Paradox. A short story

The female students of a university class discover they are featured in a nude painting exhibition for which they never posed

To make the nude look unlike a manikin, to make it vibrate with weight and hang with gravity, is mere entry level for any aspiring painter. Yet to embed light into the flesh, to render the nude not like a nude but a Renaissance still life, with velvet bread, pristine pewter and glassware, and grapes glowing like green suns, now that takes the caliber of a Lucian Freud to pull off. The show at the Downstream Gallery in Beijing’s 798 art district featured solitary, pensive “human body” paintings popular in China in the 1980s-90s in imitation of Western photorealism, with the twist that the current painter had the insight to treat the nude like something else, something inanimate, oddly infusing the body thereby with greater realism and lifting his work a step above that of his bland predecessors.

A young woman stood immobile before one of the canvases for some minutes before snapping it with her Nikon D800. As she left the gallery she pulled out her cellphone. “Hey, lovely, I’m so proud of you, posing nude for a painting! Why didn’t you tell me about it before? . . . What? Come on, no need to deny it. I think it’s cool. . . . Right here in an exhibit at 798. . . . Oh, it’s you all right, absolutely. I just took a picture of it and will show you when I get back. . . . But it’s definitely you, Nafei, without a doubt. I’ll see you in a while.”

The next day Nafei arrived at the Downstream Gallery with a classmate, Xian’e. They did not look happy. Xian’e in particular. And not just on account of the nude Ruirui had shot the day before. All ten of them on display. You have to understand the lengths this student would go to in order to rectify a depravity. Once, Nafei was standing in line at the school cafeteria for lunch and she felt someone pressing rudely into her from behind. She glared at the person, a male student she didn’t recognize. A minute later after sitting down, sensing something wasn’t quite right, she reached around to find her butt wet with slime and realized what the boy had done. She rushed back to her dorm room to wash the disgusting mess off her jeans, while her dormmates stared aghast. She was very angry at the outset. Yet the more she thought about it, the more she laughed at the pathetic boy’s mode of seduction, if that’s what it was.

Xian’e, by contrast, wasn’t known for her sense of humor regarding sexual matters.

Noon the day after she dragged a reluctant Nafei with her to the cafeteria to flush out the pervert. He made the mistake of showing up. Nafei pointed him out. Xian’e stepped up to him and took his picture. She produced the evidence to her connections at the Student Affairs Office, where she was already known for her activity as a Party member. They used facial recognition software to ID the student. Xian’e wanted him expelled. The SAO thought it might merit suspension if not expulsion; anyway they needed time to figure out how to categorize the strange offense. Taking matters into her own hands, she outed him on Renren, the Chinese Facebook, used by virtually every student. This was mortifying for the poor lad, who had hardly expected things to come crashing down on him only a day after the prank, and he quit the university.

“The ten most beautiful students in the class,” Xian’e said. “How did he do it?”

“But you’re not among them,” said Nafei, referring to Xian’e’s notoriety as perhaps the most unattainable female on campus. “Have you heard of this painter, Pan Qing?”

“No, I haven’t.”

“How did Lao Shan ever get them to pose for him? It’s impossible.” Xian’e turned to the gallery attendant. “Excuse me, Miss, is the artist here?”

“No.”

While Nafei photographed the other paintings with her cellphone, Xian’e wrote down her contact information and gave it to the attendant. “Tell him I’d like to meet him. I’m impressed with his work and might be interested in posing for him.”

“There’s no way any of these girls would ever pose nude for anyone,” said Xian’e on their way out.

“They didn’t have to. He got ordinary pics of them in clothes and hired the artist to paint them naked using his imagination. Except that he did a really good job on me!”

“Where would he have gotten the pics?”

“Took them secretly I guess, hiding in bushes or something. Or pulled them off Renren. He only needs one good pic of a girl to base a painting on.”

“What a creep.”

Lao Shan was the nickname of their British writing teacher, Paul Hill, “Lao” being an affectionate prefix for “old chap” and “Shan” the Chinese word for mountain or hill. Old Hill was only in his thirties, but he might as well have been a hermit poet living in a mountain cave, so enigmatic was this foreigner to the students. Until today, that is. Though his fate was already sealed, Nafei considered him to be very lucky he had not attempted the same with Xian’e. “It’s strange you’re not up there though. I guess he hasn’t gotten the proper photo of you yet.”

“The whole thing is just so bizarre. I mean, Lao Shan may be weird, but I never thought him to be the pervert type.”

Back on campus, the two girls headed to the Student Affairs Office to meet with Vice Director Wang Mengwei.

“What’s up with you again, Xian’e?” greeted the Vice Director. “Any more male students getting kicked out of school on your account?”

“Wang Laoshi—”

“You don’t need to address me as ‘teacher,’ Xian’e. Remember? Mengwei will do.”

