late afternoon. The Delightful Peony’s one heater breaks down, so I return to the flat to hunch over my little radiator with a fistful of new poems. Apocalyptic imaginings: a tsunami obliterating Pudong, the Jin Mao Tower collapsing due to the sub-standard concrete of its construction, the Peace Hotel bombed and in flames. I get two plastic tumblers ready for Bel‘s return. The champagne is chilling in the fridge.

A call from Lily Hong. ‘Miss Suki, please come. Bel’s daughter is died.’
     ‘What? Pardon?’
     ‘Bel is here. In office. Please come.’
     In the Foreign Affairs office I find Lily Hong seated in front of her computer screen weeping, together with Bel, around whose shoulder her arm is draped.The screen is filled with a China Airways webpage in Chinese.
     When I walk in, Lily Hong nuzzles at Bel then relinquishes her chair for me.
    Bel is impassive. ‘I’m booking a flight, but not for straight away. My brother can deal with it all.’
    ‘What happened?’ Fearful, I reach, lightly touch her cheek. ‘How did you hear?’
    Her face twitches away. ‘John called’ – she looks at her watch – ‘about an hour ago.’
     ‘How..?’
     ‘Oh, she just died.’ Pause. ‘About 11 pm Holland time. Heart failure. People like Elise are full of anti-psychotics and massively overweight. And she chain-smoked.’
     I do what Lily Hong was doing. Bel’s shoulders under my arm are wooden, unyielding. She seems tight-coiled, ultra-controlled.
    ‘I’d rather miss the funeral and everything.’ She scrolls through dates.’ Let’s try for a ticket in three weeks.’ She looks up at Lily Hong. ‘I can buy this ticket now with my credit card, can I?’ Then, like an after-thought, ‘Maybe I don’t even need to go.’


 

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May 262016
 



ALT TEXT

Bel

Bel’s picture of my back reminds me of photographer Helmut Newton’s many beautiful backs. He ‘adores hard light’ because it ‘brings out those muscles… The back of a woman shows a tremendous amount of sculpting and modelling’. Although Bel’s ‘back’ photos are not in Newton’s brilliantly light-drenched Californian settings, they do make me look sculpted. Newton states that ‘naturalness’ is not necessarily what he wants. This provokes the ire of some feminists – or purists, perhaps – who hold ‘naturalness’ to be kind of morally favourable. Newton claims models themselves often choose to put their bodies into positions that are not ‘natural’, and that anyway, manipulation just gets more interesting results.

And another week passes – with the Lantern Festival in it. Another phenomenon we watch from the sidelines – from our balcony – with disengagement; incomprehension. I’ve looked it up in Wikipedia but… how does it feel to those people? Does anyone care? Is it sentimental? Party time? Is it meaningful, or just kitsch for kids? Is it like Hallowe-en? Is it Easter-ish?
    And the students are back. And Bel’s teaching re-starts. We are back to normal. But what is this ‘normal’?

    ‘What I like about you is,’ I call out, ‘comparing you to Helmut Newton doesn’t make you go ballistic.’
    Bel is in the kitchen tending to a sizzling wok. ‘Why should I object?’
    I wander into the kitchen. ‘My ex Ilka, as a hard-line feminist, was venomous about him coz he says that ideally a nude should give you an erotic feeling.’ The latest of Cyril’s loaned books is open in my hand. ‘Like, he criticizes Bill Brandt‘s nudes for not being erotic. What’s good about you is, although you think all men are bastards you’re still relatively tolerant.’
    Bel pushes the tofu around with a spatula. ‘To be honest I do find Newton a bit self-contradictory and a bit full of himself.’
    ‘But at least he genuinely likes women! Listen: “I want a woman who has personality, who is the real thing. She may have a less than perfect body because a perfect form is not interesting by itself. In fact, it is a turn-off. To me, imperfections are much more attractive.” See – he’s definitely not one of those passionless measuring men. He relates intimately with his models.’
    Bel uses her fore-arm to wipe hair tendrils from her forehead. ‘”Intimately” – like Picasso, then?’
    ‘I’m fine with Newton being sexual with his models. At least he wants to know them. And I like him for being especially interested in the female body and finding it so much more aesthetic than the male body…’ I skim on through the chapter – ‘and that he likes immediacy… abrasiveness… spontanaeity… and – get this – unashamed voyeurism! “The trouble with a very controlled nude is that it is not voyeuristic any more”.’
    Bel turns off the cooker. ‘It’s about ready to eat.’ I leave the kitchen to go put cutlery on the table while Bel drains and divides the noodles.
    At last she emerges, two steaming plates in her hands. ‘So what else do you like about me?’
    Gulp. I go on fussing with the condiments, straighten the forks… ‘What was that?’
    Bel’s eyes, when I look up, are levelled at me, chin jutted, as if standing up to a potential blow – ‘What else you like about me.’ Her tone is flat.
    ‘You are absolutely the most brilliant thrower-together of strange Chinese ingredients. This looks fantastic.’ I ceremoniously take the plates from her hands and lay them on their place-mats. ‘Voila! Dinner is served!’

