Sep 222016
 



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Tom Wood

The point of including this photo is to educate Aussie Cyril. Artist Tom Wood, who took the photo, has painted me looking like a boy lots of times. Both of the figures in this painting are me.

A whole week spent by myself. One more week to go. I am pleased with myself that I am managing alone. I have lost 2.3 kilos. I email Mike Little and Fei Mo Di to organize the launch of ‘Qi Qi’s life-room’ before Bel’s return so she doesn’t have to suffer a social occasion. Yes – me, mustering a party! Does this mean I do have friends in Shanghai?

At last I tidy up. Strewn all around the flat are print-outs of articles that Bel has found important. The fuel for her apocalyptic visions. I pile the sheets on her desk. Or should I bin them?
    I skim through the familiar ‘anti-capitalism’ one by Pankaj Mishra.

‘…More and more people feel the gap between the profligate promises of individual freedom and sovereignty, and the incapacity of their political and economic organisations to realise them… Frustration tends to be highest in countries that have a large population of educated young men … find themselves unable to fulfil the promise of self-empowerment… For many of them, the contradiction has become intolerable.’

The next paragraph has China!!! written in the margin:

‘…Xi Jinping and other demagogues of developing countries deploy… jingoistic nationalism and cross-border militarism as a valve for domestic tensions…’

There’s more about the Chinese government’s “self-legitimizing narrative”: a hybrid of national heritage, i.e. Mao-plus-Confucius…

‘…They have also retro-fitted old-style nationalism for their growing populations of uprooted citizens, who harbour yearnings for belonging and community as well as material plenitude.’

This is happening right here, where I am. I look out over the university campus’s high wall, see the bolted-together uniform metal huts along along its perimeter. You see them everywhere. Housing for the new migrants. Dormitories with shared outdoor hot water taps and a toilet block. Country folk who are marshalled into building the new apartment blocks, but can then only hopelessly stare up at them. The ‘good life’ fairytale is far out of reach for so many people.

I can’t read more of this worrisome stuff. I retreat to the bedroom, my makeshift desk, my iPad.
    God. Another email from Cyril. Don’t know if I can bear him any more.

Darling Suki,
a propos your remarks about portraits of you by artists being easier to distance yourself from than photographs: I have been browsing online and found various painted portraits of you by several of your former employers which unkindly make you look masculine. See here, here and here. I do not understand how you can be unperturbed by such as these, while rejecting my photographs in which you look so beautiful.

Sigh. He doesn’t get it. He doesn’t get me.

Cyril, I like looking like a man.

I don’t send it.
    Ping! An email arriving from Bel!
    It’s sent from her phone. No words, just a link – uncanny, I can hardly believe it – to this same Pankaj Mishra article. Telepathy? At least she’s alive – but still obsessing over bad news.

Hi Bel, how did the funeral go? Are you okay? How are you?



 

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Aug 252016
 



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Precocious Loiza

This pic is Precocious Loiza’s thank-you gift for my having been part of her Art A-level project. She got an “A-star”. She hadn’t shown me this one before. Kept it back as a surprise.

Unspoken goodbyes. At the street-side, beside the college’s waiting airport car, Lily Hong flings herself against Bel like a puppy. ‘Meet you at airport after fourteen days. Don’t worry, be happy!’
    ‘Be sure to get a chest x-ray,’ I say, as I too give Bel a hug.
    She gives a wooden one back. ‘Fake.’ Her grin is humourless. She gets into the car, and it drives away.
    I feel sick. ‘She‘s depressed enough to chuck herself out of the plane.’
    ‘I don’t understand,’ says Lily Hong miserably. ‘What mean depress, what mean chuck?’
    ‘S’okay. Nothing.’ I might never see Bel again. Paranoid thought? Anyway I don’t know what to do or who to tell, so I go about my day as planned, heading out into the surreal half-light, what Bel calls the ‘fake mist’ – man-made, from filth – for my appointment.

Nanjing Road West. Starbucks. I come up behind Precocious Loiza, and see over her shoulder a familiar bondage photograph – a Japanese woman semi-clad in traditional robes, trussed up with rope and suspended.
    ‘Oh!’ She jumps, then – ‘He-eyy!’ – reaches to pull me down by the neck for a kiss on the lips.
    ‘How’s art college?’ I hear a rasp in my own voice after sixty minutes of inhaling dirt.
    Precocious Loiza points back at her iPad. ‘This is the bag I’ve totally gotten into in my second semester at the Slade. I love Araki’s work.’
    I set down my rucksack, ‘Can I get you another drink?’
    ‘Tall skinny decaf latte thanks, and a biscotti. Wow, you’ve gone anorexic! Tamara says you were anorexic before she fed you up. In Year 10 at school we were forced to discuss this article about how very young models are coerced into retaining their pubescent shape instead of letting themselves physically develop. The school was, like, paranoid that we were all about to starve ourselves. Mind you, two girls did die of eating disorders but frankly they were loopy anyway and one of them had been, like, raped. Amazing that you’re starving yourself even at your age – looks like you need Tamara again.’
    ‘Yes. Gosh. No. I mean, great to see you. Back in a tick.’
    Do I “need Tamara again”?

