April 2006

Arts & Letters

I advance masked

By Justin Clemens
‘Volte Face: Mike Parr Prints & Pre-Prints 1970–2005’

Even before you enter the gallery, you hear Mike Parr breathing. His breath is neither relaxed nor comfortable; amplified beyond human means, you cannot mistake its sharp, strained quality. Its constant gulp and whistle will accompany you throughout your tour, needling, almost persecutory.

Parr’s work is always discomforting, not least for himself. 100 Breaths, the video-performance responsible for the unsettling sounds, is on a continuous loop upstairs. In it, Parr sucks one self-portrait after another onto his face, becoming more and more deranged with each inhalation. In a vitrine close by you can see Parr’s own dried blood, which, mixed with ochre, stains the surface of a bunch of self-portraits. These turn out to be the traces of a performance in which he sliced open the sole of one foot, then walked over a paper carpet composed of images of his own faces.

Elsewhere, you can see the Introjection of a Horse (2002), a huge tormented woodcut whose heavy slashing lines crush the eponymous animal into a rat’s nest of knots. Or there’s the even larger The Rest of Time (In Memory of My Father, Geoffrey Edwin Parr, 1909–1998) (1998), a 16-panel tour de force of intaglio techniques pinned directly onto the gallery wall. Its scrawls and scratches describe weird traps and implements of torture, impacted physiognomies and knotted cages. Overbearing colours split the work in two, a heavy mustard-gas wash to the left, thin gloomy blues to the right, while, on the bottom right, a lone panel escapes untainted.

In a famous letter, the adolescent Rimbaud declared the need for the artist to submit to a “long, immense and rational disordering of all the senses”. Parr is clearly a subscriber to this view: he favours ‘limit situations’, where everything – including one’s own body – is put on the line. His energy is overwhelming. For over thirty-five years he has been slashing, burning, branding, slaughtering, sewing and scratching his way through a colossal number of performances, films, installations, drawings and prints.

If anything holds this mass of diverse works together it is self-portraiture. Yet, as Parr remarked to the critic Elizabeth Fortescue, traditional self-portraiture has become “just a territory or a carapace or a convention, which is worthless in my view”. Against this, Parr typically mismatches, distorts and destroys his own face in his work. This enthusiasm for auto-disfiguration is, self-confessedly, linked to a physical disability. The art historian David Bromfield quotes Parr as saying: “To be born with one arm is to suffer an incomplete gestalt … to see this incompletion always reflected in others’ eyes.” Whatever the aetiology of Parr’s creative drives, there’s no question that his stump plays a decisive role: as inspiration, as subject, as actor and as emblem. You might find it emerging from what Graham Coulter-Smith calls a “chaos of foul-bite”, like a primal deity from the swamp of nothingness; or disappeared behind inscrutable smears on the plate, like a deus absconditus.

Volte Face is an exhibition of “prints and re-prints”. Parr first got involved in printmaking when master printer John Loane – then in charge of the Victorian Print Workshop – invited him to contribute to a portfolio for the Bicentennial. Loane says he wrote to Parr because he liked Parr’s drawings, and was convinced they’d work well transplanted into the realm of acid, burin and plate. Map (1987) was one early result of that request. Floating in infinite space, Parr’s severed head finds itself anamorphically deformed behind a shivering grid, its features described by innumerable tiny lines like coils of pubic hair. Over twenty years later, Parr and Loane are still working together.

Parr is an aficionado of restrained antagonisms, which recur in his practice at every level, from splittings internal to the images themselves, to the placement of works in the gallery. He says the works in this show were hung as “ripostes” to each other. Here the monumental faces off against the intimate, the line against the smear, the judge against the misdemeanour. Pieces are framed or pinned, corralled under glass, or aggressively coupled. Gaps are exacerbated through disharmonious colour-shifts, through marks that don’t quite follow, through derangements of scale and frame and content.

Yet it’s possible to overemphasise the strongman aspect of Parr’s work. Every curator, critic and artist I spoke to agreed that Parr also evinces “an incredible delicacy of touch”. It is evident throughout, subtle and meticulous, in these faces composed of innumerable tiny fractures, burrs and crosshatchings. And let’s not overlook his humour: I’m still not sure why, but I find titles like Alphabet/Haemorrhage and Bridal I-Ching (Jesus Comes Back as Climate Change) hilarious.