Later, the Delightful Peony provides refuge. And I finally make myself formulate an overdue email to Aussie Cyril, spelling out, at last and in no uncertain terms, the nature and limits of my relationship with him – as I would wish to have it.

Cyril,
I want to make a clear point about our collaboration. As photographer and model we bring together entirely separate skills. Some might believe that the product – the photograph – ought to be entirely the creative domain of the photographer; that the model’s part ends with the end of the shoot. Not in my case. Like Lee Miller, I have engaged myself fully with ‘post-production’ decision-making – as in, making modifications to your original images. While I find certain of your images lovely and perfect, I very often crop the pictures you send me. Radically and with huge enthusiasm. Regardless of whether you might find this an unacceptable adulteration.
I’m being straight with you and I’m sorry if this upsets you. Suki

Oh Suki – absolutely, absolutely not. You are a very strong person… Presence… I love our collaboration. I feel so proud of giving you something to get enthusiastic about. It’s a joy and a privilege to be shown it all as you see it. I think you are a wonderful person and I feel so very, very lucky to have met you and to be involved in this kind of creativity with you. Crop away, dearest Suki. I am always so intrigued to see what you come up with.
Warmest affection
Cyril
PS I am now able to announce – in explanation of my recent disappearance to Australia – that my
decree nisi has, at last, come through. Please could you meet with me to celebrate this?


 

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May 192016
 



ALT TEXT

Mike Little

Mike Little’s photo of one of his wife Trish’s drawings, projected by her onto my skin. Bel’s movie of this unfolding project is almost complete.

A final session with Trish: the culmination of her chaotic art project.
    We leave the still-empty campus (Spring Festival goes on and on…) to go to the Littles’ apartment. Our suburb, too, is still a ghost-town. The urban population, recently-migrated from the countryside to settle on Shanghai’s new-built outskirts, has left en masse to return to home villages.
    At this annual gathering, do Chinese families fight? Like British families do at Christmas?
    With her project climaxing, Trish is dizzier than ever:
    ‘…because trying to reproduce an image that you see in a photographic or so-called “realistic” way is about certainty, but there is no certainty.’
    ‘As in, nothing can be taken literally?’ I clarify.
    ‘That’s it!’
    I shudder. ‘That’s how Shanghai makes me feel.’
    ‘We’ve moved away from the whole of the body’ – Trish points excitedly at an image on her monitor, ‘there – to focus on only a part of the body; hence we’ve moved from what is obviously a referent, to something which has lost that referent.’
    ‘So you can no longer tell it’s anything to do with a body.’
    ‘Exactly.’
    ‘Like these,’ pipes Mike, holding out his smart-phone. ‘Edward Weston’s nude studies. I’ve got the Francine Prose book that has a chapter on him.’ He shows me a couple of photographs.
    ‘Yes, I’ve seen some of these. And they get compared with his vegetable studies, like that one of a pepper that could equally be a woman’s torso.’
    Mike holds out the phone to his wife. ‘This the type of thing you’re on about, sweetheart? See – you can hardly tell whether they’re bodies or objects. It’s abstracted from what it really is.’
    ‘Technically clever – yes.’ Bel moves forward into the group from her silent observation-point. ‘But the great Stieglitz himself disliked Weston’s photography for that reason. It was all about technical prowess but totally devoid of artistic vision. Plus there’s no feeling in them. Even though they were often the body of Charis his lover.’
    ‘But they’re good, though,’ Mike insists. ‘They fox you into thinking they’re something else.’
     Trish, behind him, looks pained. ‘Haven’t you baked something for us, Mike?’
    ‘Sorry Trish, are we ready for tea?’ Mike heads for the kitchen.
    She sighs and flops in front of her monitor. ‘Wish I could talk to someone about my ideas. Wish I was more confident. Always feel I’m waffling, being a nuisance…’ She absently drops her mouse into the pocket of her fisherman’s smock. ‘Most people don’t listen to me like you two do.’ Is that an oblique comment on Mike? ‘Anyway,’ Trish yanks at the nest of coffee tables – ‘enough of me and my rubbish.’