They explained the discovery to the Vice Director, who listened in silence until they were finished.

“Now, Xian’e, I know you and your headstrong ways. I don’t want anyone contacting Hill about this until we know what’s going on. Or have any of you already done so?”

“No, we didn’t. We told the others last night and showed them more photos of the paintings by cellphone today. It’s possible one of them tried emailing him. He has an email address but no one has ever succeeded in getting a reply from him in the past. It seems he doesn’t use it. He doesn’t have a cellphone either.”

“If he’s alerted to this he may quit, though he’s already signed the teaching contract for the new school year. It’s really a problem when a foreign teacher gets into trouble,” Mengwei sighed. “It means we have to get the Foreign Affairs Office involved, and it all becomes very awkward for everyone.”

“You mean this won’t go to the Discipline Inspection Office?” Xian’e asked.

“No, they only handle issues concerning our own faculty.”

“What if it’s a crime?”

“If Director Zhu determines there’s a criminal violation, then we contact the police. We still don’t have a clear idea of what happened. And until then I don’t want you doing anything on your own about it. Now, I need a few more details. You said Hill’s class is an elective one and is the only class in which all of you in the paintings are together. Besides the ten of you, there are another ten females and five males in all. Has anyone in the class, including the males, ever expressed any kind of interest in painting or nude painting?”

“No way. We’re all very traditional. We don’t have the concept of something like that. Even the ‘modern’ girls in the class have never mentioned anything concerning this. I’m sure the boys would like the idea but they’re pretty tight-lipped about their lives with us.”

“No glamor shots in professional studios? You know, it’s not on the menu but those places will gladly shoot you nude. It’s more common than you may realize. The most ordinary women want to immortalize their body while they’re still young.”

“We don’t even get naked in front of each other in our dorm room.”

In spite of the current generation’s reputation for being open-minded, Mengwei knew that the majority of undergraduates were still virgins by the time they graduated. If anything, they were even more prudish in their habits than when she was a student, since with fewer students now housed in dormitory rooms they felt entitled to this newfound thing called privacy. “Is there any possibility someone photographed you through your dorm window?”

“No. The ten of us are scattered among four dorm rooms, high up on different floors, on different sides of the building. Even if someone could photograph us through the window, they wouldn’t see much. We get dressed sitting on our beds, usually with the curtain drawn across.”

“What about when you get up to use the shower in the room? Are you always dressed for that?”

“We don’t have showers in the dorm rooms. That’s only for the grad students in the new dorm building. We still have to use the campus public shower.”

“I heard they were going to tear down that old building. Do all of you use it?”

“Yeah. But we seldom go there together. There are hundreds of us using the shower. How could anyone photograph us in there? Our shower is on the second floor. The boys’ is on the first floor. There are windows but I think they’re frosted and you can’t see through them.”

“I’m just trying to eliminate all possibilities. Nafei, you said the nude that was painted of you bears a strong likeness to your body?”

“Yeah. But I can see how a really clever painter might have imagined what our bodies looked like beneath our clothing. You know, that ‘X-ray vision’ thing all men seem to possess.”

“It seems you’re right. They’re your faces tacked on other women’s bodies. Who first told you about this, again?”

“Hou Ruirui. She’s not in our class. She’s a friend in the Art Department. She often hangs out at 798.”

“Is there any possibility she could be involved? I mean, she was the first to inform you.”

“It’s unimaginable. She’s not like that,” said Nafei. “Anyway she’s not in any of our dorms. I’m the only one she personally knows. That’s why she called me yesterday. She didn’t recognize any of the others in the paintings.”

“Why don’t we just ask Paul Hill about it?” said Xian’e.

Mengwei called the Foreign Affairs Office. They responded the Englishman was still in the UK for the summer vacation and not due back till Sunday, the day before the start of classes. The FAO was intrigued at this interesting news. Li, their Vice Director, wanted to have a look at Hill’s apartment in the Foreign Expert Guesthouse. Vice director Wang and the two students came along.

“We rarely see Hill Laoshi,” remarked the receptionist in the lobby. “He’s an odd one, the only foreign teacher on record to have never had any guests, foreign or Chinese. He doesn’t even allow the maids in to clean. A maid once entered his apartment when he needed help turning on the kitchen gas. It was at night and she said he didn’t have a single light on except a small desk lamp. No wonder he couldn’t turn on the gas!”

She unlocked the apartment door and they entered. The lights were all burned out, so they opened the curtains to let in the daylight. The place was a pigsty and smelled bad. Hill had moved his bed into the living room and slept there. The bed was unmade and the sheets filthy. A large section of the ceiling and corner along one wall were covered in gray mold eating into the plaster. On a side table next to a sofa chair was a desk lamp and two music CDs with the obscure names of Jean-Baptiste Lully and Harrison Birtwistle (details not to be regarded as of much relevance to our investigation except that CDs of any sort, including rarified classical music would have to be searched for files of nude reproductions).

