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 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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Mar 312016
 



ALT TEXT

Aussie Cyril

Aussie Cyril has lent me another book. I’m being educated. So this latest crop of one of his photos is informed by the hard-edged geometries of Edward Weston who belongs to an important group known as the Photo-Secessionists. In 1902 this group split from the Camera Club of New York to pursue Pictorialism: techniques of manipulating negatives and prints to make them look like drawings, etchings, and oil paintings (and this group did include some women! Clarence White worked with Stieglitz. Also Annie Brigman). They drew inspiration from European art movements with similar goals such as the Linked Ring. The later works of group member Alfred Stieglitz and those of Weston (who was also influenced by modernists Sheeler and Strand) mark the decisive start of contemporary Art Nude photography. But I’m deffo not aiming, like Weston does, to ‘purposely neutralise the uniqueness of the human form by equating it with inanimate objects’. Weston got perverse satisfaction from achieving images of the nude that were ‘entirely impersonal, lacking in any human interest which might call attention to a living, palpitating body’. Is Weston the same type as Uglow? Two haters of humanity?


    ‘A baby froze to death on the Gaza Strip because it was living under a tarpaulin.’
    ‘Oh dear.’ I set down at Bel’s bedside her morning cup of green tea.
    Her not-long-awake face is already set in a frown. ‘This is why Muslim gunmen shoot randomly into coffee bars. It’s simple cause and effect. It’s people with no legitimate forum to protest all the historic injustices committed against them.’
    ‘Well, Merry Christmas, anyway’.
    She snaps shut her iPad. ‘I hate the world, Suki. Where is safe?’ –
    ‘Well, let’s see…’ Oh no – Bel is clearly about to cry!
    ‘We’re all just animals.’
    ‘Look Bel, I think that too. But come on…’ I pass her a Chinese rice-bowl overflowing with peanut M&Ms – ‘it’s Christmas Day.’ No response. ‘Sorry they’re not Quality Streets.’
    Bel throws off her quilt and heads for the bathroom. ‘“Empathy” isn’t innate in human nature; that’s just a self-righteous myth of Western culture because actually anyone who’s non-white and/or non-Christian-heritage is viewed as alien.’ I hear her landing on the loo. ‘Altruism’s a myth too. We only do stuff for others in order to get something.’
    ‘That’s fair enough, isn’t it, though?’ I hover outside the bathroom. ‘Like for example, if it’s to get love? Hey – are you off out or something?’
    ‘Told you: I’m teaching. It’s a normal day. Communist State, remember?’ The shower starts but she rants on. ‘So-called “values” are purely social constructs created for pragmatic reasons. For particular purposes. Everything’s fake. Love is fake. Huh. Lerv. I lerv ya, babe.’
    She is being scarily weird. ‘Okay – we’ll do gifts later, yeah? And I’ll cook!’
    Will my cooking lift Bel’s mood – or at least distract her? Or be the final straw? I don’t know how to help her. After she’s gone to work I prepare her an extra gift. A poem I wrote years ago called Bethlehem, after the 2002 Siege of Bethlehem that reduced to ruins the nativity scenes I had learned in childhood. I print it out and decorate its edges.
    How to spend the rest of Christmas Day?
    I go to the Delightful Peony with my iPad, and email Aussie Cyril.

Happy Christmas Day, Cyril! Am half-way through the book about muses. Edward Weston’s photos of Charis are totally about sex. Never mind what the book says. With muses there’s always something sexual going on. In Weston’s case he has sex with his model at the same time as objectifying the female body to the extreme. The model is no more than a tool. A lifeless plastic sex toy.

As ever, his answer is instantaneous.

Jingle Bells! Hope you’re enjoying today as much as our afternoon together yesterday, which has been the highlight of my Christmas. Aha – you think Weston’s work is about sex? He always insisted his intentions were purely formal and not in the least erotic. You must have read in the ‘muses’ book by now that his nude portraits of the back of Anita Brenner suggest faintly distasteful similarities with his toilet bowl! Yet these are in his own view his ‘finest set of nudes… in their approach to aesthetically stimulating form’. For him they are an ‘absolute aesthetic response… Every sensuous curve of the “human form divine” but minus imperfections’. Stieglitz himself did actually express dislike of Weston’s art nude images, calling them ‘sterilised’; that they lacked fire and life and were ‘more or less dead things not part of today’. No sex!