From beyond the Littles’ Ikea curtains comes the constant, alien clamour of Shanghai’s Jing ‘an Temple district. Apart from sharing the ear-plague of incessant fire-crackers, we have no connection with the lives of the Chinese around us at this festival time. Within this apartment, we are in England.
    Mike is holding out a cup of tea. ‘So, Suki, do you think there’s any difference in how artists relate to their models, compared to Art Nude photographers and their models? After all, you’re the one with first-hand experience.’
    ‘Yes, there’s a fundamental difference.’ I take the cup and saucer. ‘Art Nude photography is dependent on the photographer’s personality and his or her connection with an individual model. A photographer can only produce Art Nude work if he or she has managed to get into a working relationship with a person who’ll pose naked one-to-one. Though of course, working with you two guys breaks this mould because it’s two-to-one.’
    ‘Three-to-one’ – Mike shoots a look at Bel, a silent island in an armchair: ‘technically there have been three of us making pictures of you.’
    ‘Well, okay, yes. Complicated, isn’t it! But I would say, really – Trish – this is primarily about your relationship as a creative artist with me as the model.’
    Mike gives Bel a wide encouraging grin; tries to draw her in: ‘It’s quite complex in the case of our little project, here, isn’t it? As the photographer I myself am merely observing the primary relationship – which is the artist-model relationship – and recording images of its fruits…’
    ‘But your photos are slanted, Mike. Not objective,’ says Bel gravely. ‘The photographer’s eye inevitably has an interpretative dimension.’
    ‘Accepted!’ Mike beams. ‘Whereas you, Bel, as a film-maker, are documenting all of our inter-relationships completely neutrally.’
    ‘Nothing’s ever “neutral”,’ I pipe up, without forethought – ‘I mean, the documenting of my Shibari sessions by a photographer was still shaped by his aesthetic. He was still selecting images.’
    Mike pauses from reaching some floral tea plates out of a sideboard. ‘What’s Shibari?’
    ‘Oh. Ah… It’s this traditional Japanese type thing… where one gets tied up…’
    ‘Ooh!’ Trish’s eyes shine, while English embarrassment turns Mike’s face pink.
    ‘It’s a kind of meditational practice really,’ I bluster. ‘The knots have to be really beautifully done. It’s more about the process…’
    ‘Bondage!Trish giggles.
    ‘Uff… Like I said it’s very much an aesthetic thing, mainly…’
    ‘How about some bondage, Mike?’ She reaches to take the cake-tray from him.
    I crash on – ‘…I mean, the bondage masters are quite nerdy actually, trying to get their knots absolutely perfect and symmetrical and everything’ – I see Mike is flustered, removing his pinny – ‘It’s more like macramé than anything else.’
    ‘Oh?’ Mike’s face brightens. ‘I used to be really into macramé. Do you remember macramé owls?’
    ‘Oh cripes, yes, macramé owls’ – Trish rolls her eyes – ‘nineteen-seventies. They were everywhere.’ She plonks the tray onto the coffee table. ‘Gosh, this looks lovely, sweetheart.’
    Mike raises his merry eyebrows at me. ‘Carrot cake?’


 

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May 122016
 



ALT TEXT

Aussie Cyril

I may seem obsessed with Schiele’s and Freud’s sexually explicit poses. Really it’s a case of being fascinated by the issues they throw up. In this photo by Aussie Cyril (from our second M50 session yesterday) I’m in a pose I copied from a Lucian Freud painting. I’ve over-photoshopped it, trying to make it look textured like the painting. Art critic William Boyd associates the two artists (he refers to ‘the disturbing power of … a Lucian Freud’) in an article primarily about the ‘sexual frankness’ of the chronologically much earlier Egon Schiele, whose notorious explicit nude studies were a ‘visceral shock to pre-First World War viewers’. Way ahead of his time, and condemned by many as obscene, the young Schiele endeavoured to “strip away the lies and surface pretences” of social hypocrisy – the repressive values and attitudes that prevailed at the beginning of the 20th century in Vienna and Europe-wide. Even today, many would be deeply shocked if I, as a life model, copied certain of Schiele’s famous poses. I can’t think of a single artist acquaintance who would be blasé about drawing me masturbating. Is this a case of similar “repressive values and attitudes” prevailing even nowadays?

