Nov 032016
 



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Bel

My favourite by Bel. I look like Alice in Wonderland. She took it while making the movie ‘Under the gaze’.


I’m going to marry you. This will stop you from taking off again and make you write. In two days you will be at a desk in my apartment with your exciting new manuscript. Can’t tell you how much am looking forward. Tamara

    ‘I’m getting married!’
    The apartment block’s landing is sunny on this April morning. I am perched on a stool outside my flat in order to use an electrical socket to power my netbook, and to receive internet access from a teacher across the hall who has kindly given me her password.
    The waiban has not repaired the flat’s electricity since the fuse-box exploded. They are keen to see the back of me. I am not, after all, an employee. Without you here, Bel, I am nobody. No electricity means I have no hot water for a shower, no landline, no cooker or microwave or means of making a cup of tea. The fridge-freezer is dead and defrosting onto the floor-tiles. But I don’t care; I’ve given up on food, anyway, and tomorrow is my flight. At Tamara’s I will write, write, write. The novel, then Part III of my trilogy, then the next thing, and the next…

Afternoon.
    Lily Hong shows up to help me carry seven cardboard boxes from the flat into a waiting taxi. She looks me up and down appraisingly. ‘Legs like bird legs. Break if you not careful. You need eat lot of rice.’ She leans across the small lake in which the fridge-freezer is now swimming, plucks from its door a tattered paper taped onto it, and stumblingly reads aloud my poem. It’s the one that Bel blogged about.

“The survivors”.

Stick-thin hipless bare-balconied oblong,
up top a penthouse’s smoked-glass pyramid,
at the foot topiary peacocks, a marble portico.
Its many square eyes stare down,
dark spectacles framed in chrome,
to where frogs chirrup and giggle
in a landscaped swamp among peonies,
willow, a large palm, privet cut in shapes.

On the day these blank-looking smoothed-off faces
rupture with black yowls, the day this concrete
topples into the car-parks, when girders snap
like breadsticks and cars get hammered flat,
when doors unhinge while lethal dust plumes up,

on that day these frogs will belly-flop happily
into the water pooling afresh among severed cables,
utility pipes up-ended, broken glass, detritus.
Across the trashed city these wide-lipped fat frogs
will plop goggle-eyed into water-holes, barking happily,
not squashed dead under rubble but smiling
slit-mouthed, fleshy-bottomed, belching happily
then belly-laughing in this freshly re-created world
amid the lushly-rotting corpses, succulents,
humidity, the vivid greenery.’

She finally looks across at me. ‘Not understand all words. Some words.’
    ‘You did great! Thank you. You did great. Really. Your English has really improved.’
    For once she doesn’t beam; remains pensive. A care-worn look. How old is she, in fact? Perhaps, setting aside the frills and bows, mid-thirties?
    ‘Please could you come to the post office with me, Lily Hong? I must be sure that these two boxes go to England – Yinguo – and the other five go to Antwerp, and I need a receipt.’
    ‘Of course I come with you!’ – at last she grins. ‘You help me a lot: promise find me husband!’

Ah, yes. A final issue to deal with.

Dear Cyril,
pls – a favour. Cd you meet up with Bel’s former colleague Lily Hong – that pretty girl you noticed at Trish Little’s preview? See her contact details below. She’s on Wechat. She wants to marry a foreigner and start a new life outside China. I think she likes photography. Well, selfies. Hope you hit it off. I wish you a happy return to Australia.
Suki x
PS I can’t marry you myself. Sorry. Am marrying someone else.



 

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Oct 132016
 



ALT TEXT

Aussie Cyril

Aussie Cyril took this on his phone and gave it a ‘magic lantern’ effect.

I’ve lost you. I’ve lost Ilka for good, too. And I’ve lost sight of my manuscript.
    What has Shanghai done for me?
    What did it do for you?

Dear Suki,
Thank you for all your assistance in my communications with Bella’s Shanghai employers in the last week. Thank you also for boxing up and posting Bella’s possessions, I am most grateful. I will of course refund all postage via your UK account if you could please provide your bank details – thanks. Pls let me know how many boxes will eventually be in the post and the approximate date of arrival. Below is a link to Bella’s obituary from the Guardian in case you have not seen it. The Guardian is one of the newspapers which used to publish Bella’s photographs.
Thanks again for your assistance at this sad time.
Best wishes, John

Did you find out you were terminally ill, Bel, and so decided to kill yourself? Was it not really about your daughter, or anything else? Did you not, after all, have it all planned before you left me?

