reading while lying

Rosie Isaac, Intestine In My Eye, NextWave festival, Quest on William, Melbourne, 16—18 May 2018

 

Chewing is the first stage of mechanical digestion. [1] Rosie Isaac’s work Intestine In My Eye was presented as part of the 2018 NextWave festival; the work takes up ‘the fundamental legal principle of precedent as a strategy for thinking about accumulation, inheritance and the embodied experience of the artist as legal subject.’ Having spent time reading, researching and visiting the Law Library, Isaac compiled these thoughts in a text that she later read in a series of performances. The text explains that an examination of the Law Library has been relocated to an adjacent block of serviced apartments named ‘Quest on William’. One of the apartments was hired and as if open for inspection, for several days functioned as an installation where visitors were directed to a text sandwiched between law books. Printed on two skinny sheets that fold-out vertically into two long strips, the font and compartmentalised format of text-body and footnotes were vaguely reminiscent of Elizabethan documents, a reminder that Australia’s common law system is largely derived from English law. The way that it unfurled also reminded me of intestines, or even a spine—and that documents and printed matter, like books, are often made analogous to the body or bodies in the English language. I learnt that barristers hire these serviced rooms as chambers. If a hotel connotes a holiday and leisure, a serviced apartment connotes the mundane practice of living subordinated to function; a resting place for a body with a purpose.

This place has nothing to do with me and I’m free of it as soon as I’m out the door. This place has everything to do with me and I’m hungry so I feed on it. Isaac uses the space as a self-organised artist residency; the text is an accumulation of thoughts responding to published sources and field research, meetings with other artists and librarians to discuss the ‘artist as legal subject’ held in the hotel’s rooftop swimming pool, in the lounge, in bed. These insights pepper the writing, which is formatted with quotes both inset and located on the margins of its body; an idiosyncratic but logical weave for the eye to travel. The movement of the eye makes it difficult to construct a hierarchy and distinguish what is relevant and what is superfluous in the artist’s memory, influences, imagination, actions.

I swallow precedent, digests, dome and sculpture; I chew book, bed, robe and view. A footnote explains the work’s title is a misremembered line from a Leslie Scalapino poem:
‘intestine’s in one’s eyelids’ and ‘also their intestines in their eyelids while // still living’. [2]
Isaac’s investigation of precedent impinges on her organised self wherein boundaries between the legal subject (a morbid and immortal, figurative entity) and the artist’s actual body (the living, cells, DNA) break down. Quotations and misremembering flow as gastric juices—the artist’s body has become a tool to process and organise information, which is digested as something intrinsically different.

But under the law particularity is not an affect or a character; under the law particularity is to say people’s lives. Before encountering this work I was not familiar with the term ‘precedent’ in the legal sense. When I think of the law I think of being in trouble. A few years ago I waited in line at a country court to register the plea of my immediate family member to a criminal charge. The line was long and slow and I heard the explanation given to the man in front of me; his two choices when responding to his charge. ‘Which one,’ he asked, ‘do I need to say so that I can leave today?’

Reading is swallowing—words slide easily, and once inside spread indiscriminately. In Isaac’s previous work Speaking in the abstract (2014) a script was read by three performers. At its close, they pushed their hands through holes in large cardboard sheets. The only part then visible of the performers; their hands—waved and ushered the audience from the gallery whilst they coughed emphatically. Potentially signifying disapprobation in a public setting (or a cover-up of laughter), coughing was appropriated to break with the narrative illusion created by the script and assert the performer’s control over the viewer’s space. It was a clearing of the proverbial table—you have had enough, now get out. [3]
I was initially sceptical of the scope of Intestine—the ‘artist as legal subject’ seemed a very broad topic to examine. What kind of inheritance would the artist represent? Would the artist consider their positionality—in a state that privileges some subjects and is founded on the discrimination of others?[4] My concerns changed once in the apartment. I found Intestine thinks about certain mechanisms or relations of power one body experiences: moving through the security check at the library, standing upright in an elevator, reading while lying in the hotel bed. It considers one body’s complicity (as participant and observer of the law) without trying to make definitive statements about what this means.

Chewing is the first stage in mechanical digestion. Upper and lower molars, grinding repeatedly. Enzymes and the wetting contact of saliva begin to break down food. In works directly preceding the NextWave performance, Isaac began to use her body to circumvent her installations. In Here repetition of a lot will be there (2017) she navigated her sculptural work via performance: during a narrative reading, she asked the audience to lie on the floor and listen to a story tracing a weird genealogy of the personification of Lie and her mother Legal. In the same show, in AGILE LIE (2017) adhesive ‘FRAGILE’ tape was cut up and reassembled in a spiral on Westspace’s parquet floor. Lying and pointing to different letters Isaac began to lull the audience with her voice, almost singing and extenuating vowels, while elongating and flexing parts of her body: ‘she liiiiies’, intoning, ‘liiiiiiieeeyyyys’, ‘iiiiiiiiiii’, ‘liiiiiiiiiiiiiy’. She re-spelt ‘agile’, lie’, and ‘i’, ‘lie’. This strategy of activating objects using spoken word, sound and the body is repeated in the reading of Intestine. Over microphone Isaac’s voice is deliberate and commanding and sometimes the only thing present whilst her body moves in and out of adjacent bedrooms.