Sunday. Two days since the end of exam week. End of semester. The campus is already eerily quiet, the students having left to join the national hordes flocking home for Spring Festival. So – at last – a chance for us to talk?
    It is end-of-January freezing and I am under my duvet, re-reading William Boyd’s Guardian article about Schiele and erotica. I turn to Bel. ‘Does copying Egon Schiele’s and Lucian Freud’s poses make me a wannabe porn-star?’
    Bel looks up from marking exam papers in her bed. ‘No. Why should it? Why should the fact that their paintings are sexually charged automatically associate them with porn? I mean, some of their really famous ones are quite grotesque, not at all beautiful.’
    ‘Yes – that’s precisely why I like them. I like edgy. I like disturbing. It’s sex but it’s not porn.’
    Bel yawns, stretches, seems relaxed. No frowning or agitation. Great!
    I warm to my theme. ‘Schiele is sex. That’s why every student in every college class I’ve ever modelled for is a Schiele devotee. He only drew the body-parts he was into. Never mind the head or the feet, straight to the genitals.’
    Bel actually grins.
    ‘The only place masturbation’s permissible in a school is in the Schiele catalogue in the art room.’ Ping! ‘Oops, excuse me – a text.’
    Bel instantly puts her head back into her marking. Darn. I love that we’re chatting about Art.
    I take a look. ‘Poo. Cyril. He wants to “continue our discussion of Picasso”.’
    Bel doesn’t look up. ‘Never stops asking you for dates, these days. You should go. Why not get a free meal out?’
    ‘For heaven’s sake, Bel, I don’t want to socialise with Cyril.’
    Bel raises her eyes from the exam papers, looks quizzically at me.
    ‘Quite frankly I’d rather discuss Picasso with you. I’d rather discuss anything with you.’
    ‘Go on, then,’ she sits back – ‘I’m bored of this.’
    ‘Oh! right – well: Cyril’s in total agreement with that feminist mad-woman Karen Kleinfelder who says Picasso’s late works are about male sexual power over women. You know. The fantasy of possession of the model. But there’s this other academic Marie-Laure Bernadac, who says those works are just – wait, let me quote: “a later-life exploration of the female realm.” As in, not exploitative at all.’
    ‘Or at least, not that specifically,’ Bel agrees. ‘And anyway, I always wonder – what’s actually wrong with artworks that show a power relationship – a sexual relationship – between male and female?’
    ‘Exactly my question! Why is Kleinfelder so derangedly angry with Picasso for relating to women sexually?’
    Bel shrugs. ‘I’ve never actually understood why artists having sex with models is a problem.’
    ‘Me neither. I mean, which way is the exploitation, in the end? Isn’t there a tradition of on-the-face-of-it ‘subordinate’ female secretaries exploiting their rich bosses for their own ends, by manipulating them with sex?’ I get out of bed. ‘Cuppa tea?’ Heading for the kitchen, I call – ‘Traditionally, surely most artists’ models would have been expecting it to get sexual?’
    I don’t hear a response.
    I come back from switching the kettle on – ‘I mean, Schiele’s so-called muse Wally Neuzil: she was integral to his life. His primary relationship. Can’t we assume it was mutually beneficial? Why insist on calling it exploitation?’
    ‘Maybe.’
    ‘Like, I’m sure Lee Miller fully intended her relationship with Man Ray to be sexual.’
    ‘Well of course, she’s a person who’d only have sex if she wanted to…’ Bel ponders for a moment, ‘though anyway she was working more with photographers than artists. I think there might be more likelihood of sex between photographer and model than artist and model, considering that with photography there’s much more one-to-one work.’
    ‘I think that’s definitely the case. Like, you know Charis Wilson, Edward Weston’s ‘muse’ who became his second wife? She expected sex with him from the outset. It was Charis who brought it about. Let me get Cyril’s book…’ I scoot to fetch it from the living room.
    Maybe we’ll go on being like this from now on? Maybe I could stay on with Bel after all?
    Should I get into her bed?
    I dive back into my own bed with the book. ‘It says here that the very first time Charis modelled for Edward there was a sexual tension that “had to be diffused with breathless conversation” – and the second session, they had full-blown sex which she initiated herself – because he was apparently “shy” – by giving him a “very compelling look”. And he goes, “I felt a response…”
    We both guffaw. ‘“Eyes don’t lie and she wore no mask… At last she lay there below me waiting, holding my eyes with hers.”’ Breaking off, I quip cheerfully, ‘Bel – is there anything we don’t agree on?’
    ‘That all men are bastards? Coz you seem very well-disposed towards Cyril.’
    Why this sudden barb out of nowhere?
    I do another guffaw, a bit over-hearty. ‘Obviously all men are bastards. And Cyril’s in the sub-category “fat bastards”. Speaking of which, listen to this: throughout Weston’s affair with Charis he also kept on a long-suffering and faithful wife in the background who was bringing up his four sons. Quote: “Poor Flora… I must try to be tender to her, it is not easy to thrust aside such a great love as she offers me”.’
    We both go, ‘Bastard!’


