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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Aug 252016
 



ALT TEXT

Precocious Loiza

This pic is Precocious Loiza’s thank-you gift for my having been part of her Art A-level project. She got an “A-star”. She hadn’t shown me this one before. Kept it back as a surprise.

Unspoken goodbyes. At the street-side, beside the college’s waiting airport car, Lily Hong flings herself against Bel like a puppy. ‘Meet you at airport after fourteen days. Don’t worry, be happy!’
    ‘Be sure to get a chest x-ray,’ I say, as I too give Bel a hug.
    She gives a wooden one back. ‘Fake.’ Her grin is humourless. She gets into the car, and it drives away.
    I feel sick. ‘She‘s depressed enough to chuck herself out of the plane.’
    ‘I don’t understand,’ says Lily Hong miserably. ‘What mean depress, what mean chuck?’
    ‘S’okay. Nothing.’ I might never see Bel again. Paranoid thought? Anyway I don’t know what to do or who to tell, so I go about my day as planned, heading out into the surreal half-light, what Bel calls the ‘fake mist’ – man-made, from filth – for my appointment.

Nanjing Road West. Starbucks. I come up behind Precocious Loiza, and see over her shoulder a familiar bondage photograph – a Japanese woman semi-clad in traditional robes, trussed up with rope and suspended.
    ‘Oh!’ She jumps, then – ‘He-eyy!’ – reaches to pull me down by the neck for a kiss on the lips.
    ‘How’s art college?’ I hear a rasp in my own voice after sixty minutes of inhaling dirt.
    Precocious Loiza points back at her iPad. ‘This is the bag I’ve totally gotten into in my second semester at the Slade. I love Araki’s work.’
    I set down my rucksack, ‘Can I get you another drink?’
    ‘Tall skinny decaf latte thanks, and a biscotti. Wow, you’ve gone anorexic! Tamara says you were anorexic before she fed you up. In Year 10 at school we were forced to discuss this article about how very young models are coerced into retaining their pubescent shape instead of letting themselves physically develop. The school was, like, paranoid that we were all about to starve ourselves. Mind you, two girls did die of eating disorders but frankly they were loopy anyway and one of them had been, like, raped. Amazing that you’re starving yourself even at your age – looks like you need Tamara again.’
    ‘Yes. Gosh. No. I mean, great to see you. Back in a tick.’
    Do I “need Tamara again”?

When I return with drinks, Precocious has unzipped a large folio-carrier which she holds open to show me an enlarged photograph. ‘For you. Tamara’s got the same one but three times bigger on the wall above her sofa.’ Next, she rummages in her leather tote bag. ‘And she asked me to give you this.’
    It is a fat, weighty padded envelope, the top of which has been firmly stapled closed. Bombarded, I feel limp; and underlying that, a profound desolation. ‘Thanks for all this Loiza…’
    ‘So what do you think of Araki? Do you know he has sex with all his models? Like Picasso did, only with Araki it’s a high principle. He’s, like, totally against objectification!’ She reads off from her iPad: ‘Of course I had sex with all my models… I needed to break down the me-and-you barrier. I can say that I have collapsed the previous tradition of photography that emphasized objectivity. In the past, photographers felt they had to eliminate their subjectivity as much as possible. I consider myself a “subjective” photographer.’
    Into my despondent silence the eighteen year-old suddenly orders – ‘You should leave Shanghai. My parents have gone back to the UK. They said they were being poisoned by the air and the food and that nothing is safe.’
    ‘People like me can’t afford to live in the UK. I’m a loser in the UK. Fucking neoliberalism.’
    ‘Embrace it! Marry someone rich – then it’s awesome! I’m going to.’

When I get home I open Tamara’s envelope. It contains a massive wad of 100 Yan notes, and a note.

I know your birthday is May, but this is a gift in advance. I do not imagine for one nano-second that you are going to remain happily ever after in Shanghai, so this is to cover the cost of a flight to Heathrow and a taxi to my apartment. When you’re ready.



 

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Aug 182016
 



ALT TEXT

Fei Mo Di

This picture by Fei Mo Di is so beautiful. It dates back to my first week in Shanghai. How did I manage, back at the beginning, to write him off as a repulsive misogynistic public-school arsehole who hated me?

Two days before Bel’s flight.
    Ougth she to be grief-stricken? And ought I to be empathetically distressed, reminded of my own tragic loss of a child? Why aren’t we clinging to each other and wailing?
    I’m scared.
    She has taken to wearing her anti-pollution mask even indoors. I think it’s partly about privacy. Like doing a long pose. A retreat inside yourself. Or behind – literally – a mask.