I mould the system into a self-portrait and it’s not a sexy one. Isaac reads Intestine, and all the while stacks law books, and closing them, thud, pushes over the tower she has made with the length of the microphone’s cord, as she clomps into another room. The microphone is doggedly stuffed between the artist’s leg and the silk pants she wears—it’s a tight fit and the mic appears like a hard dick before it travels up her top, to rest hanging around her neck like a snake, or a roadie’s way of avoiding tripping over cables at a gig. On the balcony, she illuminates the text between the downturned cones of two lamps, which become the memories of her mother’s tear-shaped breasts, the swollen breasts of the statue of Justice at the entrance to the court building, the dome of the Law Library’s roof as seen from above. As if a toddler, Isaac pays attention to everyday items, interacting with them to get a sense of them; how what they are and what they can do. These interactions are delineated, understood and memorised, like objects are inserted into the mouth to record their shape/taste/ texture/temperature. We watch her performance, consuming her object-relations. When I am home, I remember to look up the Maintenance Art of Mierle Laderman Ukeles in 1960s New York: ‘I do a hell of a lot of washing, cleaning, cooking, renewing, supporting, preserving, etc.’—she wrote. ‘Also, (up to now separately) I “do” Art’. [5] Changing the assignation of ‘art’ from a noun to a verb, Ukeles considered how her feminine labour could be harnessed as artwork. Intestine also makes strange the boundary line between an artist’s labour and an artist’s product; between installation, performance, reading, breathing, playing. Like chewing, watching is a form of labour without particular investment—whether something is finally swallowed or spat out.

 

[1] Writing in bold in this article are quotations taken from Intestine In My Eye by Rosie Isaac, 2018. The artist is a friend of many years and a sometimes collaborator.

[2] Leslie Scalapino, ‘DeLay Rose’, It’s go in horizontal: selected poems 1974–2006, University of California Press, 2008.

[3] For a discussion of Isaac’s previous work’s approach to politics and the position of the viewer see Justin Clemens & Helen Johnson, ‘Porosity, machine, subtraction, substitution: on the formal address to politics in works by Brighid Fitzgerald, Rosie Isaac, Nicholas Mangan and Tom Nicholson’, UnMagazine 9.1, http://unprojects.org.au/magazine/issues/issue-9-1/porosity-machine-subtraction-substitution/; accessed 24 June 2018.

[4] ‘The conquest of Australia was born in the oppression of the poor and dispossessed in England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland. Those in power assigned the cause of social problems to those who suffered most, and sought to alleviate problems by getting rid of people: transportation to the Antipodes. The aim was not only to displace people, but also massively to control them. Power and terror were key values; in actualising them in a new society the powerful re-created much of the system which had led them to seek penal colonies in the first place.’ Deborah Bird Rose, Dingo Makes us Human, Cambridge University Press, 2000.

[5] ‘Now I will simply do these everyday things, and flush them up to consciousness’, Laderman Ukeles, ‘Manifesto for Maintenance Art’, 1969, https://ima.org.au/mierle-laderman-ukeles-maintenance-art-works-1969-1980/; accessed 24 June 2018. On inheritance of conceptual art and a discussion of value see Elvia Wilke, ‘The Grammar of Work’, Frieze.com, 23 March 2018, https://frieze.com/article/grammar-work#5; accessed 24 June 2018.

IntestineInMyEye_NW18_PhotoSarahWalker-3485.jpg

Rosie Isaac, Intestine In My Eye, 2018, performance.

Sarah Walker

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Rosie Isaac, Intestine In My Eye, 2018, performance.

Sarah Walker

IntestineInMyEye_NW18_PhotoSarahWalker-3491.jpg

Rosie Isaac, Intestine In My Eye, 2018, performance.

Sarah Walker

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Rosie Isaac, Intestine In My Eye, 2018, performance.

Sarah Walker

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Rosie Isaac, Intestine In My Eye, 2018, performance.

Sarah Walker

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Rosie Isaac, Intestine In My Eye, 2018, performance.

Sarah Walker

Olivia Koh is an artist, she co-organises recess, an online platform for moving-image works with Kate Meakin and Nina Gilbert (recess.net.au).