 

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May 052016
 



ALT TEXT

Aussie Cyril

What’s so refreshing about working with photographers is their appreciation of my gestures and movement and personality, in contrast to plodding sketchers whose only mundane goal is “accuracy” – a snobbish aspiration to demonstrate Leonardo-esque drawing skills. Give me any day the photographer-model relationship: an intuitive combining of the flair and spirit of two people.
    To be fair, there are artists who do capture the moment; artists who stand at arm’s length from their easels applying swift, urgent strokes that start from the shoulder rather than the finger-tips; breathless artists with shifting feet who race to produce drawings of a creature on the verge of moving: a model who has flung herself into a wild shape that can only be held for a few moments, her tremulous muscles at snapping-point. Their quick, raw sketches are not about technical accuracy.
    But isn’t there still an essential difference between artist-model and photographer-model dynamics? I mean, what artist would ever say, à la Helmut Newton, “yeh, give it to me baby”? Note: I’d be okay with Newton saying that to me because he’s the genius-level of brilliant, but if Aussie Cyril took that tone I’d be grossed out. Also note: on a bipolar scale, Bel is way at the opposite end from Newton, ghostly in her lack of assertiveness in the model’s domain; silently, unobtrusively documenting the model’s chosen way of presenting herself rather than endeavouring to shape the final image. Bel comes at it with no agenda.

Is that strange?

Over my shoulder Bel is looking at my iPad. ‘One of Cyril’s?’ She sounds unimpressed.
    ‘Yes – it’s from our last shoot. Last week. He was aiming for something like Alfred Stieglitz’s 1921 portrait of Georgia O-Keefe’s neck. I hate my old woman’s face, but the composition and contrasts are interesting. Though I think I’ve over-photoshopped it…’
    ‘You mean you’ve gone a whole week without seeing Cyril?’
    Was that sarcasm? I don’t react to it. ‘Yep! Think he’s losing his romantic aspirations at last, thank goodness.’ (Though I am missing the money).
    Ping! A text.
    ‘Ah. Talk of the devil…’ I grin (why do I feel sheepish?).

My dearest Suki –
sorry for silence! That fantastic session at 50 Moganshan last week exhausted me. By the end, sheer concentration was wearing me out. Have needed a period of repose. But we must definitely book that room again. Just been perusing online more of Schiele’s work – graphic, sexual. Not surprising that he got arrested for allowing children to see “indecent pictures” in his studio. Have you read anything about his muse Wally Neuzil? Other than Wally his models were always prostitutes. How does one model come to be considered a muse when all others are simply prostitutes? Your Cyril x

Cyril
Yes please – do book that same M50 space again. Due to that big whitewashed wall at one end, it’s perfect for reproducing the Schiele-esque look: sharp, spiky sketches that float without context in empty white space. Re Schiele’s “indecent pictures”: the lines between fine art, erotica and pornography are completely arbitrary: culture-bound, generation-bound – don’t you agree?
    Schiele only drew what he was interested in, especially (it has to be said) genitalia: he would literally just leave some other parts of the anatomy blank, like, he couldn’t be bothered to draw the boring bits. But then he was barely out of adolescence when he reached the prime of his career. Don’t you find Lucian Freud to be similar? I mean eye-wateringly explicit – serving up his models’ genitals bang in the centre of his paintings like hot dinners on plates. Female models. Male models. His own daughter. I wonder whether Courbet’s face-slappingly graphic ‘Origin of the World’ painting set a precedent, without which Schiele and Freud would never have got away with their stuff?
    Btw, I totally agree with art critic William Boyd re Schiele’s “superabundant gift” in drawing the human form:
“You can’t be a truly great painter if you’re not an excellent draughtsman”. True, yes? Suki

Dearest Suki,
so much discussion-fodder! May we meet? Dinner at the Radisson tomorrow? A further interesting point in that Boyd article:
“Hugely famous and successful artists who draw as well, or as badly, as a 10-year-old are everywhere acclaimed…” Jackson Pollock being one example. What’s your opinion on Pollock, Suki – could he draw? And does that matter, especially in regard to the current top popular UK artists? How do you rate Tracey Emin’s figure-drawing skills? And David Hockney’s drawing skills – is Hockney only good at colour?’
Cyril xx

He’s asking me out on a date. O bugger.
    But can I resist the Shanghai Radisson?
    After all, I do need to set him straight – of course Hockney can draw!!!!!