None of Parr’s works can be considered representative, precisely because he is pursuing a project that implicates its predecessors and descendents at once. Instead he explores the diverse powers of repetition. The magnificent series Rat into Eye (2005), for instance, is a veritable résumé of techniques (drypoint, acquatint, linocut, pencil and charcoal), marks (scars, scores, scribbles, punctures), and figures (variously deformed Parrs, horses, and the rat of the title). Loane dryly referred to one visage hideously marred by black pustules as “a bad case of drypointitis”.

In response to a review by Elwyn Lynn in the Australian, Parr once protested that his works were “far more accessible than [Lynn] would lead his readers to believe”. The great English art critic Peter Fuller later brayed, “Parr’s work is simply too unpleasant to describe in any detail.” Committed to an entirely different tradition – a conservative interpretation of nineteenth-century English aestheticism – Fuller at least had the decency to nominate a powerful enemy when he saw one. Recently, Parr has been denounced by other conservative critics, less decent, less intelligent, way more boring and timid than Fuller. If such critics are right about nothing else, they at least make this clear: Parr’s work forces you to take sides.

How? First, for reasons of good old-fashioned squeamishness. What do you make of someone who can happily nail his arm to a wall, sew up his face, slash and brand his skin, or have his shoulder bitten by a friend until he nearly faints from the pain? A kind of radical asceticism is in play. As the mad poet Friedrich Hölderlin once wrote, “at the extreme limits of pain, nothing remains but the pure conditions of time and space.” This is why Parr can legitimately call his performances “anti-theatrical”. Always done free, they make it impossible for an audience “to ask for their money back”. In Volte Face, this aspect of Parr’s work is explicitly represented by 100 Breaths and by the footprints of his own blood. Nonetheless, it is implied throughout: blood and bone pulse through each printed line and stain.

Secondly, for reasons of conceptual complexity. What do you make of someone who can happily move between such thinkers as Reich, Marcuse and Lacan, and everywhere alludes to Wittgenstein and Freud? Parr has never apologised for nor given way on his intellectual fidelities; an anomaly in the Australian art world, where theory can be high as long as it’s thin, and where artists scrabble for newly discounted thinkers like punters at a Boxing Day sale. Parr mobilises psychoanalysis to help him bind the cerebral to the physical, the aesthetic to the political. It provides him with problems on which he can operate, and subjects on which to experiment. Reich, for example, inspired the question: “So there’s something lodged within the body, how do we find this thing?”

Thirdly, for reasons of aesthetic density. What do you make of someone whose merest scribble opens an abyss of complexity? What initially may look like a Babel of scored lines will resolve into a rat or an eye; and where a face once was, a crushed fist may come to be. One curator, Maria Zagala, remarked to me, “Just looking at his work takes so much effort.” Her only comparable experience involved examining over a thousand Piranesi prints: both artists share an enthusiasm for extraordinary details, for psychological intensity, for constantly varying and renovating their techniques.

The word “theory” derives from the ancient Greek theoros, meaning “spectator”. In the labour it takes and the assault it makes on its would-be spectators, Parr’s art is anti-theoretical: he forces you to become either more or less than a simple regardeur. Parr accomplishes this by going through, not against, theory and theatre. I cannot think of another Australian artist who does this in so powerful and singular a fashion. What the critic Pierre Macherey once said of the poet Stéphane Mallarmé can be extended to Parr: he “is not hermetic, in the sense of a well-hidden secret that ought to be found out; he is only difficult because, as an essential artist, he is a producer of enigmas that elicit thought.”

Justin Clemens

Justin Clemens writes about contemporary Australian art and poetry. He teaches at the University of Melbourne.

There is nowhere quite like The Monthly. We are told that we live in a time of diminished attention spans; a time where the 24-hour-news-cycle has produced a collective desire for hot takes and brief summaries of the news and ideas that effect us. But we don’t believe it. The need for considered, reflective, long-form journalism has never been greater, and for almost 20 years, that’s what The Monthly has offered, from some of our finest writers.