Well. Your obituary is an eye-opener. Born in Surrey. Dutch father, Polish mother. Guildford Grammar School. Kibbutz before Cambridge. Dropped out of English Literature to go travelling with artist husband Eli Esteban in the Middle East – ‘an odyssey that stimulated Bella’s award-winning career in war journalism which brought an early end to the marriage. Their only child, Elise, was brought up by paternal family members. Bella’s recent loss of her daughter, who took her own life, may have been a factor in Bella’s suicide…’
    Things I knew: unsettled, questing, idealistic, brave. A love-child made with a stranger. Private – no: secretive.
    Things I didn’t know: divorced, award-winning, Jewish, your daughter died at her own hand. A medal for bravery.
    Things your in-laws probably didn’t know: their grand-child’s true parentage. Unless they did know but were compassionate?
    Was your accidental child the reason why your marriage failed?

Another Guardian Online obit, referenced in the sidebar, catches my attention: Astronaut Ludowic Kendal dies aged 87, Cornwall…

I’m just waking up your PC from sleep mode. There: your qq account’s now on-screen. Dozens of new emails are waiting to be opened. What am I supposed to do about them? I don’t know how to close down a life. I have no experience.
    Desk clearance is more straightforward. I’m binning all your printed-out articles – sorry. I can pack this last handful of books into one of those half-filled boxes. Hey – my poetry collection has a page-corner turned down. Christ, Bel. The poem on that page is Running joke – about suicide. Were you thinking of it?

The college’s waiban has issued me a deadline of fourteen days to leave the flat. I hate being here anyway. Empty of you. Empty of your stuff. Empty of food. That retch-inducing stench in the kitchen.
    I want to hear you ranting about another imminent catastrophe. I’ll pay better attention. Promise. Please come back.

Afternoon. Your students enjoying the cancellation of their class.
    Poor, miserable Lily Hong has just helped me book my flight. We’re on our way now to visit an exhibition – Cyril’s recommendation – by the photographer Adou. But on the Metro she’s inconsolable. What can I do?
    ‘Bel my best friend [sob]. I speak Bel all my sorrow [sob]. I lonely now.’
    I can’t help her, Bel.
    In the gallery she breaks down again. ‘My father at prison.’
    ‘Oh god – I didn’t know. That’s awful.’
    ‘Not bad man! Government say he corruption. Every businessman corruption. He only same. Government make example.’
    ‘Is there anything I can do?’ Stupidest question in the world.
    She trails after me into the gallery café, slumps mournfully at a table. What to do, Bel? I get her a latte.
    She looks up at me. ‘I want to go outside China, start new life.’
    ‘Where do you want to go? How?’
    ‘I tell Bel I want marry a foreigner, but she say “all men are bastards”. Not help me.’
    ‘Hmm…’
    Look, Bel. Sometimes pragmatism can work for people. This is what I can offer her.
    ‘…would an Australian be okay?’

On the Metro home I notice a new text. It’s always – ridiculously – disappointing when I see it’s not from you.

Dear Suki – saw Guardian obit for your Bel – my god, what’s going on? You must be in shock! Can I do anything?
Tamara

God. I haven’t even acknowledged her own bereavement.


 

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Sep 222016
 



ALT TEXT

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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Sep 152016
 



ALT TEXT

Aussie Cyril

The original portrait was by Aussie Cyril. Bleagh. I’ve had to crop it.

My dearest Much-More-Than-Muse Suki –
Yesterday’s shoot was wonderful. Boy, that was a long time of concentration… Wiped me out. A very intense five hours! We worked hard, thought hard, shared lots of ideas, achieved great things. I loved it. Lots of interesting poses, angles, etc… Perhaps you’ll find me a sentimental old fool for sending this one along first, but there is something very special about this photo; the completely relaxed directness… For me, it is close to some of Rembrandt’s, suggesting a mysterious moment; a strange sectioning of time. Strange also because I arrived at this via an intriguing colour version and then a very different black and white, and then experimenting with more contrast…
It will grow on you.
Cyril

I hate it.
    But it’s great I managed to spin out the session for five hours. Cyril pays me an hourly rate.
    I have no money left apart from what is in Tamara’s envelope.

