Feb 182016
 



ALT TEXT

Aussie Cyril

My photoshopped version of one of Aussie Cyril’s photos from the first group session (pose taken from a Lucian Freud painting). I rotated the image to makethe curtain’s edge a true vertical, removed the fabric’s creases, cropped right to the edges of my body, and bleached out colour until I am sculpted marble – a bloodless creature into which rigor mortis has set. Good, or what?

Dear Cyril, before our first 1:1 session tomorrow, a confession. See attached. Is the model allowed to change a photographer’s image of her? I did not ask your permission to change this and – sorry – others, too, of the ones you emailed me. I’m so sorry if I have broken the law. Most artists would cry ‘sacrilege !’ if someone altered their painting. Hope this doesn’t make you call off the booking. Kind rgds Suki

Week five of my Shanghai odyssey. A bright, warm mid-November afternoon.
    Not long after leaving for the teaching block, Bel is back at the flat again.
    ‘Thought you’d got photography undergrads this p.m.?’
    She drops onto her bed. ‘They’ve been sent out to sweep up the campus. Visit of dignitaries tomorrow.’
    ‘God. So chaotic. The way things shift and change without notice.’
    Bel already has her iPad in her hand.
    ‘Okay, look, I’m sticking to my writing routine.’ Pause. ‘Do you want to come with?’
    ‘It’s alright. I’d like to just sit and read the news.’
    ‘Well… I’ll see you later.’ She’s obviously going to spend another afternoon silently, depressively internet-surfing. I head for the door with my bag, and look back from the threshold. ‘You’re addicted to those news sites,’ I joke. ‘All the world’s bad news.’

I set out, like every afternoon, for the recently-opened Delightful Peony Coffee Home – the only cafe round here with a shop-sign and menu in English. The employees are migrants from the countryside with no English. The so-called lattes are made of condensed milk, served sweetened with syrup. Never mind. It’s quicker and cheaper than trekking to a Starbucks in the city. And there is wifi.
    I pick my way across the campus through gaggles of flirting students trailing the brooms with which they’ve been issued. The gymnasium, not five years old, is already tatty, its pretend-redbrick tiles coming unglued from the exterior and dropping off in patches due to the damp creeping up its cement structure. Pudong’s water table is barely subterranean. Dig six inches down and you’re in a pool.
    At the Delightful Peony I hook up to the WiFi. Damn. Today both the BBC and The Guardian newspaper are blocked. Techie Bel has yet to set me up with the illegal software everyone uses to get onto the web – a ‘VPN’. But my Chinese ‘qq’ email account opens without a hitch. God – an answer from Aussie Cyril already. Is he pissed off? Pride made me want to show him my massively improved version of his photo – but not in person, in case of wrath.

Regarding the attached photo – I do not have a problem whatsoever with your changes, except that I am more than a little uncomfortable that the image now makes you look like the victim of the portrayer – a bit too ‘apres Freud’! Discuss further tomorrow, still greatly looking forward. Very best wishes, Cyril Sent from my iPhone

When I get back to the flat Lily Hong is coincidentally, as on previous occasions, just leaving.
    ‘This is always happening – it’s uncanny!’ I grin.
    Bel calls out – ‘English practice!’ She comes over to the doorway. ‘I’ve given Lily Hong your website address and told her about the language notes you’ve put on A Small Life and Two Small Lives.’
    ‘I will read your story Miss Suki – thank you!’ Lily Hong flutters out, dimple-cheeked – ‘Have a nice day! Don’t worry be happy!’
    I close the door behind her. ‘Don’t you find her a bit much? So frilly and effusive.’
    ‘I’m grateful. She looks after me.’
    Am I being criticised? ‘Sorry – I’m crap at that. I’m deeply aware my only cooking contribution to this household is instant noodles. Bit of a liability, really. Bet you’re sorry I came.’
    ‘No.’ Bel takes my hand.
    Shock!
    ‘It’s so great you’re here,’ she says, not looking at me. ‘All those months when I was by myself… I was so lonely.’
    Is she being romantic? Oh my god; I don’t… She’s so…
    ‘Uff.’ I know I’m going pink. I slip my hand from hers. ‘Cuppa tea?’