At teatime Bel returns from class with a polite greetings card from the university’s hierarchy and a very pretty box of dried fruits from Lily Hong. Nothing from any students.
    ‘Here’ – I hand her a Tsingtao beer and clink it with mine. ‘Cheers! Let’s do gifts!’
    Bel opens a small package from Belgium: a book on China sent by her brother. Then my poem, and a grey sweater. ‘It says cashmere but it might be fake.’
    ‘It’s great. Fake’s great – it means “authentically Chinese”.’ She hands me two packages wrapped in red paper. ‘For you.’
    In a pretence of gayness I rip at them. ‘Omigod, where the heck did you find a percolator? You’ve been trawling those fancy malls!’ My second parcel is – ‘Oh joy! Thank you so much!’ – ground Columbian coffee.
    Then she is sidling off onto the balcony. ‘Just making a call.’
    ‘Bel – why do you never say “I’m just calling my Mum”, or whatever?’
    ‘My brother. I normally call my brother on Christmas Day. Sorry. Excuse me.’
    ‘Got any sisters? Are your parents alive?’
    ‘My brother’s it. Childless bachelor, lives in Antwerp because of his solar panels business, very kindly acts as the contact person for Élise. With the unit. He lets me know if he’s been informed of anything by the staff. If there’s anything to tell.’
    ‘Staff? Unit?’
    ‘Sorry. Élise lives in a psychiatric hospital.’ Bel steps outside, tapping at her mobile.
    ‘Oh. Thank you. Sorry.’
    Élise. Like Für Élise. I guess she might be – what – thirty-ish?

Christmas night. Early to bed. Not a candle lit, not a carol played. Apart from yesterday afternoon (Cyril – overjoyed – treating me to a festive tea at the Peace Hotel), a truly crap Christmas.

Bel is a silent lump in her bed, her lamp already out.
    I’ll just do a last check for any emailed greetings.

One more gift: click on this link.
I’m sorry.
Thanks for being here.



 

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Mar 032016
 



ALT TEXT

Aussie Cyril

I feel compelled to modify most of Aussie Cyril’s pics. But this is one is great as it is. I love the bright pop-arty blue and rounded corners: vaguely 1960s retro, no?.

    ‘I love women.’ The eye of Aussie Cyril’s small camera click-click-clicks, his plump lips smiling.
    I adjust myself on his chaise longue, offering him a shoulder. ‘Ah. No – I mean, my question was just in general terms. About how Art Nude photographers’ ways of relating to their models have differed from the historical precedent of artists’ relationships to their models.’ Slithering on the silk draperies I shift a cushion, pose again. ‘I’m curious to find out if there’s a difference.’
    ‘Wait’ – Aussie Cyril swaps the small camera for a chunky one with a vulgarly long lens, then continues snapping. ‘I don’t think one can generalise. About either photographers or artists. Personally I photograph women because I love women. I would not want to photograph a male model. The very thought makes me shrink. Ooh, that’s lovely. Absolutely lovely. More of that – yes – ’
    ‘That’s so different from my experience of working with artists. We models are certainly not always loved. We’re viewed as a kind of tool, and we just do as we’re instructed.’
    Aussie Cyril pauses at this, momentarily leaning on the oak panelling to look at me. ‘Whereas I’ll do anything you say.’ Click, click, click.
    ‘Erm … Is that – usual? The photographer led by the model?’
    Click – ‘that’s terrific…’ – click. ‘My dear Suki, you’ll find out that there have been very many Art Nude photographers and there’s a great diversity of behaviours. But I reckon by and large the relationship to a model is an intimate and caring one.’
    ‘Tuh. Whereas artists like Euan Uglow could work with a model for hours, days, months, years, and yet be absolutely disengaged from that human being. Like, one time a model died, so he just found another model with an identical physique and carried on with his painting! The model was a plank, not a personality. Why didn’t he just bloody well take photographs, if he was that fanatical about precision recording? Or else why not just set up a technically challenging still-life? Why use a human?’

As Cyril drives me home his hand comes to rest too close to my thigh.
    ‘Ahem. I liked your use of drapes and sheets to get those varied backdrops. And your apartment’s amazing.’
    ‘I was very lucky to find that historic French Concession villa before real estate went through the roof.’
    The fake grandeur of the new-built university campus looms ahead. ‘Okay, this is my gate. Thanks, Cyril – it’s been a really good session.’
    He pulls in, and presses a thick wad of hundred yuan notes into my hand. ‘Thank you, Suki, so very much’ – he leans in, breathing heavily – ‘I’d like to do many more shoots with you. Very very soon. A bientot!’

Before bedtime Cyril has already emailed today’s pictures. I show Bel.
    ‘He’s out to make you pretty.’ She walks off.
    I agree with Bel. I don’t like that either. But should I risk upsetting him by telling him? He pays so well.

