Jul 142016
 



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Bel

One of Bel’s pics from her fly-on-the-wall shoot at Qi Qi’s café-bar. I suggest she modifies it to give the body a more radical outline like Man Ray’s and Lee Miller’s solarisation technique. It could even be made to look like Ferenc Berko’s experiments, which were unique in his time (1960s): he created images that looked like sketches, nearly abstract. But Bel ignores my advice. She is no Cyril.

When not teaching, Bel is obsessively working on the movie about Qi Qi’s life drawing session. Late into the night. Again before breakfast. As though there’s no tomorrow – though we are still six days from the deadline she has set herself for its completion: her flight to Holland.
    It means there’s even less chance to talk.

Afternoon. The Delightful Peony. By now – mid-March – it no longer matters that the café’s heater doesn’t work: the temperature is ambient. Shrubs in the roadside-landscaping are beginning to blossom.
    Another email from Cyril. His education of me continues. Or does he consider this to be “courtship”?

Darling Suki-muse! Ferenc Berko “turned to the nude for her beauty and challenge”. What do you think? Another romantic, like me? Cxxx

Dear Cyril, re Berko: that’s interesting because life-drawers similarly talk about ‘challenge’ – yet are coy about, or actually deny, looking for beauty. And what, anyway, is ‘beautiful’? “The curve of the neck, the turn of an ankle”, comments artist Helen Wheatley in Bel’s docu-movie ‘Under the gaze’ (watch it – it’s brilliant). Berko seems to emphasise the torso. He shows very few faces. And uses lighting and textures to create a mood. Yes – he is definitely another romantic. Not realistic.
    So – what do I think? Yuk. Give me realism and grotesquery any day. Sorry to disappoint. S

Evening.
    I deliver another cup of tea to Bel’s desk.
    She pulls out her ear-phones. Her breathing today seems calm and easy. ‘The sound-track’s great, though I say so myself. Got any biscuits?’
    Enthusiasm! For once, a smiley face! ‘Of course it’s great. You’re brilliant. I’ll bring the Oreos.’
    Bel stretches in her seat. ‘It’s mostly Maria Callas singing an aria – Qi Qi’s choice. But I’ve just realised we’ll need subtitles for these vox-pops I’ve edited in. I can’t ask Lily Hong, her English is too poor. Who can we get to do it for free?’
    ‘Fei Mo Di’s the obvious person. He’s the only person I’ve met who’s totally bilingual. I could offer in exchange another one-to-one shoot with me for free. I’ll go message him.’
    But when I return from texting in the kitchen (better reception at the kitchen window), Bel is pacing, scowling at her iPad. ‘This is really scary, Suki.’
    ‘What?’ I sigh, holding out the biscuit tin. She ignores it. How can her mood have changed so suddenly?
    ‘Global demand for food is outstripping supply because of climate change. In some parts of China villagers are abandoning the countryside because the land is too depleted to raise flocks or grow food. It’s even starting in Japan. Huge areas of Africa and China are turning into dust bowls on a scale that dwarfs the 1930s one in America. This American scientist Lester Brown says it’s all coming to a head – and he’s never been wrong in any of his predictions.’
    ‘Don’t you want an Oreo?’ Then – ping! A text from Fei Mo Di.

Yes, am up for this skills exchange, curious re Bel movie, wd like to support. Yes can do subtls tomoz, lets meet, also how about shoot 24 March my place like before?

    ‘Hey, Fei Mo Di‘s agreed!’
    But Bel is still agitated. ‘Look – there’s already millions and millions of people in poor countries who can only afford to eat five days a week – even actual water is running out because of over-pumping. In northern and western China, and somewhere in Africa, people are running out of land to grow food.’ She looks up, her eyes desperate. ‘It’s all going to collapse. I watched the Twin Towers live on TV as they collapsed. All this. Here in Shanghai. It could all come tumbling down in a minute.’

Bel, you so frighten me.