 

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Apr 282016
 



ALT TEXT

Aussie Cyril

This photo of Aussie Cyril’s from our very first encounter at the Shanghai Art Nude group reminded me, at first glance, of one by Lucien Clergue, ‘Deux nus chez Jeff’, except that Clergue’s is actually a picture of two women (yes, the clue is in the title). To model for a photographer who can glean something wondrous from the body, who can bring out the model’s essence, his or her true self – is a sheer privilege. I’d gladly work for free with any photographer whose images I’m totally wowed by – images that don’t give me the urge to crop or change them in any way. Who has been that good? Fei Mo Di, for one.

The damp mid-January chill of Pudong’s underlying swamp-land has seeped up into the apartment block, turning it into a natural refrigerator. Bel buys two barely adequate plug-in radiators – one each for us to crouch over. We are still miserably cold.
    Monday morning. Bel trails without enthusiasm to her classroom, and I set out for Shanghai’s famous boho art quarter, 50 Mo Gan Shan, a warren of ex-factories and warehouses where Cyril has booked a studio. I expect the shoot to be an icy experience. But it’s money.
    Just inside the compound, a private photographic gallery has a poster in English advertising a course clearly aimed at ex-pat blokes: Art Nude Photography: Theory and Praxis. Judging by the illustrative examples, it’s going to be a day of photographing a drop-dead gorgeous nubile Chinese girl’s perfect body. In my case they’d have to photoshop out the varicose veins, the birth-mark, the unruly pubic hair, the mottled knees, the sag-folds, the wrinkles. In fact if I were the model, they’d ask for their money back.

    ‘My dear Suki!’
    I squirm out of Cyril’s bear-hug. The barren concrete art-space has three small electric heaters dotted around it. Could be worse.
    ‘Here – before we begin the shoot, may I confer you with this warming quasi ginger latte – i.e. Chinese version thereof – and I’d like to read you these words by the great Lucien Clergue whom you so admire.’
    I sip the synthetic drink. ‘I love Clergue’s photos.’
    ‘Well, I think you’ll agree that my own modus operandi is identical to Clergue’s. As he says, you have to be responsive to what the model brings you; models are not objects, they are real people who…’
    ‘Yes – I love that statement. Whereas so many artists just want a piece of wood.The guys who always wanted to record me like an architect’s drawing, why didn’t they save themselves the fee and just go draw the bloody town hall?’
    ‘Absolutely! Whereas Clergue says models are “real people who, with a single gesture, can convey a special feeling…”’
    ‘…Brilliant – he sees a model‘s feelings!’
    ‘As Clergue writes, “These women become my friends and we co-operate in the making of the photographs.” I think you’ll agree, Suki, that this precisely describes my relations with you…’
    Definitely not!
    Cyril clearly hasn’t noticed the look on my face. He continues, ‘Clergue also says he doesn’t like working with professional models because the clock-watching interferes with his relationship with them. What are your thoughts about that?’
    ‘He prefers not to pay them?’ (Is Cyril intending to convey that he and I now have a “friendship” that makes paying me for shoots inappropriate?) ‘Tuh. That puts me off him.’ (I must make my position clear!) ‘The thing is, Cyril, you and I don’t “co-operate”. I transform your pictures all by myself with no negotiation. I don’t ask for your advice or your opinion.’ I add, callously, ‘Nor do I care about your opinion when I’m done.’
    ‘You’ve created some truly wonderful versions.’
    ‘But even when you don’t like what I’ve done, you never put your foot down.’
    ‘Because I respect you deeply, Suki.’
    The more doting Cyril is, the more irritating. ‘You always acquiesce. Submit to my ideas.’ Oops – that was almost a sneer.
     But his eyes twinkle all the more. ‘I don’t think you know how very fond I am of you.’