The bedroom itself was filled with moving boxes and clutter. Xian’e opened the curtains and pointed out a large object wrapped in brown paper resting against a wall. The corner had been ripped open and revealed a stack of canvases.

“Don’t tear it open,” said Mengwei. She bent down to undo the tape where the wrapping was attached and cleanly separated the paper.

“Oh, my god, there are more of them!” said Nafei.

“There are ten of them, the rest of us,” Xian’e added, pulling each nude forward until she stopped at one and the color drained from her face. “Nafei,” she exclaimed, “this is really me. I mean my body. It’s exactly my body. How could this be?”

“Well, there we go,” said Mengwei.

Ruirui was summoned over to the apartment with her camera to take high-resolution pictures of each of the ten nudes. The wrapping was carefully replaced on the stack. After conferring with the Director of the FAO on the case, Mengwei escorted Xian’e and Ruirui back to her office in the SAO, while Nafei went to fetch any students from their dorm rooms she could grab who were featured in the nudes. After downloading the photos onto her laptop, Mengwei set up a projector in the conference room, locked the door and dimmed the lights. Xian’e took off her clothes and stood next to her image projected on the screen. The image was adjusted to match Xian’e’s height, and then she stepped directly into the image to superimpose it on her body. The same dangling breasts, the larger left one hanging lower than the right one, the same dark areolas. The same brown triangle of pubic hair.

Nafei arrived with three students in tow, Yiran, Lei, and Sisi. They understood they had to take off their clothes. “It’s safe, girls,” Mengwei said. Anyway, they dared not cross Xian’e. Now dressed and operating the projector, Xian’e got Nafei’s image up on the screen. Nafei stripped. The same black vertical stripe of pubic hair, the same pouting belly and projecting cone-shaped breasts with light pink areolas blending into the surrounding flesh. Yiran took her clothes off. The same flat chest with extended nipples, hourglass hips, and close-cropped pubic hair with abnormally extended labia sticking out below. Lei’s image on the screen revealed that she was shaved, and she confirmed this when she pulled down her panties; the bust and nipples too were identical. Sisi had a scar on her abdomen from an intestinal operation, and this was likewise evident in her nude image.

“Okay, that’s enough. You can get dressed,” said Mengwei. “We’ve got a problem here. Someone somehow photographed all of you naked, and we have to figure out how it happened.”

A trip to the campus shower was arranged for the next evening after it closed at 9pm, with Vice Directors Wang and Li respectively of the Student and Foreign Affairs Offices present, along with the Vice Director of the Security Department, the building superintendent and the female shower attendant. Wang wanted to accompany Nafei and Xian’e during operating hours to understand the showering procedure firsthand but feared drawing unnecessary attention to herself, so she brought the two with as well. A quick pass was made around the entire space for any hidden cameras; the superintendent was informed a more thorough check would be made later in the week. The Security Department was separately going over the data from closed-circuit cameras in place at the entrance and outside the shower building.

Due to the competition for showers, the students had to have it down to a system. Friends usually went in pairs. Nafei and Xian’e would patter naked from the changing room to the showers along a narrow corridor with only their bath kits and waited in line for the next available shower. There were 24 showers in three open shower rooms, each with four showers along facing sides. Whoever’s turn it was to pay (with a card swipe) got in first only long enough to rinse her body and then stepped to the side to soap herself up while the other took her place. They alternated like this until they were finished, typically washing each other’s backs as well, ten minutes max during peak hours, a more relaxed fifteen minutes at less busy times. Then they pattered back to the changing room where they grabbed their towel from their locker to dry themselves and get dressed.

In short, it would have been extremely difficult for someone to photograph or video any of the women taking a shower—not to mention all twenty in the class. Where to conceal a secret camera? No towels were brought into the showers as there was no place to hang them. Nobody dared linger longer than necessary, when others were standing there waiting their turn. It was quickly deduced that the only conceivable means of capturing the girls in clear, full-frontal pose would be a spycam hidden under a towel in an open locker along the wall adjacent to or facing the corridor, grabbing them as they returned to the changing room directly from showering. The person operating the camera would need to be familiar with the showering schedules of her classmates to avoid raising suspicions with her constant presence. If she were not a classmate but an unknown spy, she would need to know or recognize each of the students and also have some inkling of when they frequented the shower. Collectively these obstacles largely, if not entirely, ruled out the possibility of reliable nude reproductions being acquired in the campus shower, Wang decided.

“I’ve been studying the nudes closely,” she said to Xian’e on the phone. “I want to show you something.” She summoned the student to her apartment.

When Xian’e arrived, she was presented with her zoomed-in groin on the laptop screen.