 

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Apr 212016
 



ALT TEXT

Mike Little

Another belly pic by Mike Little, from the second session with Trish his artist wife who projects her drawings onto me. According to the philosopher-semiotician Saussure (says Trish), the words we use are not a true record of the reality that we are looking at, they are ‘motivated signs’ – and the meaning is only within the sign. Bel was recording Trish‘s ramblings: ‘There was a movement among painters away from attempts to paint realistically; you know – figuratively. I think this was due to a distrust, because they thought that this kind of “realism” pretended that it knew what the world was like…’

Good morning Cyril,
have read all the photographers’ essays in this book you’ve lent me. I like Lucien Clergue best for his prioritisation – even above setting up the cameras – of his relationship with the model. “Both the model and I may be completely exhausted at the end of a session, but it’s a good kind of exhaustion”. He says that, when photographing the model, he is completely content. Some of the others in this book – they couldn’t give a toss about the model as a human being. Can’t write more, Bel is just bringing through our elevenses.
Suki

Days have gone by with no proper conversation with Bel. Not my fault. If she talked, I’d talk. What’s the story of her child? Why is Elise in a psychiatric hospital?
    Then this morning, over our tea-break, a conversation happens.
    ‘Your turn.’ She sets down two cups of English tea on my desk in the bedroom. ‘Why are you really here?’ She settles on the bed. ‘I mean, it’s not all about writing your novel, is it.’
    The question is chilling. I shiver. The January weather, too, is chilly. Humidity, when the temperature drops and there is no adequate indoor heater, gets into your very bones. Could I make Bel happy by saying I came to Shanghai to be with you?
    But I have to be honest. ‘Um. Okay, I’m avoiding my unsuccessful life.’
    Bel reaches over, squeezes my arm (it’s always a shock when we touch): ‘Still on your quest,’ she says, generously.
    ‘Actually, you know, something’s started haunting me – I mean, being here, with time to reflect: I keep reading articles about women giving birth at fifty. Ageing first-time mums are all over the news. If you’ve got enough money you can make it happen.’
    ‘God. Materialism in extremis.’
    ‘But I’m jealous.’
    ‘Look, Suki. Being a parent can ruin your life. And that’s even people like us with all the benefits and support of living in the West. Wait’ – she leaves the room.
    Is she going to show me something to do with Elise? Photos? But she returns with – oh god – not another article, which she urgently skim-reads, then summarises:
    ‘Listen: tens of millions of poor people in countries like Nigeria, India, Pakistan and Peru can only afford to eat for five days each week. Most of the world is exhausting its ground water because of overpumping… la la la…’ – she skims down – ‘…yields are flat-lining in Japan… Here! In northern and Western China, and the Sahel region of Africa which is an area wracked by insurgency and conflict, people are running out of land to grow food. Millions of acres the world over are turning into wasteland because of over-farming and over-grazing!’
    ‘It sounds a bit sensationalist, Bel. I wouldn’t just take it all as read.’
    ‘This American scientist Lester Brown who’s never been wrong about any prediction is saying it.’
    ‘Look, just don’t worry about big stuff, Bel. Enjoy little stuff. This cup of tea.’
    But Bel has dropped back into her default mode.
    I’m rubbish at dealing with my own depression, never mind hers.

Evening. It is a relief to go out of the flat for the second session at Trish and Mike Little’s place. A good distraction for Bel.
    Video-camera in hand, she unobtrusively gets to work.
    ‘Is your neck ok?’ Mike fusses over me, supervising my positions. ‘Are you warm enough? Do you want to sit in that chair? We’ll have a cake break in a bit. Happy days!’ Then gets on again with his pedantic, conscientious photographing.
    Trish bumbles about, switching different spotlights on and off, shifting her projector to create new shapes on my body. ‘I’ve been getting my ideas from this Swiss guy Saussure, who advocated “the detachment of the sign from the referent”. Are you with me? It’s all ever so difficult…’
    ‘Clever, isn’t she,’ Mike grins indulgently. He takes another careful photograph. And another. And all the while, Bel – gifted photo-journalist and film-maker extraordinaire – sidles around us, doing what she is brilliant at; a silent presence, close to the room’s walls, by necessity an outsider, recording it all with her unique eye.


 

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Apr 142016
 



ALT TEXT

Jacques-from-Brussels

I’ve photoshopped more of Jacques-from-Brussels’ shots from that first group session. Though Jacques is a keen life-long photo-journalist with excellent kit, we just didn’t have a rapport. Now that I have cropped this one to emphasise my hideous belly and taken out some colour, intentionally “making an ugly thing happen” (to quote Helmut Newton, preceding his emphatic declaration that he “would never do that to a woman”), I do like this pic. I want Schiele-esque grotesqueness, not Jacques’ prettiness.

