[FIRST PUBLISHED IN INPRESS MAGAZINE, 14.07.2011]
It’s fun to imagine Dame Nellie Melba with a gut full of blue dye and ipecac, thunderously chundering onto the pristine beige floor of her dressing room. I’m seeing her, all hunched over with gloved hands to her belly; such is the routineness of her perfection that even her heaving and retching are set to concert pitch, the A above middle C.
|Nellie Melba as Ophelia in Hamlet, c. 1889. Image courtesy The Arts Centre, Performing Arts Collection, Melbourne|
I’m riding the elevator down at the Arts Centre and wondering if I’ve got what it takes to make something, even a small something, of my life. The exhibition upstairs was Black Box <> White Cube, a show of performance meeting art in all its brilliance and nonsense. Mike Parr has been the grand old dame of Australian theatrical flagellation for forty years, and despite all else on show – The Kingpins and mock-comic drag, Jill Orr commendably committing an entire career to being utterly humourless – it’s the sight and stink of Mike Parr that’s still lingering in my stomach as I head down to see the commemorative display of Dame Melba.
|Mike Parr. The Emetics (Primary Vomit): I am Sick of Art [Red, Yellow and Blue] Blue, 1977. Photograph.|
Parr’s great double a-side: in ’77 he stuffed himself with bread soaked in dye and poison, walked into a gallery space and erupted in a coloured mess across the canvas of the ground. Soon after, he sat before a seated audience, produced a meat cleaver and proceeded to hack his left arm to pieces. Many never realised it was his prosthetic arm packed with liver and offal. It didn’t matter, the self-destruction was believable and complete.
|Mike Parr. Cathartic Action: Social Gestus No. 5 [Armchop], 1977. Photograph.|
I’m now in the lower level foyer, peering into glass cabinets, seeing the documents and costumes of Nellie’s life and feeling that mixed and so common combination of jealousy and disappointment.
I’ve only ever wanted to be a novel-writer, to be responsible for something truly honest and good. Somewhere along the way I decided that self-punishment was a necessary part of the equation. I would write book after book, demanding that it be torture. Six years ago I set the task of completing three novels, printing them, deleting the files, then burning them all to ash without showing them to a soul. I did this, don’t regret it, but now know there must be another way.
I’m looking at Dame Nelly and she’s so beautiful. I haven’t eaten all day, so am a little guilty that I’m staring into her portrait and wondering if there’s a place around here to get cheap elevenses. What’s the Nelly and food thing – Peach Melba? Must be. Wait, Melba Toast? I get it all mixed up with lamingtons and pavlova. They were named after opera singers, ballerinas? Something. There’s some argument about them being from New Zealand? My memory is in need of nutrients. One more display cabinet and I will go find a chocolate croissant.
I look down at Nelly’s shoes, they are the size of a child’s. There must be a way for beautiful things to come from peace rather than pain; must be. I imagine these shoes being loved, being worn, pulled snug and warm around the Dame’s tiny feet.