That kind of quality writing costs money, and requires the support of our readers. Your subscription to The Monthly allows us to be the home for the best, most considered, most substantial perspectives on the state of the world. It’s Australia’s only current affairs magazine, an indispensable home for cultural commentary, criticism and reviews, and home to personal and reflective essays that celebrate and elevate our humanity.

The Monthly doesn’t just comment on our culture, our society and our politics: it shapes it. And your subscription makes you part of that.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

From the front page

Kim Williams seen through window with arms half-raised

The interesting Mr Williams

At a time when the ABC faces more pressure than ever before, is its new chair the right person for the job?

Exterior of the Department of Treasury, Canberra

Tax to grind

Tax reform should not be centred on what we want, but on who we want to be

Rehearsal for the ABC TV show ‘Cooking with Wine’, March 13, 1956

Whose ABC?

Amid questions of relevance and culture war hostilities, the ABC’s charter clearly makes the case for a government-funded national broadcaster

Tony McNamara in New York City, January 2024

Pure things: Tony McNamara

How the Australian screenwriter of ‘Poor Things’, who cut his teeth on shows such as ‘The Secret Life of Us’, earnt his second Oscar nomination

In This Issue

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.


The horror inside

David Cronenberg’s ‘A History of Violence’
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Winning slowly

The exford dregs

Augie March’s ‘Moo, You Bloody Choir’

More in Arts & Letters

David Malouf, March 2015 in Sydney

An imagined life: David Malouf

Celebrating the literary great’s 90th birthday with a visit to his incongruous home of Surfers Paradise to discuss a life in letters

Tony McNamara in New York City, January 2024

Pure things: Tony McNamara

How the Australian screenwriter of ‘Poor Things’, who cut his teeth on shows such as ‘The Secret Life of Us’, earnt his second Oscar nomination

Jeffrey Wright in ‘American Fiction’

The dread of the author: ‘American Fiction’ and ‘Argylle’

Cord Jefferson’s satire about Black artists fighting white perceptions of their work runs out of ideas, while Matthew Vaughn’s spy movie parody has no ideas of its own

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Pictures of you

The award-winning author kicks off our new fiction series with a story of coming to terms with a troubled father’s obsessions

More in Art

Jordan Wolfson, ‘Body Sculpture’ (detail), 2023

Call to arms: Jordan Wolfson’s ‘Body Sculpture’

The NGA’s newest acquisition, a controversial American artist’s animatronic steel cube, fuses abstraction with classical figure sculpture

Image of Agnieszka Pilat with robot dog, in front of painted wall

The rule of threes: NGV Triennial

The sprawling show’s exploration of technologies and pressing politics takes in artificial intelligence and deep-fake photojournalism

Emily Kam Kngwarray, Anmatyerr people, not titled [detail], 1981

A clear view: Emily Kam Kngwarray at the NGA

A major exhibition of the late Anmatyerr desert painter is welcome, but the influence of the rapacious art market on Aboriginal art is inescapable

Overhead photograph of car spinning in red desert, inscribing spirals in the dust

White walls taken Blak: The art of Reko Rennie

The Kamilaroi multi-disciplinary artist’s spectacular works bridge contemporary and ancient traditions

Online latest

Osamah Sami with members of his local mosque

In ‘House of Gods’, Sydney’s Muslim community gets to be complicated

Plus, Barnaby Joyce shines in ‘Nemesis’, Emma Seligman and Rachel Sennott deliver ‘Bottoms’, and Chloë Sevigny and Molly Ringwald step up for ‘Feud: Capote vs. The Swans’.

International Film Festival Rotterdam highlights

Films from Iran, Ukraine and Bundaberg were deserving winners at this year’s festival

Two women on a train smile and shake hands

‘Expats’ drills down on Hong Kong’s class divide

Plus, Netflix swallows Trent Dalton, Deborah Mailman remains in ‘Total Control’ and ‘Vanderpump Rules’ returns for another season

Image of a man playing music using electronics and the kora (West African harp)

Three overlooked albums of spiritual jazz from 2023

Recent releases by kora player John Haycock, trumpeter Matthew Halsall and 14-piece jazz ensemble Ancient Infinity Orchestra feel like a refuge from reality