It’s not just the air that’s poisoning Bel. Something in the atmosphere of this alien land is polluting her mind with dark thoughts, nightmare scenarios, apocalyptic visions. She’s made me feel afraid too. A sense of foreboding. A creeping anxiety. Are her fears irrational?
    ‘Bel, I think it’s good your contract finishes at the end of this semester. It forces a decision about moving on. For both of us.’
    No comment.
    I turn to finishing off a thank-you email to Fei Mo Di for the photos he sent from our “skills exchange” session.

… my amateurish, unskilled, gauche behaviour when being photographed. Having read about and watched the actual process of Helmut Newton‘s shoots with his models, and seen his contact sheets and the amount of trial and error, i.e. how long it took to get the one shot where the model was – at last – doing the ‘right’ thing that ‘made’ the photo, I feel a bit better about my own shortcomings as a photographic model. But I have come to realise and appreciate how patient you have been.
Best wishes
Suki

Bel’s laptop is emitting a gentle Chopin nocturne. Above her mask her eyes are on the colour-adjustment tool in Photoshop, very slowly sliding the cursor along the spectrum. The mask puffs in and out when she speaks. Like a surgical mask. A brain surgeon asking to be handed the next sterile tool.
    ‘What?’
    Again she wuffles the words. ‘Do you love me?‘
    Aagh – panic!
    Bel pulls off her mask but remains studiously focused on her monitor.
    Have I made Bel love me? Have I misled her by coming to Shanghai? And does that make me – oh god – responsible for her? For her unhappiness?
    Do I love Bel? What does that mean? How do I feel?
    I don’t need to conscientiously examine my feelings because instinct is instantaneous and honest.
    I care about you. But I don’t fancy you.
    I say, ‘You know what Prince Charles said when Lady Di assured reporters upon their engagement that they were “in love”? He goes “Whatever that means…”
    Bel‘s dead stare remains focused on her monitor.
    I reach and give her shoulder a swift squeeze. ‘I mean, what does “I love you” mean?’ I do a sunny grin. ‘You’re amazing. I’ll make us a cup of tea.’

The Delightful Peony beckons. The incessant mournful whine of the erhu in the upstairs flat is the joking reason I give for going out for the rest of the afternoon. But I am running away. I feel like running for my life.
    Can Bel reasonably expect my love?
    Ought I reasonably to love her? As in, for once be a kind, generous-spirited person first and foremost, rather than a career-focused writer?
    It’s just, depression is so unsexy.


 

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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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Aug 042016
 



ALT TEXT

Aussie Cyril

This started as Aussie Cyril’s; now it’s mine. I worked on the colour and cropped off my head, but the thing that ‘makes’ it is that I rotated it until I got the sense of suspension. I am very pleased with it.

It’s been a weird week. We’re both being weird. Carrying on as though this is an ordinary, normal, uneventful life with no pain.
    I might as well be in a remote lighthouse as here. I feel like all my bonds are cut with my past. Where are all the people I had in my life up until last year? Well – call it nine months ago, when I left England.
    What’s my old neighbour Tiffany up to?
    What about Ilka in Berlin?
    I even wonder occasionally, too, about ruthlessly ambitious Conservative Bastard Jeremy (…he who didn’t want our child). But only in abstract terms. Because he is a man of physical beauty. He’s probably painting the queen by now.
    What induced me to leave it all behind?
    Why suddenly up and leave a life?
    Only Tamara has kept in regular touch. What does that say?

When I walk in after the Delightful Peony, Bel thrusts her iPad at me. ‘Read this. Warped.’
    It’s an email alert from the Shanghai ‘Meet-Up’ website, giving details of a newly-founded group.

Elite Social’ new exclusive Meet-up Group for informal networking at cocktail parties and fine dining events in Shanghai! Guests will make valuable contacts while socialising and networking with many quality professionals at prestige venues. Membership not open like other Meet-up Groups, ‘Elite Social’ is private club, monitors all applications and approve only people are stylish, successful, like-minded professionals, appreciate finer thing in life. Average age mid 20’s – mid 30’s, various nationalities. All member need have photo. No fake profile. Welcome to contact organiser directly re sponsorship, collaboration, business promotion, corporate/personal event inquiry.