“Look at yourself closely. Notice how your labia are visible in the painting. Let me see you, again.”

Mengwei undid Xian’e’s pants and slid them off her hips. “I only see hair.” She then moved Xian’e over to the desk lamp so that the light illuminated her legs from behind. “Okay, there we are! The clear silhouette of your two nether lips,” she said, flicking Xian’e on the mouth. “Now come into the shower with me.”

Xian’e obeyed and stepped out of the rest of her clothes. “Look at our hair down there,” Mengwei continued, in the shower, fingering Xian’e’s pubis, “how black it is. In the painting yours is brown, as it is when dry. And you have all this hair creeping onto your thighs that is also not in the painting.” She squatted down before Xian’e. “Yep, your labia are completely hidden behind your hair when it’s wet.”

“What you mean is we couldn’t possibly have been photographed while our bodies were still wet from the shower.”

“Exactly. Or the painter was able to estimate what dry pubic hair should look like with remarkable accuracy. Still, he didn’t quite get your labia right. They’re too big and puffy in the painting, too exaggerated. Also notice that the light isn’t coming from one source. The flesh itself seems lit up. The conditions are not natural but imagined.”

A few days later the Vice Director came up with a new idea. She summoned Hou Ruirui to her office, who she had heard was talented with the pen. “Can you draw from memory?”

“Well, that’s not how we’re trained. I don’t have a photographic memory, but I could try.”

“Excellent.” Mengwei locked the door—people were always barging in—and stripped. “Take a good look at me, every detail of my body, including here,” she said, touching her groin. “Now, go off and draw me from memory. Then come back and show me the result.”

 

“Guess what?” Mengwei announced to Xian’e when she returned to the Vice Director’s apartment later that evening for an update. “Vice Director Li of the FAO and myself just paid Paul Hill a visit.

“He’s back?”

“Yeah. He was shocked at the allegations and vigorously denied knowing about the nudes.”

“What? But what about the paintings in his apartment?”

“He claimed some artist he was vaguely acquainted with had contacted him and asked to use his space to store them. He knew they were nudes but didn’t bother to look at them. He may be right, since as you recall they were all still wrapped up when we saw them.”

“What about the fact his was the only class with the same students as in the paintings?”

“He insisted he really doesn’t know. He said he doesn’t even remember who the person was who introduced him to the artist.”

“It doesn’t make sense. Why wouldn’t the artist have enough space of his own?”

“Oh, he had enough space for his own paintings. He just wanted someone else to be associated with them.”

“I see.”

“That’s the most logical theory for now. I have something else to show you, Xian’e, and I need you naked again.”

Mengwei placed two reading lights on facing chairs and sat on the floor between them, her laptop next to her with Xian’e’s nude on the screen. “Stand in front of me.”

They adjusted their positions to best illuminate Xian’e’s vagina in front and behind. Mengwei teased apart her inner labia with her fingernails and stroked the area until it was slick.

“Xian’e, I’m going to show you how the vulva changes when stimulated.” She massaged and tugged at each labium as if it were an earlobe. “There we go, dear, they’re growing. Nice and swollen.”

She wiped her fingers off on Xian’e’s inner thighs and zoomed in with her cellphone camera. She continued to agitate the labia with one hand while snapping several more pictures with the other. Uploading the pics to her laptop, she placed them next to the painting’s version of the same. “Look, your labia were pink when dry, then red, and now plum red and extended, exactly and as obscenely as he painted you.”

Xian’e was at a loss for words. “Mengwei, the painter contacted me.”

“He did? How?”

“After I had given the gallery attendant my number and told her I could pose for him.”

“What a clever one you are! But if you don’t mind, I don’t want you to go meet him. I want to meet him instead.”

“That’s good because I’d rather not.”

“Did you talk to him on the phone?”

“He called me but I didn’t answer. I replied to his SMS without setting a date. I wanted to discuss it with you first.”

“Perfect,” said Mengwei. “I’m thinking of having him do a nude painting of me.”

“Why?”

“I’m not going to pose for him. I want to see how well he can work from a drawing of me.”

Ruirui delivered her drawing the next day. It was finely detailed and Mengwei was impressed. She contacted Pan Qing using Xian’e’s cellphone and went to 798 to meet the painter in his gallery. He was handsome and fit the Chinese artist prototype in his neatly pressed Mao suit, long hair, goatee and mirrored shades. Mengwei introduced herself as an ordinary businesswoman who happened to be blown away by his exhibit. He deflated, however, when she presented Ruirui’s drawing to work with instead of her live body. She would bide her time. “I want to see what you’re capable of,” she explained. “If I’m happy with the result, we’ll discuss my posing for you. Can you make me look twenty years younger?”

“Why would you want to do that? You’re still beautiful,” he answered, his poise restored.

 *     *     *

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The Exact Unknown and Other Tales of Modern China

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