 

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Apr 212016
 



ALT TEXT

Mike Little

Another belly pic by Mike Little, from the second session with Trish his artist wife who projects her drawings onto me. According to the philosopher-semiotician Saussure (says Trish), the words we use are not a true record of the reality that we are looking at, they are ‘motivated signs’ – and the meaning is only within the sign. Bel was recording Trish‘s ramblings: ‘There was a movement among painters away from attempts to paint realistically; you know – figuratively. I think this was due to a distrust, because they thought that this kind of “realism” pretended that it knew what the world was like…’

Good morning Cyril,
have read all the photographers’ essays in this book you’ve lent me. I like Lucien Clergue best for his prioritisation – even above setting up the cameras – of his relationship with the model. “Both the model and I may be completely exhausted at the end of a session, but it’s a good kind of exhaustion”. He says that, when photographing the model, he is completely content. Some of the others in this book – they couldn’t give a toss about the model as a human being. Can’t write more, Bel is just bringing through our elevenses.
Suki

Days have gone by with no proper conversation with Bel. Not my fault. If she talked, I’d talk. What’s the story of her child? Why is Elise in a psychiatric hospital?
    Then this morning, over our tea-break, a conversation happens.
    ‘Your turn.’ She sets down two cups of English tea on my desk in the bedroom. ‘Why are you really here?’ She settles on the bed. ‘I mean, it’s not all about writing your novel, is it.’
    The question is chilling. I shiver. The January weather, too, is chilly. Humidity, when the temperature drops and there is no adequate indoor heater, gets into your very bones. Could I make Bel happy by saying I came to Shanghai to be with you?
    But I have to be honest. ‘Um. Okay, I’m avoiding my unsuccessful life.’
    Bel reaches over, squeezes my arm (it’s always a shock when we touch): ‘Still on your quest,’ she says, generously.
    ‘Actually, you know, something’s started haunting me – I mean, being here, with time to reflect: I keep reading articles about women giving birth at fifty. Ageing first-time mums are all over the news. If you’ve got enough money you can make it happen.’
    ‘God. Materialism in extremis.’
    ‘But I’m jealous.’
    ‘Look, Suki. Being a parent can ruin your life. And that’s even people like us with all the benefits and support of living in the West. Wait’ – she leaves the room.
    Is she going to show me something to do with Elise? Photos? But she returns with – oh god – not another article, which she urgently skim-reads, then summarises:
    ‘Listen: tens of millions of poor people in countries like Nigeria, India, Pakistan and Peru can only afford to eat for five days each week. Most of the world is exhausting its ground water because of overpumping… la la la…’ – she skims down – ‘…yields are flat-lining in Japan… Here! In northern and Western China, and the Sahel region of Africa which is an area wracked by insurgency and conflict, people are running out of land to grow food. Millions of acres the world over are turning into wasteland because of over-farming and over-grazing!’
    ‘It sounds a bit sensationalist, Bel. I wouldn’t just take it all as read.’
    ‘This American scientist Lester Brown who’s never been wrong about any prediction is saying it.’
    ‘Look, just don’t worry about big stuff, Bel. Enjoy little stuff. This cup of tea.’
    But Bel has dropped back into her default mode.
    I’m rubbish at dealing with my own depression, never mind hers.

Evening. It is a relief to go out of the flat for the second session at Trish and Mike Little’s place. A good distraction for Bel.
    Video-camera in hand, she unobtrusively gets to work.
    ‘Is your neck ok?’ Mike fusses over me, supervising my positions. ‘Are you warm enough? Do you want to sit in that chair? We’ll have a cake break in a bit. Happy days!’ Then gets on again with his pedantic, conscientious photographing.
    Trish bumbles about, switching different spotlights on and off, shifting her projector to create new shapes on my body. ‘I’ve been getting my ideas from this Swiss guy Saussure, who advocated “the detachment of the sign from the referent”. Are you with me? It’s all ever so difficult…’
    ‘Clever, isn’t she,’ Mike grins indulgently. He takes another careful photograph. And another. And all the while, Bel – gifted photo-journalist and film-maker extraordinaire – sidles around us, doing what she is brilliant at; a silent presence, close to the room’s walls, by necessity an outsider, recording it all with her unique eye.


 

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Apr 142016
 



ALT TEXT

Jacques-from-Brussels

I’ve photoshopped more of Jacques-from-Brussels’ shots from that first group session. Though Jacques is a keen life-long photo-journalist with excellent kit, we just didn’t have a rapport. Now that I have cropped this one to emphasise my hideous belly and taken out some colour, intentionally “making an ugly thing happen” (to quote Helmut Newton, preceding his emphatic declaration that he “would never do that to a woman”), I do like this pic. I want Schiele-esque grotesqueness, not Jacques’ prettiness.