Dear Cyril,
The breast has to go. There is simply no reason to have a naked breast on a study of an ugly-but-interesting face. The naked breast makes this picture tacky, tawdry and embarrassing. My version makes my right eye the focus, by cropping to just above my collar-bone. See attached. As you know, I rarely like photos of my face, whereas an artwork depicting me is a different matter: I have more distance to those; I don’t care so much about how “I” look, because drawings or paintings say probably more about the artist than they do about me.
S

Suki.
Is your cropped version an April Fool’s joke? It is a crying shame to crop it as you have done. I cannot see anything tacky or tawdry. My intention is always to depict the model’s personality, at the same time indicating something about the model-photographer relationship. This seems to me an incredibly tender but very honest portrait. I think it beautiful. If I were a real artist I might hang a 5-foot version of it in my living room.
Your
Cyril

Cyril
As said, there is no reason for this picture to be a nude in order to communicate the model’s personality. In my opinion the picture is about the face – and also, compositionally, the lovely arm and hand positions. It is simply tawdry for this older, serious-looking woman to be naked. In this picture I am neither (a) beautiful, nor (b) interesting for being hideously grotesque. The breast is extraneous, hence embarrassing. My crop turns it into a straightforward portrait. I don’t want to be 100% negative. I appreciate that you paid so much attention to getting this image to black and white, which is self-evidently far more effective than the colour version. Suki

I am tired of incessant emailing with Cyril.
    Why nothing from Bel? Could my theory be right? A chest x-ray that showed up something terrible?
    She’s been gone seven days. Without Bel, what is my raison d’etre, here in Shanghai?

I am an April fool.

Bel, pls let me know how things are going. Hard time for you. Take care Sxx


 

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Sep 082016
 



ALT TEXT

David Rodriguez

Have I ‘gone anorexic’, as Loiza commented? My backside in this photo by David Rodriguez looks hideously puckered. What can I do, though? I can’t jog in this pollution. Must eat even less.

No email from Bel. It is four days since the funeral. What has it done to her?
    I’ll email her one of these wacky pics from David’s shoot. Maybe it’ll stimulate a response.

Dear David,
Again –
Gracias – a brilliant session! Fantastic pics – thanks for sending!
    This one disturbs me though. Reminds me of Nazi concentration camps where people had to line up naked just like this to be photographed. Sorry for this macabre association. Call me paranoid. I think it’s because yesterday afternoon I started reading J.G. Ballard’s autobiography: he was in a brutal Japanese prison camp at Lunghua right here in Shanghai… Then later I was looking at my flatmate’s books including war-photographer Lee Miller’s photographs of the liberation of Buchenwald death camp. So I’m a bit too focused on human brutality at the moment.

Dear Suki,
SHANGHAI TURNS ALL CREATIVE PEOPLE EITHER PARANOID OR CRAZY. Yes I know about the beautiful Lee Miller: I love the work of Man Ray! I try with his solarisation effect but not very successful. Getting the effect digitally is only fake.

Tuh – typical! Lee Miller recognised only as an appendage of Man Ray.

Dear David,
solarisation was Lee Miller’s invention as much as Man Ray’s. She does not get the recognition she deserves as a photographer. She photographed political assassinations. She photographed the suicided bodies of the mayor of Dresden and his wife and daughter. She’s got loads more WW2 photos in a book I’ve got here documenting bombed-out London. She took loads of photos of women at war and women in the armed forces.
Suki

Dear Suki
I know that Lee Miller was not just a pretty face (although, saying that, she was painted six times by Picasso). I know that she understood the Surrealist movement – after all she married the Surrealist painter Roland Penrose. His work I find kitsch and derivative so I am not surprised he became an organiser/administrator in the end. By the way, I have an email conversation with the current Director of Exhibitions at Penrose’s glorious foundation, your Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. I pitch an exhibition concept to him. Wish me luck!

Dear David,
Picasso didn’t paint pretty faces.
Best of British luck with your ICA pitch!
Actually I’ve always thought it a bit weird that Roland Penrose got off with Lee Miller. As a pacifist and conscientious objector, how could he be together with someone whose adrenalin was fired (maybe even enthusiasm is the word) by seeking out and capturing human brutality on film?

I love sparring with fellow-creatives – something that is impossible with Aussie Cyril, my wet, malleable, acquiescent devotee.
    At this afternoon’s shoot, Cyril keeps popping truffles into my mouth.
    I must think positive. Melbourne has no brutal war history, no concentration camps. The sun is always shining. I could live off him and write without having to find paid work. No more modelling!
    Could I be plump and happy with doting Cyril?

Before bed, a final check for emails, texts. Nothing from Bel, despite the pic I sent.
    Wonder if she’s had her chest x-ray?
    Maybe that’s it. This silence. She’s found out she’s got cancer.


 

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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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