Oct 272016
 



Dear Fei Mo Di, I want to achieve one last thing in Shanghai. For Bel. She wanted Still Life, the first movie she completed here, to have Chinese subtitles. Have you got time?’

Hi Suki –
okay I can do it. I’ve got a window tomorrow. One condition: we do one final shoot together. Outdoors. This morning. Now. Ok? FMD

Then he shows up at the campus: very spontaneous, very Shanghainese, a fresh daisy in the vase of his Volkswagen Beetle, and drives us to a woodland outside the city. We bicker for the entire journey – companionable, mates-together bickering ( – in truth, we have so much in common), and the scenery and freshness is lovely. I am naked in the wilderness, climbing trees, lying in bracken. Fei Mo Di despises breasts and excess flesh and loves my newly skeletal form. He produces a picnic lunch from a wicker hamper: strawberries; elderflower cordial. We are in a Merchant Ivory movie. It is heaven.

The flat, when he drops me back there, is ugly: the massive never-used Chinese TV; grubby whitewashed walls spattered with small red messes of swatted mosquitoes. Our things are all gone: everything boxed up ready to post tomorrow, or already piled beside my suitcase in readiness for my day-after-tomorrow flight. I sit on the hard wooden bench devoid of your cushions and automatically waken your iPad to check news – but then I can’t face it.

I am seated, reading, wallowing in this loneliness, when a Skype call sings out of the iPad.
    ‘Tamara! Hey – this is great!’ The signal is strong for once. She looks terrific: casual in cap-sleeved top and sweatpants, yet elegant, against the backdrop of her apartment’s acreage of clean-lined, oak-floored, clutter-free space.
    ‘You’re crying.’
    ‘No. Yes. Coz I’m re-reading Lee Miller’s life. Comparing her to Bel.’
    ‘And you’re frighteningly scrawny. This is worrying. I’m going to put you on a diet.’
    ‘This book about her being a muse – it describes Lee at the end of her life as “a soul in hell, cut off from the work and the life she loved” due to alcoholism, drug abuse, manic depression and creative frustration.’
    ‘That doesn’t sound like Bel’s state.’
    ‘She was really obsessed with Lee, though. I’m just looking for… trying to understand. Lee’s son says she lost her looks after his birth and that’s when she really degenerated into a slob, and got really difficult and quarrelsome. In the end she was a total mess: alcoholic, obsessive, frumpy, entirely in the shadow of her husband who’d made himself a VIP in the art world – you know, the guy who started the ICA?’
    ‘Your Bel was an independent woman. Still working and functioning. But clearly she had some long-term mental health issues.’
    ‘She’d become really depressed… anxious… introverted…’
    ‘Suki. You’ve just spent half a year holding the hand of a dying person.’
    ‘I was useless at getting her to talk…’
    ‘You are remarkable.’
    [sob] ‘I just don’t understand it…’
    ‘You need some looking-after now. Which it is my privilege to offer. It’s ten months since you left Engl…’
    Crash. ‘Aagh!’
    ‘Suki! What the..?’
    I’m on my feet – ‘Christ!’
    Tamara’s voice – ‘You’ve gone dark – ’
    I reach for the wall to steady myself.
    ‘Are you alright?’
    ‘The electricity’s out – this iPad’s on its battery. I think the meter box just exploded – ‘
    ‘I saw a flash – ?’
    ‘The metal front panel’s gone flying across the room; there’s wiring and stuff from inside it scattered about in bits …’
    ‘But you’re okay? Are you okay?’
    ‘I’m intact, thanks; honest.’
    ‘Is anything on fire?’
    ‘Don’t worry! Look, I need to call someone – I’ve got no electricity. I need to call a staff member. Got to go.’

I am waiting in the dark for Lily Hong. Jeezus Christ, if I’d been sitting over there instead of here…
    But it has been a Eureka! moment. I’ve just learned I would hate to die.


 

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Sep 292016
 



ALT TEXT

Greg-I’m-A-Kiwi

Greg-I’m-a-Kiwi says this photo is après Duane Michals. Most of Michals’ work isn’t Art Nude; he worked as a fashion photographer on Vogue etc. Also, a lot of Michals’ photographs have a hinted-at, if not strong, narrative, which is what Greg has aimed for in this photo. Greg experiments with interesting settings or situations for nudes; stuff that suggests a back-story. And perhaps due to being in the Orient, he has got into – of all things – paper-cuts.

