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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Sep 012016
 



ALT TEXT

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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Jul 212016
 



ALT TEXT

Aussie Cyril

Aussie Cyril’s shot. My crop.

    ‘My German boyfriend has just walked out on me after seven years.’
    Seems Fei Mo Di has other motives for our ‘skills exchange’ arrangement. He’s needed a shoulder to cry on.
    ‘Seven years! I split with my German girlfriend after seventeen years.’
    Being the self-obsessed type he doesn’t pick up on this. ‘He said I was too British. Emotionally stilted.’
    ‘That’s rich, coming from a German.’
    ‘At Eton I was too Chinese.’
    ‘Is there a place to live on this planet where you don’t get stereotyped?’
    We both have a think. I come up with – ‘Alone in a lighthouse on a rock off the coast of Scotland.’
    Fei Mo Di looks morose. ‘I wouldn’t get a visa.’
    We are drinking pastis in the after-lunch peacefulness of the Café des Stagieres on Yong Kang Lu. Our conversation meanders while we slave over the subtitles for Bel’s movie.
    An afternoon of happiness.

And then I am back in the flat. Bel working on the movie; me staring at my emails. At some point I make Bel a mug of tea, place it by her elbow, squeeze her shoulder. Wish you could be happy.
    It’s as though she hears that thought. ‘I just don’t think I could settle back in the UK, Suki.’
    I sit down beside her. ‘Why not?’
    ‘I feel alien there. Did I ever show you what J.G. Ballard wrote about the English when he first arrived in England after the war? After he’d grown up in Shanghai?’
    ‘No. But I guess it’s not an uplifting read.’
    ‘He influenced me to come here. In fact I’ve just blogged about it’ – she quickly taps on her iPad. ‘I’m sending you the link to a bit that I copied out. Although his descriptions date from 1946, so much of what he wrote is still true.’
    ‘Like what?’
    ‘Oh… narrow English attitudes; English greyness; English misery. Since all my international travelling – my photo-journalism work – I’ve felt utterly alienated from England. The culture, the politics…’
    ‘It wasn’t only to escape from your daughter then. Coming here.’
    ‘Not really. It was mainly coz I got this job offer and thought – why not? Good as anywhere. And J.G. Ballard had made me curious.’
    ‘But we’re alien here, too.’
    Bel turns even more glum. ‘True. When all’s said and done, J.G. Ballard lived in a privileged and comfortable ex-pat bubble. Today’s equivalent of that here in Shanghai is repulsive and I avoid it.’
    I push Bel’s shoulder gently. ‘Tell you what. Let’s go live in a lighthouse on a rock off the coast of Scotland.’
    ‘What?’
    ‘Drink your tea.’

And since then until now, late in the night, we’ve been immersed in our respective silences, our separate virtual worlds.

Cyril – your original version of the attached portrait embarrassed me: I had an expression like a parrot. I wish you’d acknowledge that apart from when I do a big smile, I am not photogenic. Don’t patronise me with the pretence that I am anything other than interestingly ugly. A “straight” portrait photo of me is a non-starter. There are millions of photos of amazingly gorgeous women’s faces out there in the world. I refuse to be entered into that competition as the booby prize candidate. Anyway – the way I’ve now cropped it, it’s primarily about the hand, though the face is still discernible even though I’ve cut off half of it.
    I do sometimes wonder whether my extensive adulteration – “ abuse” – of your
oeuvre is eating at you and will, eventually, suddenly come out of you in a big rage… S

But Cyril’s response is, as ever, dotingly acquiescent. Tsk.


 

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