    ‘Yeuch. Imagine the combination of Western jerks and oriental princesses.’
    ‘Totally,’Bel growls, returning to her desk. ‘This epitomises the Shanghai we get pulled into as westerners. It’s why I’ve never socialised with the international community. When you’re working in Afghanistan, the Balkans, Africa, it’s totally different. I hate how people relate here. Especially the encounter between foreigners and this privileged social stratum of Chinese.’
    I consider my almost total lack of relations with the Chinese population amidst which I’ve lived for a half-year. Fei Mo Di – but he’s an old Etonian. Hong Kong Ron – but he’s Hong Kong-ese. Lily Hong.
    ‘When is a favour not a favour?’ Bel rants on, grimly wiping today’s layer of smut from her monitor. ‘When is a genuine compliment a fake compliment? When is an act of kindness not an act of kindness? When is a friendship not a friendship? When is a smile fake? Who can be trusted – if anyone?’
    ‘Um. Well, Lily Hong, obviously. Aren’t you being a bit extreme?’
    ‘Tuh.’
    ‘What?’
    ‘Lily just wants a passport.’
    ‘Not fair. She’s your good friend, Bel.’
    Silence.
    I reach, touch Bel’s cheek, but this unnervingly transforms her scowl into a desperate, questioning look. I just blunder on – ‘You do need to leave Shanghai. Not just for two weeks – for good. You’re being poisoned.’

Midnight.
    Bel comes to bed at last. ‘Done it.’
    ‘Hey – fantastic!’ I sit up. ‘That’s fantastic.’
    ‘It’s not that good. ‘ She starts to undress. ‘Just alright.’
    ‘Rubbish. I know it’s brilliant. Look – let’s have a launch party before you fly off on Friday! I can put out word on the WeChat group; Mike Little will rally folk.’
    ‘No!’
    ‘Why not?’
    ‘I absolutely don’t want a party. I don’t want to meet people. I hate people. Everyone out to get something from each other. Nobody being straightforward. Nobody being genuine. Only being nice coz they want connections, favours, advantages.’
    ‘But… why put all this work into this wonderful movie if you don’t want to show it to people?’
    ‘I needed to kill the time. You know; get completely absorbed in a task. Before the funeral.’
    ‘Funeral? I thought you’d intentionally missed the funeral…?’
    Sigh. ‘That was my hope.’
    ‘…thought that’s why you decided not to fly straight there when you first got the news…’
    ‘It was. But there was a delay for the post mortem, then another stupid wait for a cremation date. Bloody bureaucracy,’ she stares out of the window. ‘Funeral’s the day after I arrive.’


 

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Jul 282016
 



ALT TEXT

Aussie Cyril

Aussie Cyril says the work of Ruth Bernhard inspired this photo. He pointed me to Bernhard’s ‘mission statement’, as summarised in the Peter Lacey book:
    ‘Every artist is a missionary trying to convey a message of truth and beauty; further, the immortalization of the human body’s beauty – both male and female – has always been an obsession for poets, sculptors, painters and now photographers. However, in her twentieth century context, the image of woman is being cheapened and exploited – especially by photography. Thus Bernhard saw it as her life’s task “to raise, to elevate, to endorse with timeless reverence the image of woman”’.
    Aussie Cyril seems entirely at ease with Bernhard’s quasi-religious attitudes. Cyril, too, has a similar reverence for women. Tuh. His photos from the latest shoot still aim to beautify me.

The BBC is blocked today. They must have done something to wazz off the Chinese government. My VPN isn’t working either. Routed out and blocked.
    I hate it. I hate not having free internet access. I hate living in a totalitarian state.
    So when am I going to leave?
    What if – terrifying thought – Bel didn’t come back from Antwerp?
    She’s spent the whole weekend til now beavering on the ‘Qi Qi’s life-room’ movie. Silent. Shutting me out. But it’s better than obsessing over the world’s bad news, I suppose. She’s still got to put the subtitles on, but I’m sure she’ll get it done. There’s another weekend before she flies.
    ‘Just off to my shoot with Cyril!’ I want as many fistfuls of yuan as I can get out of Cyril. I’m jittery about my cash-flow during the time Bel will be away.

    ‘Good morning, darling Suki-muse.’ Cyril hands me my usual ginger latte from the downstairs wannabe-Starbucks.
    But I am cross. ‘Don’t, Cyril. Muse is not the word. It’s as bad as saying Lee Miller was Man Ray’s “muse”: it positions her behind him, like, in a purely supportive role, when actually it was Lee who invented that famous ‘solarisation’ technique.’
    ‘Alright. I’ll call you my darling directrice.’
    ‘Tsk. Stop it. Look, the facts are, (a) Lee spent at the very most three years with Man Ray, and (b) she used that relatively brief relationship as an apprenticeship to further her own, not his, photographic career.’
    ‘All I mean is, you inspire me. Give me something to do. Without you, I don’t really have… here in Shanghai…’
    God I don’t want to hear this – ‘Cyril! Listen – a proper muse is someone like Charis Wilson; it was her raison d’etre to further the work of her photographer husband. Like, it was her sacred obligation. Whereas I do not further your work, Cyril. I chop it up and make it mine. Muse is not the word for me. It’s your silly fantasy.’
    He pats my bottom. ‘Deary me – which side of the bed did you get out of this morning?’
    Why am I risking upsetting him with honesty? He’s paying me more than the going rate. Pretence works for both of us.
    ‘Cyril. Sorry. Let’s just get on with the shoot.’
    Allowing the bottom-pat is just necessity. But I decline his lunch invitation.