Dear Artists and friends of Bel! Party at Qi Qi’s Café Bar, tomoz 8pm, to launch Bel’s fantastic ‘Qi Qi’s Life-room’ movie – some of you are its stars! Be there or be square! All welcome, pls spread word. Suki x

It’s a full turn-out.
    Mike Little has chipped in with champagne and canapés, and has got some press representatives to come along. Trish has over-excitedly parcelled her bulky form into a black satin evening gown topped off with a net-festooned purple hat. Besides Greg-I’m-a-Kiwi and his artist friends there are half a dozen Art Nude group members, including Cyril, who inevitably heard on the grapevine, plus a bunch of Fei Mo Di’s designer friends and Alvira, Wei Wei, Qi Qi, Lily Hong…
    Where’s Bel? Everyone asks. It feels strangely like a Bel memorial event.
    Lily Hong pats my arm, as though comforting me: ‘She come back soon. Three days.’
    As if I’m not counting.
    How ironic, that a circle of international arty friends seems to have crystallized since Bel left.
    Could I stay on here, after all?

Midnight. A drunken conversation between die-hards Cyril and Greg-I’m-a-Kiwi who are propping up the bar. The talk meanders around photographers, sex, relationships, sex.
    ‘…Whereas Lee Miller, being both model and photographer, is totally outside the box.’ Greg drains another pint of Vedett Extra Blond. ‘She’s hard to categorize. Like, I totally agree with the photographer Duane Michals, that the nude figure implies both vulnerability and sex; but Miller, as a woman – whether as nude model, or as photographer of women – well…’ he sets down his glass – ‘she may not have seen either vulnerability or sex as part of the equation.’
    ‘Vulnerability and sex?’ I knock back the rest of my glass. ‘She’d certainly have disagreed with you about sex being automatically implied by nudity. Nakedness can be so unsexy. As for vulnerability – in my experience there’s a paradoxical combination in nudity of both vulnerability and strength.’
    Cyril is hunched over a Jack Daniels. ‘I share Michal’s view that the photographer of the nude is intensely aware of the presence of the body and is taking pleasure in looking at the body.’
    ‘Ha – honesty at last!’ I stab a finger at Cyril. ‘You’re motivated by sex, not Art.’
    ‘I’m simply quoting Michal’s words.’ Drunk, Aussie Cyril reveals a totally different side of himself. Assertive. ‘The viewer of the nude inevitably “responds out of a sexual curiosity”.’
    ‘Rubbish. That would mean, no gay guy would be motivated to photograph a female nude. So Robert Mapplethorpe disproves that, for a start.’
     ‘That pervert,’ Cyril snorts.
    ‘I think Michals was gay,’ Greg chips in. ‘He produced at least one gay-themed picture-series.’
    I gulp my wine (fourth glass). ‘To get back to Lee Miller – did you know she was into polyamory before the term had even been coined? As in, she actively encouraged her lovers to have other lovers.’
    ‘Loada crap,’ Cyril growls from his corner.
    ‘And obviously she didn’t expect her lovers to have a problem with her sleeping with others.’
    ‘My second wife was full of that shit.’
    ‘Well, I personally would like the kind of marriage Lee had with Roland Penrose. They let each other sleep with whoever they wanted.’
    Cyril knocks back his whisky. ‘As a matter of fact, the agreement between Lee and Penrose was that their love for each other would remain “sacred” – as in, they would be absolutely faithful in that respect. They just permitted each other to sleep around. Which is still a loada crap.’ Cyril looks directly at me. ‘I mean, what does wife mean, if not “belongs to husband”?’
    I look directly back at him: elderly, fat, slumped; his chin almost resting on the bar.

Dring dring!
    Eight a.m., the sun too bright. Jeezus. I crawl from bed to answer the landline. It’s Lily Hong.
    ‘Oh. Lily. Think my head’s going to explode. How’s yours?’
    ‘Miss Suki, please come now. We wait you in Foreign Affairs Office.’
    Lily Hong stands up when I walk in, her lip trembling at me like a little girl’s. The Director of Foreign Affairs gently tells me they have received news that my colleague Bel is ‘deceased’.

