Apr 212016
 



ALT TEXT

Mike Little

Another belly pic by Mike Little, from the second session with Trish his artist wife who projects her drawings onto me. According to the philosopher-semiotician Saussure (says Trish), the words we use are not a true record of the reality that we are looking at, they are ‘motivated signs’ – and the meaning is only within the sign. Bel was recording Trish‘s ramblings: ‘There was a movement among painters away from attempts to paint realistically; you know – figuratively. I think this was due to a distrust, because they thought that this kind of “realism” pretended that it knew what the world was like…’

Good morning Cyril,
have read all the photographers’ essays in this book you’ve lent me. I like Lucien Clergue best for his prioritisation – even above setting up the cameras – of his relationship with the model. “Both the model and I may be completely exhausted at the end of a session, but it’s a good kind of exhaustion”. He says that, when photographing the model, he is completely content. Some of the others in this book – they couldn’t give a toss about the model as a human being. Can’t write more, Bel is just bringing through our elevenses.
Suki

Days have gone by with no proper conversation with Bel. Not my fault. If she talked, I’d talk. What’s the story of her child? Why is Elise in a psychiatric hospital?
    Then this morning, over our tea-break, a conversation happens.
    ‘Your turn.’ She sets down two cups of English tea on my desk in the bedroom. ‘Why are you really here?’ She settles on the bed. ‘I mean, it’s not all about writing your novel, is it.’
    The question is chilling. I shiver. The January weather, too, is chilly. Humidity, when the temperature drops and there is no adequate indoor heater, gets into your very bones. Could I make Bel happy by saying I came to Shanghai to be with you?
    But I have to be honest. ‘Um. Okay, I’m avoiding my unsuccessful life.’
    Bel reaches over, squeezes my arm (it’s always a shock when we touch): ‘Still on your quest,’ she says, generously.
    ‘Actually, you know, something’s started haunting me – I mean, being here, with time to reflect: I keep reading articles about women giving birth at fifty. Ageing first-time mums are all over the news. If you’ve got enough money you can make it happen.’
    ‘God. Materialism in extremis.’
    ‘But I’m jealous.’
    ‘Look, Suki. Being a parent can ruin your life. And that’s even people like us with all the benefits and support of living in the West. Wait’ – she leaves the room.
    Is she going to show me something to do with Elise? Photos? But she returns with – oh god – not another article, which she urgently skim-reads, then summarises:
    ‘Listen: tens of millions of poor people in countries like Nigeria, India, Pakistan and Peru can only afford to eat for five days each week. Most of the world is exhausting its ground water because of overpumping… la la la…’ – she skims down – ‘…yields are flat-lining in Japan… Here! In northern and Western China, and the Sahel region of Africa which is an area wracked by insurgency and conflict, people are running out of land to grow food. Millions of acres the world over are turning into wasteland because of over-farming and over-grazing!’
    ‘It sounds a bit sensationalist, Bel. I wouldn’t just take it all as read.’
    ‘This American scientist Lester Brown who’s never been wrong about any prediction is saying it.’
    ‘Look, just don’t worry about big stuff, Bel. Enjoy little stuff. This cup of tea.’
    But Bel has dropped back into her default mode.
    I’m rubbish at dealing with my own depression, never mind hers.

Evening. It is a relief to go out of the flat for the second session at Trish and Mike Little’s place. A good distraction for Bel.
    Video-camera in hand, she unobtrusively gets to work.
    ‘Is your neck ok?’ Mike fusses over me, supervising my positions. ‘Are you warm enough? Do you want to sit in that chair? We’ll have a cake break in a bit. Happy days!’ Then gets on again with his pedantic, conscientious photographing.
    Trish bumbles about, switching different spotlights on and off, shifting her projector to create new shapes on my body. ‘I’ve been getting my ideas from this Swiss guy Saussure, who advocated “the detachment of the sign from the referent”. Are you with me? It’s all ever so difficult…’
    ‘Clever, isn’t she,’ Mike grins indulgently. He takes another careful photograph. And another. And all the while, Bel – gifted photo-journalist and film-maker extraordinaire – sidles around us, doing what she is brilliant at; a silent presence, close to the room’s walls, by necessity an outsider, recording it all with her unique eye.


 

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Apr 072016
 



ALT TEXT

Mike Little

At my first session (New Year’s Day) with Mike Little’s dotty artist wife, Trish, she draws me on her iPad, all the while chattering incomprehensibly about Saussure’s signs and referents and abstraction. Then she projects the drawings onto my body, and Mike photographs me. Meanwhile Bel, in fly-on-the-wall mode, is getting material for a movie about Trish’s work. Creative collaboration, or what?

