Isadora Epstein is a multi-disciplinary artist who makes performances from her research of art history and mythology. “What I do is social: I want to face people and bring them in,” she tells Tom Lordan.
Taking advantage of the late summer lull in new exhibitions, I thought it would be a good idea to speak to an emerging performance artist, whose work, due to its spontaneous character, can be hard to fit into our writing schedule at Totally Dublin. In the past four years, Isadora Epstein has been making a name for herself as one of the most unique and hard-working artists in the city. The San Francisco-born artist moved to Dublin in 2008 and, one or two brief stints aside, has been based here ever since.
It’s difficult to summarise Epstein’s work in a pithy sentence. Her practice confuses the neat boundaries between any number of binary oppositions: serious and funny; improvised and rehearsed; verbal and musical; entertainment and art; the poetic and the didactic. In most cases, her work involves dramatic monologues that interweave with the sounds produced by her musician collaborators.
The characters she inhabits are often representations or ideal figures: she has played gods, moons, and species of plant-life. These subjects glide through a potted history of their time on earth, including whatever reflections and musings that strike them as they speak. Epstein’s style of recitation includes elements of the mytho-poetic and the absurd in equal measure, like a Flann O’Brien novel.
“I like making these temporary worlds that I invite people into. What I do is social: I want to face people and bring them in. That’s one of the things that makes it different to traditional theatrical performance. At the theatre, performers aren’t able to see their audience – they’re just looking at a total blackness that is really exquisite. When I started doing these little dinky pieces a couple of years ago, it was overwhelming, seeing everyone. But it was important for me to look at the people who visit my shows, to get their feedback during a performance. If I feel like I’m losing someone, I’m always going to try, if I’m doing well, to get them back.”
Does that happen a lot? Do you lose people?
“I try not to. I mean it’s like talking to friends or whoever on a night out. You have a few bits, a few stories you know are gonna work, you know the parts that are charming or funny, but then sometimes they don’t sell and you’re trying to figure that out as it happens. To be honest, those moments of failure are some of the best times too, I think. Part of what I do, the way my characters talk; it’s like enacting a fantasy of the ideal social version of myself. And a fantasy like that is always going to fail. When that happens, people seem to respond. When I screw up, people see me flustered and frustrated and trying to control this thing that you’ve no control over. I think that the best things I’ve done come from a place of sheer frustration.”
Do those screw-ups happen because you’re improvising and it doesn’t work? Your performances are scripted and presumably rehearsed, but there’s always a chaotic feeling to them.
“I’m terrified at the idea of improvisation, but a lot of the people that I work with are brilliant at creating and adapting in real-time, and they have pushed me in that direction. My first collaborator in Dublin was Moira Brady Averil, an incredible performer. I always miss her at this time of year – her 7th anniversary is in September. Moira often encouraged me to perform more spontaneously. Cillian Byrne too, from Acid Granny, is someone I’ve worked a lot with recently, and he’s fantastic at improvising. Me, I still mostly improvise when I fuck up, but I am getting more comfortable with it. “
What are you working on at the minute?
“I’m putting together a show in October at Forester’s Hall in Wicklow. It’s part of the launch of Kunstverein Aughrim, organised by the curator Kate Strain. I’ll be working with Cillian, Amie Egan, and the painter Kathy Tynan.
This new show isn’t finished yet, but I’ll be doing something about magpies, because I’m really quite superstitious and I notice them regularly (laughs). At the beginning of any project, I read and research. I’m spending a lot of time at the National Folklore Collection in UCD at the moment, reading texts on bird-lore and the historical superstitions that surround them. I’m interested in their use as motifs in art history too – magpies are recurring symbols in several periods and styles, including Flemish Renaissance paintings. They feature in both Bruegel and Bosch.
That tends to be my process: I’ll begin with some historical fragment – a piece of language or belief or institution that I discover in the archives and find compelling – and then I’ll see how that reacts with the ideas I receive from certain paintings I love. It’s normally at a later stage that some kind of personal narrative comes to the fore.”
So research is key for you?
“Yeah. For instance, there’s a few classical sources that I return to again and again. One is Ovid’s Metamorphosis. Another is Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things. Both have ambitions about the possibility of defining everything, which feels really silly and alien to us now. I mean, nowadays, it’s so easy for things to feel like they don’t have any meaning. But that’s exactly what I like when I read these ancient texts – the idea that there’s meaning in everything, just beneath the surface. That’s one of the most important things in my work: I make sure that everything I bring to the performance carries or conveys meaning, even the props I use. Obviously, those serve a purpose in the fictional world, but each one will also have come from someone or somewhere particular, chosen by me, for a reason that maybe only I know. That’s why I feel compelled to work with my friends too, because it’s this idea that like, you know, I’ve met you and now you’re a part of this temporary world.”
Have you always had this approach to your art?
“I don’t know where exactly it comes from, but yeah, I think so. I feel like my whole arts practice is based on the fact that I was a total brat when I was a five-year old, and I would make all of my friends put on plays in the family kitchen for my birthday.”
It’s funny you mention kitchens, because you’re known for staging performances in people’s homes, and other unlikely spaces.
“It’s been a couple years now where I’ve just been doing a show nearly every month, so you have to be creative about your venues (laughs). But yeah I’ve done shows in people’s kitchens, in their tiny living rooms, on boats, on trains, in weird libraries… I guess that I have this idea that everything is actually useful. It’s like I was saying before: what is around me is what I want to make my work from or in. I’m excited by the possibility of everything playing a role.”
Words: Tom Lordan
Feature Image Credit: One Trick Pony Show, IMMA December 2021, Caít Fahey