 

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Feb 042016
 

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ALT TEXT

Fei Mo Di

At the Shanghai Art Nude Photographers group session, this guy Fei Mo Di spun off from the Uglow, Schiele and Freud poses I was doing, and did his own thing.

Two weeks in.
    It is still (by British standards) hot – even in mid-October.
    When will I start to write? Will I start to write?
    Each day, while Bel goes teaching, I wander about – “acclimatising”. Staring. Being stared at. The street market was traumatic the first time I went alone. Now I stare through the cat-calls, grin back at the smiles. Great writing-fodder. It’s just… all still too new.

Bel is as bad. When will she start this Art Nude project with me? Will she start it?
    Her morning coughing fits have become my alarm clock. Today the Air Quality Index reports only moderate pollution: Unhealthy for people with special sensitivities. Asthmatics and the elderly may have difficulties. But she coughs whatever the level, on her narrow bed next to mine, scowling at the news pages on her iPad.

Anyway. Got my first one-to-one booking for a photo-shoot! Fei Mo Di (he with the improbably posh English accent, crisply-ironed shirt, designer jeans) is the second Shanghainese person I’ll meet really properly, after Bel’s little assistant Lily Hong.
    So here I am in his bright white 24th floor penthouse. We begin with sparse, polite conversation. The cityscape beyond the glass walls is a sci-fi movie-set. Vertiginous. Construction sites in all directions; cranes everywhere you look.
    Turns out Fei Mo Di is not what he seems. He went to Eton, then the Central College of Fine Arts in Beijing, topped off with a Masters in New York. His mother is vice-chair of a metropolitan committee for culture or something, on the Communist Party’s Consultative Council. She owns real estate in Kensington.
    I’m sipping from a tiny translucent cup. Just beyond the floor-to-ceiling plate glass, the neck of a crane is slowly approaching… What if it doesn’t stop? The elegant tea-set is beside an Apple computer on a huge perspex desk. Fei Mo Di points at his photos from the group session on the monitor. ‘I haven’t sent you these yet. See – I was moving around you a lot, focusing in. So I want to do that again now. I’d like you quite simply, first of all, to stand absolutely still, statuesque.’ He gets up, goes over to where lights are rigged up. ‘Right here.’

I get into position. Silently he begins. What’s the etiquette when one-to-one? Should I chat?
    ‘Ahem. I’m really interested to find out if art-photographers relate to their models differently from artists,’ I begin.
    No immediate reaction. Click, click.
    ‘Like, whether there’s a more natural, human relationship with a photographer? I mean, doesn’t a photographer want somebody alive?’
    Click. ‘Yes.’ Click. Click.
    Was that curt? Should I say more? ‘Whereas artists… I mean, Uglow, for example; he objectified his models to the extreme. He was so fanatical about the precise reproduction of what he was looking at that he’d actually measure out graph-lines on his studio wall and number them to mark exactly where the model was positioned. Flipping autistic!’
    The tele-photo lens stares coldly. ‘Autism has been known to equate with artistic genius.’ The lens roams to my belly, comes in close to my left breast, shoulder…
    ‘Well, but the crap way Uglow related to the model…’
    Fei Mo Di cuts in. ‘Are you familiar with the work of Chuck Close? He’s an autistic man whose excruciatingly meticulous process creates astonishing paintings that happen to start from a photograph.’
    ‘But if it’s from a photograph it’s not really Art’. Okay, I argued the opposite point with Ilka, but this guy’s Etonian accent is aggravating. I hammer on: ‘A photo is conventionally believed to show “the real thing” whereas a painting holds greater interest and value because it’s a unique and expressive interpretation through the artist’s eye, because everyone knows – and as Anais Nin said – “We do not see things as they are, we see things as we are”.’
    ‘Tuh. Glurge.’ Snap, shift, snap.
    ‘Pardon?’
    ‘Your Anaïs Nin quote. Asinine.’
    ‘That is not fair. People are always sticking the knife into Anaïs Nin. It’s because she was a writer. Words on the page are explicit in a way that visual imagery isn’t, so we’re easier to criticize.’
    Fei Mo Di looks round his camera at me, clearly annoyed.
    ‘Yes – I’m a writer myself.’ Standing there naked, I know I am ridiculous.