So I‘m back in the flat in time to have lunch with Bel, which for once I myself cook. Maybe we’ll talk! Though I’ve given up prompting her on the subjects of her daughter, her past, herself…
    I prepare instant noodles with flair, serve Bel at the table with a flourish, and embark on an interesting topic.
    ‘Bel. I have a question. Art Nude photographers, even female photographers, mainly photograph women. Whether exploitatively or reverentially, it’s always women. Why?’
    Carefully, as though teaching a little child: ‘Because women are more beautiful.’ Then, with chopsticks halfway to her mouth – ‘Well, except for Mapplethorpe and his gay stuff, obviously.’
    ‘Okay, so I have another question: why don’t men – straight men – make themselves beautiful? It’s not as though they don’t get looked at, in this day and age. Why don’t they feel themselves being looked at, and get self-conscious and worried like we do? I mean – Aussie Cyril’s obese. Mike Little wears a zip-up fleece and socks and sandals, need I say more. Jacques-from-Brussels clearly never bathes. Hong Kong Ron, that friend of my friend Tamara, is a buttockless little shrimp in unflattering spectacles.’ I scoop at the noodles’ grey soup. ‘There’s only Fei Mo Di who looks good.’
    ‘Obviously. He’s a French horn.’
    ‘But the rest of them – they make me want to holler Hey – you men – it’s the 21st century and people are looking at you…!’
    ‘I’m not.’
    ‘…They should get their peacock tails out! They should make themselves more attractive! Just make a bloody effort, guys.’


 

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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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Jul 142016
 



ALT TEXT

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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Jul 072016
 



ALT TEXT

Aussie Cyril

Aussie Cyril’s photo is in the style of Emmanuel Sougez’s 1930-40s nudes, which “are meant to be sexually admired, but… represent the old-fashioned discreet view of women; an ideal of femininity reminiscent of 18th century artists Fragonard and Boucher,… purely and simply feminine, …seeming to shrink before our admiring gaze”. Yeuch.


My ‘alarm clock’ ( Bel’s hacking cough) goes off early today, but she manages to settle back into dozing.
    So I have got up well before her; left her rattling under her duvet. As I’m putting on my coat I call, ‘Make sure you get a chest x-ray in Antwerp.’ I pop back into to the bedroom, looking for my hat.
     Bel rouses her head. ‘More creativity with Cyril, this morning?’ Did that wheeze have a cynical tone?
    Look, I don’t want his pictures any more. I’m doing this purely for the money.’ I stare at her. ‘You look grey, Bel. I’m phoning the office for you. Don’t go to work. You can’t breathe.’

On the Metro to Moganshan Lu I become terrified I’ll arrive home to find Bel dead in her bed. An asthma attack. Heart failure. A strain of pneumonia that brings instant death.

Alone in Shanghai… God. I would die too.

    But she answers my text.

Am ok tanx. Hav good morning.

At the studio Aussie Cyril’s ten-day-old marriage proposal hangs in the air; brings an intimacy (uncomfortable, unwanted), like ten days into an engagement.
    I don’t refer to it. Maybe it will sink away, be forgotten…
    ‘Over to you, Cyril. You choose the poses.’
    Or should I do something about it? At least they would understand my poetry in Melbourne…
    ‘Thank you, Suki. Today I’m aiming to reproduce the classical nude portraiture styles of Harry Callahan, or Ruth Bernhard; also a fashion photographer who turned to Art Nude called Jean-Loup Sieff, who took “lively portraits of interesting girls”, to quote Peter Lacey.’
     ‘Girl? I’m not exactly a spring chicken.’

In the evening I receive an email with his “classical nude portraits” attached.