New year, new effort to get to know Bel. Coz we’ve lived together for more than three months and it’s getting stupid.
    ‘Why I really came here?’ Bel pauses from doing the dishes. ‘Okay. I think I came here because if I stay well away from my daughter, no-one can tell me I’m the root cause of her schizophrenia.’
    ‘Flipping heck Bel’ – I, too, pause from drying up – ‘who’s been telling you that?’
    ‘It’s an established theory. They trot it out.’
    ‘Bastards.’
    ‘Or they don’t speak it, you can just feel it in the way they deal with you. As the mother.’
    ‘Who? The doctors? Sure you’re not being paranoid? Oh god’ – I wince – ‘’scuse that accidental… Sorry…’

My rapid escape to the Delightful Peony is only for an hour. But by my return, Bel seems deeply under a cloud.
    She hands me a substantial tome, Nude: Theory. ‘Your fan just stopped by.’
    ‘What – Aussie Cyril?’ (Has Bel’s distress been caused by the unexpected visitor? Or something else?) ‘Why didn’t he wait?’
    ‘He wouldn’t let me text you. Just wanted to drop it off.’ She is back at her desk, fumbling agitatedly for a cigarette.
    ‘Are you okay?’
    Bel turns to me – ‘How can any of us be “okay”?’ She smacks at a print-out of an article. ‘Seen this? Climate change is threatening global food supply. Demand for food is fast outstripping supply. Vast tracts of Africa and China are turning into dustbowls on a scale that dwarfs the one that devastated the US in the 1930s…’

I escape to the bedroom, close the door, sit at my makeshift desk. Bel’s world scares me beyond words. I need to bury my head in Art, creativity, Adobe Photoshop… Anything to distract myself from the imminent apocalypse.

Dear Cyril,
sorry to have missed you dropping by the flat, thanks for this fab book! Are you up for doing a proper studio shoot? Maybe at 50 Moganshan?? I want to try more Schiele poses. I have props. How about Monday or Tuesday? Suki x

My dear Suki!
I arrived here at the Delightful Peony a few moments ago, but have obviously just missed you. If you would permit me to buy you a rather disgusting sweetened latte I would love to converse with you face to face? Am sitting here reading about that old goat Picasso. Actually it’s a book primarily about Lee Miller’s relationship with Roland Penrose, but there’s an interesting quote by New York artist Lee Krasner (Jackson Pollock‘s wife), that the Parisian Surrealists “treated their women like French poodles”. You must know that Picasso famously said, women “make good models and poor artists”? Hope to see you shortly! Cyril xx

Cyril
re Picasso: so what. Don’t forget that Lee Miller – prototypically a liberated, autonomous woman – managed to be friends with Picasso on equal terms for thirty-six years! He painted six portraits of her and she took over a thousand photos of him. There are plenty of old goats coming out with sexist nonsense all over the place. They can at the same time be charming and fun and therefore forgivable. S
PS Soz, can’t come to café, Bel unwell.

Dearest Suki,
defend Picasso if you will. This book I’m reading says that women in his circle were “constrained to the traditional art-historic role of a passive object to be admired, mythologised, dressed and undressed as the perfect accessory to the male artists’ statement of who they were and how they interpreted their world”. Picasso’s late works depict an ever-lovely young model juxtaposed with himself looking increasingly decrepit and grotesque. These images make us “voyeurs of voyeurism”, witnessing the artist’s desire to possess. Thus we, too, enjoy the fantasy of possession of the “object”: the woman.
    What is the matter with Bel? Cx

Why is Cyril copying out all this? Does he think the way to my heart is to be feminist and right-on?
    Is that truly, as Bel would have it, his aim? My heart?

Dear Cyril,
Picasso’s portrayal of an imbalance of power in favour of the male is a reflection of the world he was living in, not his personal misogyny. Somewhere I have read – and I agree – that Picasso’s nudes continue, to the end of his life, to represent the epitome of beauty, fertility, and nature itself. Sexist pig maybe, but he LOVED WOMEN.
    All relationships are in reality power-games. I think you know what I mean. True freedom is when we can choose our roles, and play them out – which we in liberal societies have the privilege to do (unlike in some corners of this world).
Suki
PS Bel is depressed. I’d feel bad leaving her alone, soz.

That’s my excuse, anyway.


 

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