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



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.

It takes him more than 24 hours to reply.



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Sep 082016


David Rodriguez

Have I ‘gone anorexic’, as Loiza commented? My backside in this photo by David Rodriguez looks hideously puckered. What can I do, though? I can’t jog in this pollution. Must eat even less.

No email from Bel. It is four days since the funeral. What has it done to her?
    I’ll email her one of these wacky pics from David’s shoot. Maybe it’ll stimulate a response.

Dear David,
Again –
Gracias – a brilliant session! Fantastic pics – thanks for sending!
    This one disturbs me though. Reminds me of Nazi concentration camps where people had to line up naked just like this to be photographed. Sorry for this macabre association. Call me paranoid. I think it’s because yesterday afternoon I started reading J.G. Ballard’s autobiography: he was in a brutal Japanese prison camp at Lunghua right here in Shanghai… Then later I was looking at my flatmate’s books including war-photographer Lee Miller’s photographs of the liberation of Buchenwald death camp. So I’m a bit too focused on human brutality at the moment.

Dear Suki,
SHANGHAI TURNS ALL CREATIVE PEOPLE EITHER PARANOID OR CRAZY. Yes I know about the beautiful Lee Miller: I love the work of Man Ray! I try with his solarisation effect but not very successful. Getting the effect digitally is only fake.

Tuh – typical! Lee Miller recognised only as an appendage of Man Ray.

Dear David,
solarisation was Lee Miller’s invention as much as Man Ray’s. She does not get the recognition she deserves as a photographer. She photographed political assassinations. She photographed the suicided bodies of the mayor of Dresden and his wife and daughter. She’s got loads more WW2 photos in a book I’ve got here documenting bombed-out London. She took loads of photos of women at war and women in the armed forces.

Dear Suki
I know that Lee Miller was not just a pretty face (although, saying that, she was painted six times by Picasso). I know that she understood the Surrealist movement – after all she married the Surrealist painter Roland Penrose. His work I find kitsch and derivative so I am not surprised he became an organiser/administrator in the end. By the way, I have an email conversation with the current Director of Exhibitions at Penrose’s glorious foundation, your Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. I pitch an exhibition concept to him. Wish me luck!

Dear David,
Picasso didn’t paint pretty faces.
Best of British luck with your ICA pitch!
Actually I’ve always thought it a bit weird that Roland Penrose got off with Lee Miller. As a pacifist and conscientious objector, how could he be together with someone whose adrenalin was fired (maybe even enthusiasm is the word) by seeking out and capturing human brutality on film?

I love sparring with fellow-creatives – something that is impossible with Aussie Cyril, my wet, malleable, acquiescent devotee.
    At this afternoon’s shoot, Cyril keeps popping truffles into my mouth.
    I must think positive. Melbourne has no brutal war history, no concentration camps. The sun is always shining. I could live off him and write without having to find paid work. No more modelling!
    Could I be plump and happy with doting Cyril?

Before bed, a final check for emails, texts. Nothing from Bel, despite the pic I sent.
    Wonder if she’s had her chest x-ray?
    Maybe that’s it. This silence. She’s found out she’s got cancer.



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