My dearest Suki-muse, permit me to regale you with information about the gentlemen who have been my influences. Here is a link to a fine example of Emmanuel Sougez’s figurative female nudes. Though his technique attends to composition, line and form, the individual femininity of his models is not subordinate to these concerns. Then there is Harry Callahan who creates images that are representational of the model’s nature or character (yes, a stark contrast to Edward Weston). Callahan brings out femininity and modesty, coupled with a psychological remoteness and elusiveness. He has chosen women: feminine, demure women; “like mythical beings” they are revered and turned into fantasy (quoting Peter Lacey). While Callahan’s pictures are not remotely pornographic – he maintains a distance and respect – his way of relating to the image of woman is nothing if not sexual.
     By the way, did I ever say, I love those images in which your eyes twinkle? Cyril x

I rattle off –

As so often, you are again trying to make something pretty of me. I don’t mind not being pretty. I’d rather not be. ‘Callahan-esque’ is a style I really don’t like. I’m not a mythical being. I am not remote.

But I must not sound so churlish. Cyril is still paying me. So I delete this, and write –

Thank you Cyril.
These are beautiful. I love looking at beautiful women. I am not one. But they are lovely. Thank you. Look forward to more sessions. Do suggest a date. Suki

Clearly Cyril is hovering somewhere, awaiting my responses. I immediately receive his reply:

Dear Suki, my darling muse, how about another shoot on Monday morning, first thing? Then lunch at the Peace Hotel? Let me know.



 

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Jun 302016
 



ALT TEXT

Greg-I’m-a-Kiwi

Interesting props were provided by Fei Mo Di’s friend Greg-I’m-a-Kiwi for today’s life-drawing session at Qi Qi’s boho café-bar. Greg took this picture himself.

Air Quality ‘moderate’: Unusually sensitive individuals may experience respiratory symptoms and should consider limiting prolonged outdoor exertion.
    A slight reprieve for Bel.
    On our taxi journey to the life-drawing session at Qi Qi’s, Bel mentions, ‘Lily Hong will be meeting us there with a voice-recorder to get some vox-pops for the sound-track.’
    ‘Brilliant!’
    Hesitation. Then – ‘she confides in me.’
    Is this an oblique reference to their triste or whatever it was yesterday? ‘Good! That’s good.’
    ‘She’s lonely, is Lily Hong.’

After twenty minutes of warm-ups the group decides they want one long pose for the rest of the two hours. And thus I am able to retreat peacefully inside my head in a way that I used to do every day in my former existence, modelling for artists. Without knowing it, I have missed this. A time for swimming thoughts to become ordered.
    On the long Metro journey into the city Bel had shown me a really interesting homily on the Guardian Online’s book pages. Tim Lott – successful writer – warns today’s parents against telling children they can be whatever they want, because it is so difficult to achieve those big dreams, to reach for the stars and attain them – barring a lottery win or some fluke of good fortune.
    He suggests that, given the competitive nature of modern society, it’s better to keep our enthusiasms and passions for our hobbies, claiming he has gained the most joy in his life through the commonplace activities of home, family and hobbies, rather than his actual profession as a novelist. The latter, despite having given him a few particular moments of success and reward, has taken a high toll in terms of effort and struggle and disappointment.
    It’s better (he says) to ask children not what they want to be, but who they want to be. The neoliberal regime benefits from us all believing that it is purely success in the workplace that makes us a success as a person ( – he’s obviously been reading that Pankaj Mishra article). But we are presented with only two alternatives: superstardom or – that loaded term – mediocrity. As such we are all – almost all of us – going to endlessly feel disappointed in ourselves and our achievements.
    It’s good, what he’s written.
    Shouldn’t I aim to be, first and foremost, a kind, generous-spirited person, rather than a writer?

Throughout the session, kind Qi Qi is constantly checking on my welfare. ‘You okay? Enough warm?’
    ‘I’m totally happy thanks!’
    But I’m not totally happy.
    Why can’t I be content with my modest successes – my small online readership, my poetry collections, my novel, my collaborative movies with Bel, my prowess as a doughty energetic model? I already have a legacy to leave to this world. Is it time to just stop questing, stop striving, think small, local, intimate; stop getting on aeroplanes, try settling? Is it time to commit? And thus reap small, satisfying benefits? I am approaching my half-century of life. Is it time to give something back, rather than fret that I haven’t received enough?

I don’t even notice Bel’s camera clicking away. She’s so cleverly unobtrusive. It’s lovely to be working together again on a small good thing.

It’s late when we get back to the flat. I bring Bel hot milk in bed. ‘It’ll already be a little bit spring-like when you get to Antwerp!’
    But she has lapsed back. Face closed. Remote. Incommunicado. A terrible state that is more and more her usual one.
    How could she not have been uplifted by that wonderful session at Qi Qi’s?


 

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