I deliberately ingested my first crayon at the age of four. The deep blue waxy finish of the crayon seemed to promise that it would transform me, and I wanted to make myself heavy so that I would fall through the floor and be able to crawl away through the cramped dark world beneath the school building.
So when my teacher turned away from my table, I began to nibble cautiously at the wax. I could feel the cobalt flakes sliding down my oesophagus and seeding themselves in my stomach. By the end of class, a swathe of blue pasture lined my gut.
Within a week I had consumed the entire Crayola rainbow. My body had never felt so full of purpose.
At the age of fifteen I had my first exhibition.
I had set up my gallery space at the old neighbourhood milk bar; the stage was a chalk rectangle with an Ikea table and chair at the centre. There were ten fold-out chairs for the audience.
My audience arrived singly or in small groups of two or three and filled up the back rows first. I had arranged the chairs in radiating semi-circles, but in the early seconds of the show I realised that no one else was sitting down. Any newcomers simply began to line the walls next to the door when the back rows had filled up, but they left the front two rows empty.
In this way, I knew that there was something shameful about coming to see me.
“Your body is a promise,” my mother once said. I thought at the time that she meant it was a promise to others: to a husband who would share my bed, to the children I would bear, to a society in which I must become a part.
But perhaps, I thought. Perhaps she meant what I am reaching for now. The body as fulfilment. The body as the end game.
I wasn’t necessarily a precocious child. There were more famous children in our neighbourhood: the boy who was so light that he could walk his way up the wall of the tallest house on the block and who one day discovered that he cared more for birds than people and simply flew up to the tropical north. There was girl who could take the form of any other child by holding her breath – she hated her family and suffocated herself one day pretending to be a small dark girl from another neighbourhood, unwilling to give up the ruse.
I wasn’t so precocious. They had mastered the promise of their bodies and translated their futures into concrete masterpieces. But where they had a brilliance that could be seen from within the earth itself, I was simply determined.
And so my art is in service to this and this alone – because what else is there but myself and my experience?
After my stint on crayons, I suckled at glitter-glue pens for a while, feeling warmer as their gold and silver points of light travelled through my flesh and down to the very tips of my fingers and toes.
But it was with stamp-pens that I discovered the power of the image. The teachers had started confiscating my glitter-glue so I went looking for another way to consume such vivid, thriving colours.
With stamp-pens, I would line page after page of my scrapbook with perfectly stamped red lips, yellow ducklings, blue roses, black smileys, green leaves and purple arrows and I would use my craft scissors to snip around each tiny image. After each excision (each no bigger than a piece of confetti), I would pop the delicious image into my mouth and within my veins I would feel a new wave of green leaves, or a stream of red lips rushing through my arteries.
I have heard people say that a single image has the weight of a thousand words. I ate thousands of them and was consumed by their significance, taking more and more into myself until tiny blue roses began to bloom on the palms of my hand. I became so dense that I could feel the concrete creaking beneath my feet, and there were soft echoes in the earth as the world shifted to balance out my movements.
For a time after I had glutted myself on stamp-pens, I would make sculptures out of gritty backyard clay, or carve small complimentary soaps into idols with impossibly wide mouths and then match them with my own, lip-to-lip. I would sometimes wind paperclips into whorls of movement that, when eaten, would twist along the strange paths of my intestines and turn my spine silver.
I discovered that the more complex the morsel, the longer it would be between meals. This was both good and bad; I still enjoyed the occasional pulp journal or 80s band poster, but I had to eat more and more of them to feel that fullness of significance. The small confectionary stamps had been only an aperitif in the consummation of my body and I doubt that I could eat them these days without breaking out in spots and blotches.
But it was comforting to know that during the winter months, I could eat a deceptively lightweight print of Lichtenstein or a chewy soft copy of Gulliver’s Travels, and then be able to last days without snacking on more than the odd poem or charcoal sketch.
I am, still, the only person to have eaten all of Finnegan’s Wake. With each bite the significances within the book were transferred to me and by the end of a meal I was replete with meaning. I could feel my skin pulled taut across my belly and biceps, my feet tight inside my sneakers and my mouth swollen with cannibalised words. My fingertips pulsated and I was hallucinating that the great river of language was thundering straight through my solar plexus.
I was fifteen, but they were of all ages. I watched them as they walked in, they moved as if the air in front of them was an enemy: slowly, guarding their hearts and loins and bellies.
I lurked in the shadows as best I could, but I had starved myself for this occasion and I was almost howling with hunger. My fierce aspect, crouched low in the dark, was surely contributing to the nervous coughs of the audience.
When they had settled as much as they were able, I moved out onto the stage. The table and chair set was a simple Ikea build. There was nothing nearby to tempt me but the framed print of Edvard Munch’s Vampire. I sat down.
They were sitting heavily on the fold-out chairs, crossing their arms. They were sitting with their legs out straight in front of them. They shifted uncomfortably as I took up my escargot tongs and fork, and delicately speared and lifted a corner of the paper from the frame. My heartbeat fluctuated wildly in anticipation of the meal, but I still managed to look up at the audience before taking my first bite. Motionless and silent, they watched me.
I poked the thin strip of textured shadow into my mouth and closed my eyes to the thin, soft sound of twelve people releasing their breath.
By the third mouthful I had their complete attention. I was no longer the purveyor of an exotic idea or a cheap curio in a dilapidated performance space, but a hitherto undiscovered moment of their lives.
Occasionally they would lean over to another person and whisper a couple of words. They stared solemnly, sometimes touching their own faces lightly as I chewed and swallowed significant parts of the painting. One man shouted hoarsely “YES!” when I ate the last scrap of the vampire’s tender expression.
When the whole image was consumed, I began on the frame. And when the last corner of gold-rubbed wood had disappeared down my gullet, the silence disappeared. Where before the world had held its breath to watch me, now it intruded. We could hear trucks on the street outside, plane engines, the wind rattling along corrugated iron. A small child’s steps rushing past the door to the street.
My audience stood up without clapping. Despite the gloom I could see that they were flushed, and speaking a little too loudly. Their laughter was sharp and uncertain. As they left, they avoided looking at the stage.
Raphaelle is a Melbourne-based writer, editor and general pop-culture journalist. She has a review blog at www.20thCenturyTales.blogspot.