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Jan 282016
 

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ALT TEXT

Aussie Cyril

Aussie Cyril is the only photographer from that first Shanghai Art Nude Photographers session to email me a photo of this copy I did of a pose I call ‘plank woman’, famously painted by artist Euan Uglow.

I wake up sticky. So humid, even in October.
    ‘At last! Good morning.’ Bel is setting down a mug of green tea beside my bed. ‘It’s eleven thirty. I thought I’d better tell them you can do this afternoon’s session because they only meet once a month.’
    ‘What? Who? What time? Yikes! Second full day in China and I’m already modelling!’
    ‘It’s Shanghai Art Nude Photographers’ Group. You’ll need that network to build up bookings. I’m sure you’ll get some one-to-one sessions out of it.’
    ‘God, I hope they don’t mind these.’ I hold out my blotched arms – the night’s mosquito bites.
    But Bel is focused on her iPad.
    I scramble for the bathroom. ‘So what will they want? I mean, how does it work? Should I take some ideas?’
    Silence. I see she’s engrossed in The Guardian newspaper online.
    ‘Think I’ll quickly print off some poses, see if they’d like me to copy them. Egon Schiele and Lucien Freud…’ (no response from Bel) ‘…Could try some of the notorious Euan Uglow poses that reputedly hurt his models. The great thing about photographic modelling is, you don’t need to hold a pose for very long.’
    A few minutes later Bel calls to me through the bathroom door. ‘I’ll help you set up a ‘qq’ email account before we go out so you can give out a contact address that works. Your gmail account won’t work here. Google’s blocked. Yahoo is sometimes blocked. They’ve started messing up Hotmail. All the non-Chinese servers get problems. It’s easier to just give up and use the state-controlled one.’

Later, Bel leads me by the hand through the crowds. My second full-on blast of city life: from demolition site to half-built tower-block complex, lace-necked cranes rotating high above chaotic slums, to space-age subway, to old-world tree-shaded French Concession – and always, the seething masses that I can barely separate out into persons. Exhausting – physically, psychologically.

‘…So I finish teaching at six – I’ll see you in the flat. Cyril says he’ll help you get a taxi. Show the driver this card. Hope it’s good!’ Bel leaves me with the men.
    Yes – all men. Why am I not surprised? An exotic mix of races and accents aged from mid-twenties to retirement. Australian Cyril – rotund, elderly – introduces me to the rest: Jacques from Brussels, Fei Mo Di (how come he has a cut-glass English accent?), several other orientals who may or may not be Chinese, a Kiwi, two with north American twangs but probably not US nationals… How to place these people? All I know is, each is successful enough to afford amazing photographic kit, and from a background that has enabled them to speak good English. There is only one familiar type: a man with wife-kidsatuni-earlyretired-doing-abitof-consultancy written all over him before he jovially opens his mouth.
    ‘Mike Little from Swindon, for my sins! How d’you do.’
    ‘I’m Suki. Hi.’ I drop my rucksack and, to avoid some kind of big de-robing moment, instantly pull off my dress and wander about. Sweat beads on my ribby chest and runs down my inner thighs. I wipe off my face. The tissue turns grey: a fine paste made of humidity and pollution has coated my skin.
    The photographers are already in a horseshoe, some with tripods, leaving a big open area in which I can work. The deal is, they’ll each email me their best pics from the session.
     Aussie Cyril, portly, avuncular, opens his arms as though preparing for a bear-hug. ‘We’ve all agreed to let the new model take the lead.’
    So I show them the Schiele, Freud and Uglow poses I’ve printed off. There is courtesy, humour, and lots of movement – both on my part, and on the part of the enthusiastically snapping voyeurs. And certainly no pain.
    Do I fancy any of them?
    Do any of them fancy me?
    Do they do shoots like this with male models?


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