I am then left for some time.

By myself.

Peace and quiet.

The office is very simple.

After a while, green tea is served.

It is late evening when I finally get a message to your brother. I have to go on your laptop – sorry – and look in your contacts for his email address.
    John.

It takes him more than 24 hours to reply.


 

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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 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 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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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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Jun 232016
 



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Hong Kong Ron

At that session two Fridays ago with Hong Kong Ron we didn’t just do bondage. Tamara had told them to do wax dripping. It’s about giving a person your absolute trust. I am good at it!

Bel is later back from teaching than usual. I’ve been happily awaiting her return because I’ve got a suggestion. It might get her out of herself. It might kick-start her Art Nude project with me.
    ‘How was your morning?’
    Bel drops her briefcase. ‘Crap.’ She undoes her coat but doesn’t take it off, and flicks on the heater beside her desk. It is noticeably warmer recently, with spring round the corner.
    ‘You seem to feel permanently chilly these days, Bel.’ I set down a tray laden with tea and Shanghai-style custard tarts. ‘Listen: do you want to make another life-room movie?’
    ‘I can’t. I’ve just been booking a flight to Antwerp. Lily Hong helped me.’
    ‘Oh!’ (God, can I survive here by myself?) – ‘I thought you’d decided there was no reason to go back.’
    ‘My brother’s insisting. There’s bureaucracy to deal with. I leave ten days from now and come back after two weeks.’
    ‘Two weeks?’ (Phew, I can survive that) – ‘Well, this life-room thing’s tomorrow at Qi Qi’s Café-bar in the French Concession. It’s some designer friends of Fei Mo Di. It’s an actual life-drawing session.’
    ‘Okay. Yes. I’ll do it.’ A slight, albeit wan, smile – ‘There’s two weekends before I fly when I can work on it. Should be able to get it finished.’
    ‘Brilliant! Hey – you could try and get some shots of me to start the ball rolling for our Art Nude project when you get back!’
    ‘Will you still be here when I get back, Suki?’
    Gulp. ‘Why wouldn’t I be?’ I feel a blush of shame.
    ‘You’ve got options. Do what you want.’
    ‘You need Lily Hong more than me. To survive here. I’m rubbish at helping you…’
    ‘Not true!’ Pause. ‘But I only want you to stay with me if it’s right for you.’
    ‘I don’t know what’s right for me, Bel.’
    Uncomfortable silence. Then – ‘If I were never to return, you’d have to decide something.’ She wanders off to the kitchen. Obviously a rhetorical musing that I don’t need to answer. Phew.

Afternoon. I head out – keep to my usual weekday routine, even though on Mondays Bel knocks off earlier. I need to leave her behind; her silence. But ten minutes after my arrival at the Delightful Peony the power goes off. With no heating or lights, the café is miserable. I quickly finish my latte and scurry home.
     The whine of the neighbour’s erhu is floating down from the upstairs flat as I let myself in. I urgently need to pee. The bathroom door is off the bedroom, so I storm on through. The quilt on Bel’s bed is puffed up high, covering the single trunk-shape of Bel and Lily Hong. Their twin heads look conjoined on the one pillow; their bodies must similarly be pressed close.
     ‘Sorry!’ I slam the bathroom door, yank at clothing, crash onto the loo. I understand it. Warmth. Comfort. I don’t know whether they’ve taken off their clothes. Is it sex too? It is silent out there. I bustle back through the bedroom without looking and scuttle to the kitchen. Then I pick up my iPad and go for a walk. Give them privacy.

I settle on a lonely bench on campus, near enough to the library to get a weak-ish signal. I’ve received a new email with photos attached. Sent at 04:00 UK time.

Hi – just quickie – Hong Kong Ron emaild me more fab pics fr that last session. They did good work wid u. Followd my instructions 2 letter. Am in hospital waitin rm. Tamara

‘Control freak’ is barely sufficient to describe Tamara’s megalomaniacal omnipotence. I like being controlled.
    I feel comforted.


 

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Feb 042016
 

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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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