Jul 282016
 



ALT TEXT

Aussie Cyril

Aussie Cyril says the work of Ruth Bernhard inspired this photo. He pointed me to Bernhard’s ‘mission statement’, as summarised in the Peter Lacey book:
    ‘Every artist is a missionary trying to convey a message of truth and beauty; further, the immortalization of the human body’s beauty – both male and female – has always been an obsession for poets, sculptors, painters and now photographers. However, in her twentieth century context, the image of woman is being cheapened and exploited – especially by photography. Thus Bernhard saw it as her life’s task “to raise, to elevate, to endorse with timeless reverence the image of woman”’.
    Aussie Cyril seems entirely at ease with Bernhard’s quasi-religious attitudes. Cyril, too, has a similar reverence for women. Tuh. His photos from the latest shoot still aim to beautify me.

The BBC is blocked today. They must have done something to wazz off the Chinese government. My VPN isn’t working either. Routed out and blocked.
    I hate it. I hate not having free internet access. I hate living in a totalitarian state.
    So when am I going to leave?
    What if – terrifying thought – Bel didn’t come back from Antwerp?
    She’s spent the whole weekend til now beavering on the ‘Qi Qi’s life-room’ movie. Silent. Shutting me out. But it’s better than obsessing over the world’s bad news, I suppose. She’s still got to put the subtitles on, but I’m sure she’ll get it done. There’s another weekend before she flies.
    ‘Just off to my shoot with Cyril!’ I want as many fistfuls of yuan as I can get out of Cyril. I’m jittery about my cash-flow during the time Bel will be away.

    ‘Good morning, darling Suki-muse.’ Cyril hands me my usual ginger latte from the downstairs wannabe-Starbucks.
    But I am cross. ‘Don’t, Cyril. Muse is not the word. It’s as bad as saying Lee Miller was Man Ray’s “muse”: it positions her behind him, like, in a purely supportive role, when actually it was Lee who invented that famous ‘solarisation’ technique.’
    ‘Alright. I’ll call you my darling directrice.’
    ‘Tsk. Stop it. Look, the facts are, (a) Lee spent at the very most three years with Man Ray, and (b) she used that relatively brief relationship as an apprenticeship to further her own, not his, photographic career.’
    ‘All I mean is, you inspire me. Give me something to do. Without you, I don’t really have… here in Shanghai…’
    God I don’t want to hear this – ‘Cyril! Listen – a proper muse is someone like Charis Wilson; it was her raison d’etre to further the work of her photographer husband. Like, it was her sacred obligation. Whereas I do not further your work, Cyril. I chop it up and make it mine. Muse is not the word for me. It’s your silly fantasy.’
    He pats my bottom. ‘Deary me – which side of the bed did you get out of this morning?’
    Why am I risking upsetting him with honesty? He’s paying me more than the going rate. Pretence works for both of us.
    ‘Cyril. Sorry. Let’s just get on with the shoot.’
    Allowing the bottom-pat is just necessity. But I decline his lunch invitation.

So I‘m back in the flat in time to have lunch with Bel, which for once I myself cook. Maybe we’ll talk! Though I’ve given up prompting her on the subjects of her daughter, her past, herself…
    I prepare instant noodles with flair, serve Bel at the table with a flourish, and embark on an interesting topic.
    ‘Bel. I have a question. Art Nude photographers, even female photographers, mainly photograph women. Whether exploitatively or reverentially, it’s always women. Why?’
    Carefully, as though teaching a little child: ‘Because women are more beautiful.’ Then, with chopsticks halfway to her mouth – ‘Well, except for Mapplethorpe and his gay stuff, obviously.’
    ‘Okay, so I have another question: why don’t men – straight men – make themselves beautiful? It’s not as though they don’t get looked at, in this day and age. Why don’t they feel themselves being looked at, and get self-conscious and worried like we do? I mean – Aussie Cyril’s obese. Mike Little wears a zip-up fleece and socks and sandals, need I say more. Jacques-from-Brussels clearly never bathes. Hong Kong Ron, that friend of my friend Tamara, is a buttockless little shrimp in unflattering spectacles.’ I scoop at the noodles’ grey soup. ‘There’s only Fei Mo Di who looks good.’
    ‘Obviously. He’s a French horn.’
    ‘But the rest of them – they make me want to holler Hey – you men – it’s the 21st century and people are looking at you…!’
    ‘I’m not.’
    ‘…They should get their peacock tails out! They should make themselves more attractive! Just make a bloody effort, guys.’


 

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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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