When I return with drinks, Precocious has unzipped a large folio-carrier which she holds open to show me an enlarged photograph. ‘For you. Tamara’s got the same one but three times bigger on the wall above her sofa.’ Next, she rummages in her leather tote bag. ‘And she asked me to give you this.’
    It is a fat, weighty padded envelope, the top of which has been firmly stapled closed. Bombarded, I feel limp; and underlying that, a profound desolation. ‘Thanks for all this Loiza…’
    ‘So what do you think of Araki? Do you know he has sex with all his models? Like Picasso did, only with Araki it’s a high principle. He’s, like, totally against objectification!’ She reads off from her iPad: ‘Of course I had sex with all my models… I needed to break down the me-and-you barrier. I can say that I have collapsed the previous tradition of photography that emphasized objectivity. In the past, photographers felt they had to eliminate their subjectivity as much as possible. I consider myself a “subjective” photographer.’
    Into my despondent silence the eighteen year-old suddenly orders – ‘You should leave Shanghai. My parents have gone back to the UK. They said they were being poisoned by the air and the food and that nothing is safe.’
    ‘People like me can’t afford to live in the UK. I’m a loser in the UK. Fucking neoliberalism.’
    ‘Embrace it! Marry someone rich – then it’s awesome! I’m going to.’

When I get home I open Tamara’s envelope. It contains a massive wad of 100 Yan notes, and a note.

I know your birthday is May, but this is a gift in advance. I do not imagine for one nano-second that you are going to remain happily ever after in Shanghai, so this is to cover the cost of a flight to Heathrow and a taxi to my apartment. When you’re ready.



 

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Aug 112016
 



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Aussie Cyril

Aussie Cyril’s photo. My crop, my adjustments. My body. My creation.

Air Quality Index: Hazardous. Serious aggravation of heart or lung disease; premature mortality in people with cardiopulmonary disease and the elderly. Severe respiratory symptoms such as wheezing and shortness of breath in people with asthma; aggravation of other lung diseases. Increasingly severe respiratory effects likely in the general population. Impairment of strenuous activities and serious risk of respiratory effects in general population.

    ‘Bel, you cannot go out in this filthy air. I’m phoning Lily Hong to say you’re off sick again. They can cancel your classes – half the students won’t show up in this, anyway.’
    After phoning, I take Bel’s breakfast to her bedside. Ominously her nose is already stuck in her iPad.
    ‘Oh dear.’
    ‘Listen to this – the novelist Yu Hua summing up modern China: “So intense is the competition and so unbearable the pressure that, for many Chinese, survival is like war itself. In this environment the strong prey on the weak, people enrich themselves through brute force and deception, and the meek and humble suffer while the bold and scrupulous flourish”’.
    ‘This country is upsetting your equilibrium. Here. Drink your tea. Maybe you shouldn’t come back after all, when you’re done in Antwerp.’
    The look on Bel’s face chills me. ‘Joke!’ I plonk myself on her bed. ‘Don’t you dare not come back! What the heck will I do? They’d throw me out on the street in a minute. I’d be living in one of those migrant workers’ temporary huts…’
    Bel coughs hard, then looks grave. ‘The truth is – the truth that’s denied by the capitalists is – there’s no such thing as a level playing field.’
    ‘Look, Bel – maybe you should watch a nice movie or something. Reading the news is bad for your health.’
    ‘In a minute. Listen – this article by Pankaj Mishra is so important, about how capitalism developed and how we are responsible for it. We British, I mean. It fits exactly with the stuff J.G. Ballard wrote about. Mishra says the belief systems and institutions we initiated – like, the global market economy and stuff – caused the big fuck-up of Europe and this is what’s now also fucking up Asia and Africa. It’s like, there’s no alternative any more. Socialism finally died a quarter of a century ago, and since then this capitalist paradigm of desire and consumption has spread right across the globe.’ She looks up at me from her iPad. ‘Why the big sigh?’
    ‘It’s just all too much, Bel.’ I sip my tea (evil British colonialist Typhoo).
    ‘But this is so important. Capitalism relies on everyone believing in the level playing field, when in truth it’s purely and inhumanly a machinery for economic growth, or in other words, the enrichment of the few. Listen: ‘Since 1989, the “neo-liberal fantasy of individualism” whereby talent, education and hard work are rewarded by individual mobility, has proliferated and spread worldwide, even as structural inequality has become ever more deeply entrenched…’ It’s what’s wrong in China…’
    ‘Look. We can’t do anything about this. Why get so upset?’
    Bel plows on: ‘‘…The American illusion of equality of conditions which says “anyone can make it if they try” spreads false hope.’ Plus, it promotes being an entrepreneur to a higher status than any other occupation.’
    ‘Everyone in Shanghai is an entrepreneur!’
    Not true! Not those guys out there right now digging up that tree;’ Bel points out of the window, ‘those migrant workers from the countryside who live in those prefab huts. That’s China. People like them.’
    ‘So do you think there’ll be a revolution? Or is an apocalyptic catastrophe due to climate change the more likely thing to hit Shanghai first?’
    ‘Social unrest. It’ll start with social unrest. The trouble is, people’s sense of their own powerlessness and deprivation is much worse today because everyone, everywhere, including poor people, has tellies and mobile phones where they can see other people’s wonderful lives. Resentment builds up because we can constantly compare our crap lives with the lives of the wealthy and privileged…’ She suddenly looks hard at my skinny wrist. ‘You need to eat. You’re really scrawny.’
    At last I’ve distracted her from politics!
    She never, ever comments on how I look… What does this mean?


 

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