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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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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May 192016
 



ALT TEXT

Mike Little

Mike Little’s photo of one of his wife Trish’s drawings, projected by her onto my skin. Bel’s movie of this unfolding project is almost complete.

A final session with Trish: the culmination of her chaotic art project.
    We leave the still-empty campus (Spring Festival goes on and on…) to go to the Littles’ apartment. Our suburb, too, is still a ghost-town. The urban population, recently-migrated from the countryside to settle on Shanghai’s new-built outskirts, has left en masse to return to home villages.
    At this annual gathering, do Chinese families fight? Like British families do at Christmas?
    With her project climaxing, Trish is dizzier than ever:
    ‘…because trying to reproduce an image that you see in a photographic or so-called “realistic” way is about certainty, but there is no certainty.’
    ‘As in, nothing can be taken literally?’ I clarify.
    ‘That’s it!’
    I shudder. ‘That’s how Shanghai makes me feel.’
    ‘We’ve moved away from the whole of the body’ – Trish points excitedly at an image on her monitor, ‘there – to focus on only a part of the body; hence we’ve moved from what is obviously a referent, to something which has lost that referent.’
    ‘So you can no longer tell it’s anything to do with a body.’
    ‘Exactly.’
    ‘Like these,’ pipes Mike, holding out his smart-phone. ‘Edward Weston’s nude studies. I’ve got the Francine Prose book that has a chapter on him.’ He shows me a couple of photographs.
    ‘Yes, I’ve seen some of these. And they get compared with his vegetable studies, like that one of a pepper that could equally be a woman’s torso.’
    Mike holds out the phone to his wife. ‘This the type of thing you’re on about, sweetheart? See – you can hardly tell whether they’re bodies or objects. It’s abstracted from what it really is.’
    ‘Technically clever – yes.’ Bel moves forward into the group from her silent observation-point. ‘But the great Stieglitz himself disliked Weston’s photography for that reason. It was all about technical prowess but totally devoid of artistic vision. Plus there’s no feeling in them. Even though they were often the body of Charis his lover.’
    ‘But they’re good, though,’ Mike insists. ‘They fox you into thinking they’re something else.’
     Trish, behind him, looks pained. ‘Haven’t you baked something for us, Mike?’
    ‘Sorry Trish, are we ready for tea?’ Mike heads for the kitchen.
    She sighs and flops in front of her monitor. ‘Wish I could talk to someone about my ideas. Wish I was more confident. Always feel I’m waffling, being a nuisance…’ She absently drops her mouse into the pocket of her fisherman’s smock. ‘Most people don’t listen to me like you two do.’ Is that an oblique comment on Mike? ‘Anyway,’ Trish yanks at the nest of coffee tables – ‘enough of me and my rubbish.’

From beyond the Littles’ Ikea curtains comes the constant, alien clamour of Shanghai’s Jing ‘an Temple district. Apart from sharing the ear-plague of incessant fire-crackers, we have no connection with the lives of the Chinese around us at this festival time. Within this apartment, we are in England.
    Mike is holding out a cup of tea. ‘So, Suki, do you think there’s any difference in how artists relate to their models, compared to Art Nude photographers and their models? After all, you’re the one with first-hand experience.’
    ‘Yes, there’s a fundamental difference.’ I take the cup and saucer. ‘Art Nude photography is dependent on the photographer’s personality and his or her connection with an individual model. A photographer can only produce Art Nude work if he or she has managed to get into a working relationship with a person who’ll pose naked one-to-one. Though of course, working with you two guys breaks this mould because it’s two-to-one.’
    ‘Three-to-one’ – Mike shoots a look at Bel, a silent island in an armchair: ‘technically there have been three of us making pictures of you.’
    ‘Well, okay, yes. Complicated, isn’t it! But I would say, really – Trish – this is primarily about your relationship as a creative artist with me as the model.’
    Mike gives Bel a wide encouraging grin; tries to draw her in: ‘It’s quite complex in the case of our little project, here, isn’t it? As the photographer I myself am merely observing the primary relationship – which is the artist-model relationship – and recording images of its fruits…’
    ‘But your photos are slanted, Mike. Not objective,’ says Bel gravely. ‘The photographer’s eye inevitably has an interpretative dimension.’
    ‘Accepted!’ Mike beams. ‘Whereas you, Bel, as a film-maker, are documenting all of our inter-relationships completely neutrally.’
    ‘Nothing’s ever “neutral”,’ I pipe up, without forethought – ‘I mean, the documenting of my Shibari sessions by a photographer was still shaped by his aesthetic. He was still selecting images.’
    Mike pauses from reaching some floral tea plates out of a sideboard. ‘What’s Shibari?’
    ‘Oh. Ah… It’s this traditional Japanese type thing… where one gets tied up…’
    ‘Ooh!’ Trish’s eyes shine, while English embarrassment turns Mike’s face pink.
    ‘It’s a kind of meditational practice really,’ I bluster. ‘The knots have to be really beautifully done. It’s more about the process…’
    ‘Bondage!Trish giggles.
    ‘Uff… Like I said it’s very much an aesthetic thing, mainly…’
    ‘How about some bondage, Mike?’ She reaches to take the cake-tray from him.
    I crash on – ‘…I mean, the bondage masters are quite nerdy actually, trying to get their knots absolutely perfect and symmetrical and everything’ – I see Mike is flustered, removing his pinny – ‘It’s more like macramé than anything else.’
    ‘Oh?’ Mike’s face brightens. ‘I used to be really into macramé. Do you remember macramé owls?’
    ‘Oh cripes, yes, macramé owls’ – Trish rolls her eyes – ‘nineteen-seventies. They were everywhere.’ She plonks the tray onto the coffee table. ‘Gosh, this looks lovely, sweetheart.’
    Mike raises his merry eyebrows at me. ‘Carrot cake?’


 

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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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