Sep 012016
 



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David Rodriguez

Columbian artist David Rodriguez employed me and two other women to do a shoot for his project ‘The Three Graces’ about the dynamic between threesomes of women.

Elise’s funeral will take place tomorrow. My ‘How’s it going’ email to Bel has had no answer.

But I get distracted from my anxiety. Wonderfully. A one-off booking with an artist pal of Fei Mo Di devolves into a playful romp!
    David Rodriguez’ studio is in an attic in a dilapidated, picturesque 1930s low-rise apartment complex. It’s only a few blocks as the crow flies from Aussie Cyril’s villa, but this district has an altogether different character from the leafy elegance of Cyril’s address. Lanes, alleyways, looping electrical cables; steep, dark wooden staircases; shared stone sinks on each landing, washing lines and dangling wash-cloths, hubbub of family life in nooks and behind doors.
    I reach the top of the house. His door is open, last night’s lover just leaving – a pretty, childlike thing: long bony legs; wire-rimmed small, circular glasses on her cute nose; a whimsical straw bonnet.

David: Latin-American, laid-back, charming, disarming, his welcoming grin ear to ear.
    I’ve met the other two models once before. Fei Mo Di made brief introductions at Trish Little’s glitzy preview night a few weeks ago, then gossiped to me about them later. Alvira, a New Yorker, voluptuous, Afro-Caribbean heritage, Harvard-educated, feminist, lesbian, in Shanghai to start up a company manufacturing sex-toys. Wei Wei, Taiwanese, spent a dozen years in Paris, works in perfume design. Taiwan isn’t China, pointed out Fei Mo Di, which is how come Wei Wei is able to be, in her behaviour, quite a Lee Miller type: liberated, uninhibited, free-thinking, and knowledgeable about the world, as well as elegant and beautiful.

Before the shoot starts we strip off and sit about, naked, comfortably warm – it is almost April – drinking Columbian espresso. The flat is three decrepit rooms filled with David’s oil paintings hung randomly or leaning haphazardly on walls, none of which, he moans, have fully dried, due to the humidity. Is that why the medium of watercolour has always prevailed here?
    Garulous Alvira puts David on the spot. ‘So. Is this about race? About femaleness? Or are you into erotica? Do you want porn?’
    ‘I don’t know yet.’ David puts his laptop on the table in front of us.
    ‘I show you images of three women I found by other photographers. See this one – Terry Richardson is well known as an erotic photographer so the idea to please men, the pleasure, is really a part of his choice. But this one here – a woman photographer – Ellen von Unwerth is more ambiguous. And next, John Currin: a part of his work is also related to pornography… But it is also about clichés in popular imagery. See – it is complicated. I mean, is his motive ironic?’
    We discuss all of this boisterously, drink coffee, crack sexist jokes, tease David. He breaks into our messing about, wanting to explain more.
    ‘See here: these are artists’ depictions of The Three Graces. In these classical paintings I cannot really say whether the idea was to please the looker, as we conceive it now, but yes – most of these were painted by men.’
    At last he picks up his camera. We are still sprawled, chatting, relaxing, a pleasant window draught keeping at bay the first mosquitoes.
    ‘So, ladies, I do not think it is essential to refer ourselves to those images, or the conventions, but I think we cannot ignore them neither. And as for the voyeur who is witnessing the moment… myself, the photographer… well, you should completely ignore me. I am not looking for a particular pose but rather to be able to extrapolate moments from the interrelation between the three of you. I am not asking you to please me somehow.’

Four nationalities. None of us mainland Chinese. A morning spent under a wooden roof with skylight views onto makeshift roof-gardens and rickety balconies and crammed-in house-fronts decorated with lines of washing strung like bunting. And yet we are disengaged from the world beyond David’s rooms, from Shanghai and the Chinese, enjoying the solidarity of thrown-together aliens.
    It does me good. For three hours, my worries are suspended. We have such a laugh. I am ready to laugh, after yesterday’s desolate goodbye.

How to go on being pleasurably distracted?
    I have forward-planned for this afternoon. I’ve brought the J.G. Ballard autobiography that Bel went on about, ‘Miracles of Life’, about his childhood in Shanghai’s elite international community in the 1930s followed by the gloom and doom of England. I will find a Starbucks and settle in.

Anything rather than return to the empty flat.


 

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Aug 112016
 



ALT TEXT

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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