1st January. Bel is let off lessons. The new year begins with us slobbing in bed, drinking Columbian coffee, reading.
    ‘He’s definitely after you.’ Bel tosses aside a note.
    ‘Oh – is that my note from Cyril?’
    ‘You left it in this book he gave you. Do you like being considered his “muse”?’
    ‘God, no. I hate how he puts me in that role, being so over-complimentary and acquiescent and submissive with me.’
    ‘Told you he’s into submission.’
    ‘Yes, I know.’
    ‘Proper BDSM scene. Collars and chains.’ She is looking at me a bit sternly. ‘Does that give you “writing ideas”? That why you want to do more shoots with him?’
    Sigh. ‘He pays me, Bel. That’s the main reason. And secondly, I have free rein to mess about with his mundane photos and turn them into fantastic images. I love that.’
    But Bel has stuck her head back into ‘Chinese Whispers’, the book her brother sent. Is she sulking?
    I grab back Cyril’s ‘The lives of the muses’ and open it at random:

Charis knew that Weston had a horror of female competition, therefore never touched a camera herself. …a swooning acolyte who fell at Weston’s feet… united with him in a common purpose – his life’s work as a photographer…’

I try to re-engage with Bel. ‘You know – Lee Miller is in here as Man Ray’s so-called muse, but she just isn’t one. Not like Charis Weston was. Lee Miller used Man Ray to learn and perfect her own photographic skills.’
    ‘Charis who?’
    ‘The model and second wife of that obnoxious photographer Edward Weston. He picked her up when he was 48 and she was only 19.’
    ‘Oh. I quite like Edward Weston, though.’
    ‘…humourless and egotistic, it says here.
    ‘His photos.’
    Success! I’ve got Bel talking about photography. ‘Shall I make us more coffee?’

The kitchen stinks of drains. The superficial semblance of a decent fitted kitchen doesn’t bear close inspection. Blackened cracks vein the worktops. Door hinges are broken. We put up with the mess of mysterious leaks and dirt traps. It’s a mere temporary residence, after all.
    Waiting for the coffee to percolate, I receive a call.
    A chirpy voice: ‘Hello Suki and happy new year to you! Mike Little here. We met at the Shanghai Art Nude Photographers’ group about three months ago. Listen – might you be interested in a series of shoots led by my wife Trish who’s an artist?’
    ‘Hey – brilliant! New Year, new opportunities! Totally interested!’
    ‘Lovely jubbly. It’s her Masters project. Something to do with the Swiss semiotician Saussure. I’m just along for the ride. Well: if you can drop by this afternoon for a first ‘go’, we could make a New Year’s Day party of it? Bring Bel along! Long time no see – she hasn’t been to the group for months.’
    ‘Wonderful. Don’t worry, I’ll drag her out.’
    ‘Champion! That’ll be grand.’
    ‘Just thinking on my feet now, Mike: could Bel be a fly-on-the-wall for this project and make a film recording its progression? Would Trish be up for that? Bel’s made some great movies; we can show you some.’
    ‘Sounds magic! Happy days – let’s discuss it anon.’

When I return to the bedroom with tea, Bel looks up from her book. ‘I’m like Somerset Maugham.’
    ‘Good grief,’ I set down her cup, ‘why?’
    ‘He felt alienated from the Chinese. Way back in 1900. Just like I do now. Listen to this: ‘You cannot tell what are the lives of those thousands who surge about you. Upon your own people sympathy and knowledge give you a hold: you can enter into their lives, at least imaginatively… But these [Chinese] are as strange to you as you are to them. You have no clue to their mystery. For their likeness to yourself in so much does not help you; it serves rather to emphasize their difference.’ Bel’s face is desolate. ‘That’s like me. I have no connection with my students. They don’t want to know me. They’d be more interested in me if I had a Gucci handbag. If I were a Gucci handbag.’
    I sigh. ‘Never mind – we’ve just been invited to a party.’
    ‘But don’t you identify with him, Suki?’
    ‘Look Bel – it’s New Year’s Day. Think of positives. Plans for this year.’
    ‘Right. So’ – Bel snaps shut her book, tosses it aside – ‘when are you going to write your novel, Suki?’
    ‘When are you finally going to start your Art Nude project with me, Bel?’
    ‘Dunno. It’s the teaching. Takes up my headspace.’
    ‘That’s not the real issue.’ I take Bel by the shoulders and ask, dangerously, ‘Why are you really here?’
    ‘What are you really doing here, Suki?’
    Holding each other (at arm’s length), we laugh. Raucously, theatrically: what is this life? – ha ha ha… (furiously, desperately) – ha ha ha why have we run away to China ? Why?…


 

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