Alison Croggon enters the visceral, transformative world of Rosie Isaac’s Intestine in my Eye
May has been a full-on month in the Annals of Croggon. Past Alison blithely put a lot of stuff in her diary, forgetting that if one doesn’t eschew all human contact, Melbourne in winter is a seething pit of mirco-organisms waiting to pounce. Yes, like almost everyone I know, I have the Lurgy.
Meanwhile, as well as putting this website together, I found myself writing one novel and editing another. May’s other appointments have included a week at the Sydney Writers Festival during which I talked to thousands of secondary school children, interviewing Odyssey translator Emily Wilson at the Wheeler Centre , a Feminist Writers Festival panel, a poetry reading and workshop for the Queensland Poetry Festival, plus a workshop at the Melbourne Recital Centre. And naturally, every theatre company in Melbourne decided to open a show in the same fortnight as the Next Wave Festival was on.
Here at Witness, we’re keen on Next Wave: we love the new, the emerging, the experimental, the small. We wanted to see every performance, and indeed put ourselves down for most of them. But as the Lurgy spread, we got to fewer shows than we would have liked. All I can say is, we did our best, and what I saw made me sorry I wasn’t able to get to more. Surviving as an artist these days means a setting a lot of mice running to see if they end up anywhere: but what’s the point if you don’t get enough time to actually see art?
All of which adds up to the fact that I’m rather more tired than I’d like to be as I try to write about Rosie Isaac’s work, Intestine in my Eye. Isaac is a visual artist, performer and, as it turns out, a writer. This is the kind of work that Next Wave is for: the kind of work that makes you think: I haven’t seen anything like this before. It’s performance art that’s a kind of cross between site-specific theatre, installation and a poetry reading. And it deserves more focused and sharp attention than I am capable right now of giving it.
It begins as soon as you enter Quest on William, a block of serviced apartments in the CBD which, as we discover, overlooks the Law Library of Victoria. An usher at the front door takes me up a lift which, instead of blankly informing you of which floor you’ve arrived at, gives you a preparatory talk about the work of art you’re about to see. (I went to a performance, but it also exists as an installation).
Once out of the lift, I’m directed down the passage to a room and instructed to knock on the door. I’m admitted through the door, and given a law book which I’m told I can read.
This is one of the penthouse apartments: as well as the standard kitchenette and lounge room, it has at least two bedrooms and a balcony. I’m surprised, perhaps because the hotel seemed so deserted, to find that there are around 20 people already there seated around the edge of the lounge room, in chairs or on the floor. Everyone looks studious and hushed, as if they’re in a library.
I sit down and open the law book. Inside is pasted a page that folds out, which immediately makes me think of Octavio Paz’s poem Blanco, a work which, anticipating hypertext, was written to be read in any number of ways and which originally was published as an unfolding page. Snuck next to a page of precedents on Workers Compensation cases, the text, beautifully printed on stiff cream paper, opens out in a double leaf.
The design mimics the letterpress text of the law volumes, but the columns are unpredictable and differently sized. Footnotes run at the side of the page or in the middle. Like everyone else, I bend my brow studiously to read.
It becomes clear that this text has been written in this hotel apartment. It speaks of being in the hotel, if visiting the Law Library, of the view out of the window. Isaac has spent some time in this room. “The furnishing imply a domestic interior, without living. It’s quiet and I adopt the hotel’s lazy subjectivity, become mindless and masturbatory.”
In this hotel room, it appears, Isaac reads and eats. The title of this work – Intestine in my Eye – comes, I read in a footnote, from a misreading of a Leslie Scalapino poem, DeLay Rose. (We are given precise references). This lazy subjectivity is, it seems, anything but lazy: she – because of course she is a she – begins a process of transformation.
She writes about the biological act of chewing, about the process of entering the Law Library, going past security, about the attempts to understand legal language. The writing turns stone and brick into living tissue: the “dome is a single lung, a swollen bosom”. Her body becomes a mass of digestive tissue, her eyes becomes an intestine, seeing becomes touching.
She considers the biological definition of denaturing, the process by protein changes so it can no longer enter a cell wall. She is denaturing herself and her environment. She is taking the law and thinking through it as biology and then as poetry. Her body becomes law, biology becomes poetry. Everything is permeable.
I’m still reading and thinking about the text when Isaac enters the lounge room, asking the audience members to shift aside. She begins to perform the text which we all have been reading. She reads in several places – on the balcony, on the lounge room, in an adjacent bedroom where we can’t see her –always speaking through a microphone. Sometimes we see her, sometimes she is in an adjacent room. At one point she pushes the microphone cord up through her trousers, and we all think of the mindless, masturbatory subjectivity of the hotel room. Finally it is resting around her neck, coiled like a snake, ready for when she wishes to speak.
Writing is a kind of magic, and this spell is very particular. The effect is as if the text and living tissue of the performer become a single thing, an effect and the production of a strange and very particular time and place. Isaac’s performance is almost naively simple, and at the same time deeply complicated, in the same ways bodies are both these things. I’m sure that all of us, by the end of the performance, are hyper-aware that we are breathing each other’s air, that we are all smudged with each other’s DNA. The intimacy of the performance is physical and mental: literal permeabilities are opened up to intellectual disorderings.
When I leave, I’m given a copy of the text that was pasted into the law books. I feel as if I’ve been given a part of Isaac’s body, like the scapula of a saint.
Intestine in my Eye by Rosie Isaac. Mentor and editor, Astrid Lorange. Editor, Elena Gomez. Quest on William, The Supreme Court Library Precinct. Next Wave. Until May 18. Free
This performance is wheelchair accessible.