Tanx 4 these Cyril! My absolute fave of urs will always be de Uglow-style pic, apres Uglow’s “plank-woman”, from de group session. Mus go bed now! S x
P.S. Btw tanx again 4 lending me books – have browsed Alfred Stieglitz – some of his Georgia O’Keefe pics r like Bel’s studies of my hands n feet.

I send Cyril this, then want to add a quick after-thought. I start another email.

P.P.S. May I bring more Egon Schiele and Lucian Freud poses to our next meet – these guys not yet out of my system! Rly looking forward, Sx
P.P.P.S. am ENORMOUSLY ENTHUSIASTIC about working togeth!!!

    ‘Why?’ Bel is close to my shoulder. ‘Why are you “enormously enthusiastic”?’ I hear a strange edge. ‘I thought you were a writer.’
    Is she jealous? So why isn’t she photographing me herself? What’s happened to this Art Nude project she invited me to Shanghai for in the first place?
    ‘It’s giving me writing ideas.’ I hit send. ‘It’s great he wants to photograph me. I like working with people who are being creative in their own field. It’s inspiring.’
    ‘I think he’s got ulterior motives.’
    I can’t help my horrible self, even though Bel is – I now think – depressed. Suki, queen of the barbed final word: ‘Least he is motivated.’
    A second’s silence.
    ‘Right. Whereas I don’t think you’ve even glanced at that unfinished novel of yours yet.’


 

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Feb 252016
 



ALT TEXT

Jacques-from-Brussels

Aussie Cyril’s permissiveness re: ‘doctoring’ his photographs has disinhibited me. I am re-visiting all the photos emailed to me by attendees of that first session with the Shanghai Art Nude Photography Group. I’ve cropped this pic by Jacques-from-Brussels to make it more of a ‘hand’ study.

At one a.m. I am still at my makeshift desk (the chest of drawers in the bedroom). Behind me, Bel is on her bed asleep. I am delighted with my night’s creativity. So what, if it’s not writing creativity? This is me in these pictures: I claim the right to change my own look. After all I have my own ideas, and I have the software.
    The only images I have not touched are the ones sent me by Fei Mo Di. His are perfect. Which seems amazing, considering we didn’t like each other. Or maybe it’s because of that? For him I am not a woman but a series of shapes, interestingly shaded. So what. He’s just a French horn.
    Am I disturbing Bel? She’s not in that deep sleep where you can hear the breathing. Never mind – I’ll quickly email one of my best results to Cyril. Maybe he’s still up. Get his opinion.

Good evening Cyril
First, re the crop I sent you of your ‘
apres Freud’ pic – don’t worry about me “looking like a victim”. A victim of whom? I do this by choice. And just to let you know – you’re not the only photographer whose work I am adulterating. I’ve been working on some of Jacques’ photos. His shots of my Schiele poses were not at all Schiele-esque. Not edgy, not spiky, and (unlike some of yours) utterly unsexy. Attached is one of his I’ve drastically modified. Your thoughts?

Aussie Cyril must wear his cell-phone next to his heart. His response is almost instant.

Good evening to you, Suki! The attached ‘hand study’ reminds me of some of Alfred Stieglitz‘s pictures of his model Georgia O’Keefe. I am looking forward to seeing more of your crops. Please tell me – which Art Nude photographers do you like? Yours, Cyril sent from my iPhone

A sudden movement – Bel abruptly getting up. She sidles past to the toilet.
    Is she pissed off? Have I kept her awake? I’ll just shoot off a quick answer.

Don’t really know any except Lee Miller, though she is more model and muse for Man Ray than photographer in her own right – yes? C u tomoz S

I turn off the lamp, go the bathroom after Bel has come (wordlessly) back, clean my teeth. ‘Ping!’ – another email. Oh dear, I know she’s annoyed but I just want to take a quick look. In the dark I creep back to the laptop.

My dear Suki, re Lee Miller, in my opinion she was a photo-journalist more than art photographer – see this link. If you will permit me, I would be delighted to regale you with some Art Nude history. I’ve got so many books I can lend you from my very extensive photographic library accumulated during many, many years of Media Studies lectureships, too many years, how can I be so old? (-: Luckily I have not yet begun the process of shipping them back to Australia. I think you’ll find it interesting to look first at the Photo-Secessionist movement founded in 1902, led by Stieglitz. This is the movement that insisted on Art Nude photography becoming accepted as ‘art’. I’ll give you a book tomorrow. In fact it’s already tomorrow, and time for a beauty to get her beauty-sleep, so I’ll wish you goodnight! Sent from my iPhone

    ‘That Cyril?’
    I slide into my bed – ‘yes.’
    ‘Predatory.’


 

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