New year, new effort to get to know Bel. Coz we’ve lived together for more than three months and it’s getting stupid.
    ‘Why I really came here?’ Bel pauses from doing the dishes. ‘Okay. I think I came here because if I stay well away from my daughter, no-one can tell me I’m the root cause of her schizophrenia.’
    ‘Flipping heck Bel’ – I, too, pause from drying up – ‘who’s been telling you that?’
    ‘It’s an established theory. They trot it out.’
    ‘Bastards.’
    ‘Or they don’t speak it, you can just feel it in the way they deal with you. As the mother.’
    ‘Who? The doctors? Sure you’re not being paranoid? Oh god’ – I wince – ‘’scuse that accidental… Sorry…’

My rapid escape to the Delightful Peony is only for an hour. But by my return, Bel seems deeply under a cloud.
    She hands me a substantial tome, Nude: Theory. ‘Your fan just stopped by.’
    ‘What – Aussie Cyril?’ (Has Bel’s distress been caused by the unexpected visitor? Or something else?) ‘Why didn’t he wait?’
    ‘He wouldn’t let me text you. Just wanted to drop it off.’ She is back at her desk, fumbling agitatedly for a cigarette.
    ‘Are you okay?’
    Bel turns to me – ‘How can any of us be “okay”?’ She smacks at a print-out of an article. ‘Seen this? Climate change is threatening global food supply. Demand for food is fast outstripping supply. Vast tracts of Africa and China are turning into dustbowls on a scale that dwarfs the one that devastated the US in the 1930s…’

I escape to the bedroom, close the door, sit at my makeshift desk. Bel’s world scares me beyond words. I need to bury my head in Art, creativity, Adobe Photoshop… Anything to distract myself from the imminent apocalypse.

Dear Cyril,
sorry to have missed you dropping by the flat, thanks for this fab book! Are you up for doing a proper studio shoot? Maybe at 50 Moganshan?? I want to try more Schiele poses. I have props. How about Monday or Tuesday? Suki x

My dear Suki!
I arrived here at the Delightful Peony a few moments ago, but have obviously just missed you. If you would permit me to buy you a rather disgusting sweetened latte I would love to converse with you face to face? Am sitting here reading about that old goat Picasso. Actually it’s a book primarily about Lee Miller’s relationship with Roland Penrose, but there’s an interesting quote by New York artist Lee Krasner (Jackson Pollock‘s wife), that the Parisian Surrealists “treated their women like French poodles”. You must know that Picasso famously said, women “make good models and poor artists”? Hope to see you shortly! Cyril xx

Cyril
re Picasso: so what. Don’t forget that Lee Miller – prototypically a liberated, autonomous woman – managed to be friends with Picasso on equal terms for thirty-six years! He painted six portraits of her and she took over a thousand photos of him. There are plenty of old goats coming out with sexist nonsense all over the place. They can at the same time be charming and fun and therefore forgivable. S
PS Soz, can’t come to café, Bel unwell.

Dearest Suki,
defend Picasso if you will. This book I’m reading says that women in his circle were “constrained to the traditional art-historic role of a passive object to be admired, mythologised, dressed and undressed as the perfect accessory to the male artists’ statement of who they were and how they interpreted their world”. Picasso’s late works depict an ever-lovely young model juxtaposed with himself looking increasingly decrepit and grotesque. These images make us “voyeurs of voyeurism”, witnessing the artist’s desire to possess. Thus we, too, enjoy the fantasy of possession of the “object”: the woman.
    What is the matter with Bel? Cx

Why is Cyril copying out all this? Does he think the way to my heart is to be feminist and right-on?
    Is that truly, as Bel would have it, his aim? My heart?

Dear Cyril,
Picasso’s portrayal of an imbalance of power in favour of the male is a reflection of the world he was living in, not his personal misogyny. Somewhere I have read – and I agree – that Picasso’s nudes continue, to the end of his life, to represent the epitome of beauty, fertility, and nature itself. Sexist pig maybe, but he LOVED WOMEN.
    All relationships are in reality power-games. I think you know what I mean. True freedom is when we can choose our roles, and play them out – which we in liberal societies have the privilege to do (unlike in some corners of this world).
Suki
PS Bel is depressed. I’d feel bad leaving her alone, soz.

That’s my excuse, anyway.


 

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