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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Apr 072016
 



ALT TEXT

Mike Little

At my first session (New Year’s Day) with Mike Little’s dotty artist wife, Trish, she draws me on her iPad, all the while chattering incomprehensibly about Saussure’s signs and referents and abstraction. Then she projects the drawings onto my body, and Mike photographs me. Meanwhile Bel, in fly-on-the-wall mode, is getting material for a movie about Trish’s work. Creative collaboration, or what?

1st January. Bel is let off lessons. The new year begins with us slobbing in bed, drinking Columbian coffee, reading.
    ‘He’s definitely after you.’ Bel tosses aside a note.
    ‘Oh – is that my note from Cyril?’
    ‘You left it in this book he gave you. Do you like being considered his “muse”?’
    ‘God, no. I hate how he puts me in that role, being so over-complimentary and acquiescent and submissive with me.’
    ‘Told you he’s into submission.’
    ‘Yes, I know.’
    ‘Proper BDSM scene. Collars and chains.’ She is looking at me a bit sternly. ‘Does that give you “writing ideas”? That why you want to do more shoots with him?’
    Sigh. ‘He pays me, Bel. That’s the main reason. And secondly, I have free rein to mess about with his mundane photos and turn them into fantastic images. I love that.’
    But Bel has stuck her head back into ‘Chinese Whispers’, the book her brother sent. Is she sulking?
    I grab back Cyril’s ‘The lives of the muses’ and open it at random:

Charis knew that Weston had a horror of female competition, therefore never touched a camera herself. …a swooning acolyte who fell at Weston’s feet… united with him in a common purpose – his life’s work as a photographer…’

I try to re-engage with Bel. ‘You know – Lee Miller is in here as Man Ray’s so-called muse, but she just isn’t one. Not like Charis Weston was. Lee Miller used Man Ray to learn and perfect her own photographic skills.’
    ‘Charis who?’
    ‘The model and second wife of that obnoxious photographer Edward Weston. He picked her up when he was 48 and she was only 19.’
    ‘Oh. I quite like Edward Weston, though.’
    ‘…humourless and egotistic, it says here.
    ‘His photos.’
    Success! I’ve got Bel talking about photography. ‘Shall I make us more coffee?’

The kitchen stinks of drains. The superficial semblance of a decent fitted kitchen doesn’t bear close inspection. Blackened cracks vein the worktops. Door hinges are broken. We put up with the mess of mysterious leaks and dirt traps. It’s a mere temporary residence, after all.
    Waiting for the coffee to percolate, I receive a call.
    A chirpy voice: ‘Hello Suki and happy new year to you! Mike Little here. We met at the Shanghai Art Nude Photographers’ group about three months ago. Listen – might you be interested in a series of shoots led by my wife Trish who’s an artist?’
    ‘Hey – brilliant! New Year, new opportunities! Totally interested!’
    ‘Lovely jubbly. It’s her Masters project. Something to do with the Swiss semiotician Saussure. I’m just along for the ride. Well: if you can drop by this afternoon for a first ‘go’, we could make a New Year’s Day party of it? Bring Bel along! Long time no see – she hasn’t been to the group for months.’
    ‘Wonderful. Don’t worry, I’ll drag her out.’
    ‘Champion! That’ll be grand.’
    ‘Just thinking on my feet now, Mike: could Bel be a fly-on-the-wall for this project and make a film recording its progression? Would Trish be up for that? Bel’s made some great movies; we can show you some.’
    ‘Sounds magic! Happy days – let’s discuss it anon.’

When I return to the bedroom with tea, Bel looks up from her book. ‘I’m like Somerset Maugham.’
    ‘Good grief,’ I set down her cup, ‘why?’
    ‘He felt alienated from the Chinese. Way back in 1900. Just like I do now. Listen to this: ‘You cannot tell what are the lives of those thousands who surge about you. Upon your own people sympathy and knowledge give you a hold: you can enter into their lives, at least imaginatively… But these [Chinese] are as strange to you as you are to them. You have no clue to their mystery. For their likeness to yourself in so much does not help you; it serves rather to emphasize their difference.’ Bel’s face is desolate. ‘That’s like me. I have no connection with my students. They don’t want to know me. They’d be more interested in me if I had a Gucci handbag. If I were a Gucci handbag.’
    I sigh. ‘Never mind – we’ve just been invited to a party.’
    ‘But don’t you identify with him, Suki?’
    ‘Look Bel – it’s New Year’s Day. Think of positives. Plans for this year.’
    ‘Right. So’ – Bel snaps shut her book, tosses it aside – ‘when are you going to write your novel, Suki?’
    ‘When are you finally going to start your Art Nude project with me, Bel?’
    ‘Dunno. It’s the teaching. Takes up my headspace.’
    ‘That’s not the real issue.’ I take Bel by the shoulders and ask, dangerously, ‘Why are you really here?’
    ‘What are you really doing here, Suki?’
    Holding each other (at arm’s length), we laugh. Raucously, theatrically: what is this life? – ha ha ha… (furiously, desperately) – ha ha ha why have we run away to China ? Why?…


 

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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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