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 242016
 



ALT TEXT

Aussie Cyril

My spiky Schiele-esque crop of one of Aussie Cyril’s pics. Not at all suited to the festive season. But this Christmas is looking like a write-off anyway.

I wake up to find a text from ex-flingette Tamara:

Hey! Wish u cool yuletide. U getting on wid ur writing, u clever novelist?

Sigh.
    I reach for my iPad, shoot her an email (cheaper than international texting).

No not my manuscript. But readin JG Ballard about Shanghai wartime anarchy which is makin me write apocalyptic poems. Bel has put one on her blog this week if u fancy a read.

I doze until – ping! – Tamara replies.

Re poem – Shanghai and Bel are clearly bad for your mental health. I am good for your mental health. You SO need directing. I would direct you.

Bel’s bed is already empty. I get up to make tea and find her at the window, frowning out at the dirt-heavy sky, an unlit cigarette between her fingers.
    ‘Look’ – I show her today’s Air Quality Index graph on my iPad. The red line has steeply risen to ‘unhealthy’. Everyone may begin to experience health effects, members of sensitive groups may experience more serious health effects. Likelihood of respiratory symptoms and breathing difficulty. Citizens are advised to limit prolonged or heavy exertion outdoors.
    I grimace: ‘bad start to the day.’
    I barely catch her murmur.
    ‘What did you say? “What a thing to have in common”? What thing?’
    ‘The death of a child.’
    ‘Oh god,’ – an even worse start to the day – ‘you too? Your daughter?’
    Bel lights her cigarette. ‘It’s just… a dark thought.’
    ‘What is?’
    But I seem unheard. She is staring out at nothing. Then – ‘And all from a one-night stand.’ Is her little laugh ironic?
    Pause.
    I try to prompt. ‘At one time I myself was obsessed with wanting to be a mum.’
    Bel’s fingers are trembling. Maybe from emotion.
    She flicks ash. ‘I sometimes wish she’d never…’
    What?
    The rain starts. Little spits. Not enough to wash the filth from the air.
    What?Surely not…
    When I find a reply, my voice comes out funny. Like, too low. ‘Look, I don’t know what to…’
    But Bel abruptly steps out onto the balcony, into the rain.
    God. How have I ended up living with such a strange person? I don’t normally relate this badly. I’ve got friends, me.
    Well, not here in Shanghai, obviously.
    I join Bel outside. Racket! The building-site blasting away. ‘Erm. D’you want to talk?’
    Drizzle is settling on the grey frizz of her untended hair. Below us, the concocted Disney-esque landscaping; tawdry, on this grey December day. Beyond the campus wall, the incessant soundtrack of construction. Urgent clanking and drilling. On the horizon, scores of cranes that seem to multiply daily.
    ‘A decade ago there was nothing here except swamp.’ Bel is lighting another cigarette from her stub. ‘And I believe in another decade it’ll all be gone again.’
    ‘What – this suburb, or Shanghai?’ Pause. ‘Or the world?’
    ‘Fake is easier to live with than real.’
    Does she mean that positively or negatively? And how can she chain-smoke – isn’t the pollution quite enough?
    The drilling is horrendous. I zip back indoors. Relief!
    Oh how I love my iPad! A couple of jolly Christmassy emails. Tiffany! I’m even grateful for one from the plumber.
    But I need to escape further from all this. ‘Just popping to the Delightful Peony,’ I call out. ‘Quick stretch of legs.’
    No response.
    Hanging on the flat’s outside door-handle is – surprise – a gift from Aussie Cyril! Back from Australia! When was he at the door? Bel probably wouldn’t be happy about this. I shove it in my bag.
    In the café I unwrap it. A really interesting book: ‘The Lives of the Muses: Nine Women and the Artists They Inspired’. Inside is a rambling note.

Merry Christmas to my precious muse!
Please forgive my disappearance. Personal matters in Melbourne are now decisively dealt with and I am very happy to have ended that chapter for ever. On to higher things: am curious to hear your thoughts about Edward Weston, some of whose photos you may view on this link. His muse, Charis, is a subject of this book. Well. my dear Suki, I have no wish to intrude on the revelries you are undoubtedly having with your friends. Personally I will be spending Christmas quietly, alone, in nostalgic reverie rather than revelry. Such is life – but there is at least a bright star on the horizon who gives me delight and hopefulness for the future.

I could call Cyril. Now. Get him to whisk me from the Delightful Peony to… to the Peace Hotel, or the Radisson. A rooftop champagne bar
    Aussie Cyril? Yeuch! How can I even contemplate that idea for one nano-second?
    Because it’s bloody Christmas Eve.
    Because I am lonely.


 

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