February 2009

Arts & Letters

Mind / Body

By Daniel Thomas
Mike Parr’s cartesian corpse

To know or not to know anything in advance about an artist’s work? That is the question for art curators. They hope the artworks they launch into the public domain are charged with aesthetic force and will put non-specialist minds to work unaided. It’s a win when mental energy flows back from viewers towards a work of art.

Tony Bond, an assistant director of the Art Gallery of New South Wales and for more than 25 years its chief curator of contemporary art, devised the Mike Parr retrospective The Tilted Stage, now on view in Hobart at the Tasmanian Museum & Art Gallery (TMAG) and also at Detached, the new contemporary-art space nearby. Detached is a deconsecrated Anglican church built for waterside workers. The two sites, one once sacred, the other decidedly secular, together constitute a vast but subtly orchestrated exhibition. It is the finest presentation yet of work by one of Australia’s most important artists.

The red-brick church now contains white-cube art-display spaces. Here Parr’s installations include one with Chinese woven-silk portraits of Communist heroes, based on black-and-white photographs, but they are displayed backside front; the images are mutated to create a negative reality. On the floor, two abutting doormats bear the words MALE / VICH. An innocent reading of the mats – ‘male witch’ – is Parr’s attitude towards Marx, Lenin and Mao. Classicists will get the double take on the Latin ‘male’, meaning ‘bad’. Art-literate viewers will know that the Russian artist Kasimir Malevich’s avant-garde abstract paintings Black Square (1915) and the square White on White (1917) were revolutionary – and spiritually esoteric – as art, but not at all proletarian or atheistic to suit the 1917 revolution. And Slavicists will know that the suffix ‘vich’ means ‘son of’, suggesting the Freudian struggle between fathers and sons.

Proceed from Detached and enter the Tasmanian Museum by the Watergate, through which tobacco and rum, food and fancy goods were originally delivered from sailing ships to the colony’s Bond Store. TMAG occasionally uses the ground floor for contemporary-art projects; now, however, the Detached foundation and the artist and curator have been allowed to colonise all unused floors of the rough but majestic building.

The ground floor of the Bond Store is entered by an improvised ramp that looks like a readymade example of Parr’s favoured wedge-form sculptures – metaphors for post-Renaissance visual art structured upon perspectival vanishing points. Parr’s art is full of vanishings, reappearances and reversals. Most people will recognise familiar classical music in the ambient soundscape – Beethoven’s piano solo ‘Für Elise’, a bagatelle in A-minor – but perhaps only musicians will recognise that the unusually symmetrical composition has been digitally manipulated to play backwards, yet still remains recognisable: ‘Für Elise’ has mutated into ‘Esile Ruf’. A neck ruff will enter in the climax of the exhibition, the Cartesian Corpse.

Moving-image documentation of Parr’s 1970s performance-art pieces fills the introductory ground floor, along with his recent protests about asylum-seeker detention. Few saw the performances live; they are usually seen on small-screen monitors in gallery spaces, or else on big screens. This hall, where we walk among standing mural-sized projections, is an ideal setting for the hysteria. Shockingly violent short-term endurance events feature body piercing, body branding and vomiting, and often conclude with near-fainting. Bodies vanish, out-of-frame; consciousness expires as actions end, but reawakens on these nonstop video loops.

The Bond Store’s ladder-like steps to the other floors are narrow and dangerous. Down in the basement, and behind prison-like barriers, is a supine body in a wedding dress. We have heard that Parr’s Tilted Stage includes Cartesian Corpse: “a performance for as long as possible”. Is this it? No, it’s a level mortuary bench, not a tilted stage. A waxwork replicates the body of Parr in drag in a 1993 performance, Black Mirror / Pale Fire, at the University of New South Wales. Why sexual mutation? Maybe a sibling rivalry experiment: Parr’s artist sister, Julie, adopted a mirror-image surname, Rrap; the sex of each was a parental lucky dip, and as men and women grow older their features become less differentiated. Mike and Julie look more alike now that a once-wild young man has softer, sixty-something features.

Up to the third level. A gathering of 16 bronze heads, Bronze Liars (Minus 1 – Minus 16), stand on slender human-height pedestals, half hidden in low lighting. These 1996 sculptures, Parr’s first grappling with bronze, express the impossibility of a single definition of the self – as expressed in the overarching Self-Portrait Project. They are all sculptures of Parr’s head, but rendered across the spectrum, from the highly realistic to the highly abstract.

Then, emerging on to the top floor, we are confronted by a large plasma screen from which gazes a severed head – live, and stern. For the 36 hours of this Cartesian Corpse performance – a Friday morning to Saturday night, last November – the screen showed real-time video of Mike Parr’s head trapped in a hole in the tilted stage at the opposite end of the great space. Now and until the exhibition and remaining installation close, at the beginning of March, those 36 hours replay on the screen, and the hole in the actual tilted stage contains a rubber life-cast of Parr’s head, wearing a military cap instead of well-groomed grey hair.

The sober non-violence of this performance offers a striking contrast to the earlier works. There are recorded sounds of ordinary footsteps, the warped ‘Esile Ruf’ floating up from downstairs, and Parr’s amplified breathing. There is minimal eye flicker, small head movements to resist drowsing, and the clearing of a dry throat. All is quiet and still.

Few visitors encountered the hourly ministration of glucose drink and face sponging by an assistant, who walked up the tilted stage to the severed head; 15 minutes was a typical viewing spell. Only art students took a great interest in the underpinnings of the stage, where you could peer at the seating arrangements and urination bucket. The idea of endurance, without sleep or proper food, “for as long as possible”, was not what seemed to interest viewers. The immediately visible facts were more than enough to enthral.

First to catch attention were the formal aesthetics. The tilted stage, a large flesh-coloured timber square (recalling Malevich’s abstract squares), filled half the end of the cathedral-like room; the other half was occupied by a scribe – the curator – seated below a small white-scrimmed square window, making notes on viewers’ responses. The jarrah wedge, beautifully carpentered and polished and very brightly lit, glowed among the rough floors and grimy walls. Above all, there was the strange subject matter, a real head separated from its body.

Many viewers probably thought of witches and troublemakers confined in public stocks and left with heads, and sometimes hands and feet, emerging from holes in large planks. Or of the diagonal blade of a guillotine, or John the Baptist’s head on a dish, or Samuel Beckett’s buried-to-the-neck Winnie in his Happy Days. Parr also hoped – vainly, I suspect – that we might see the guillotine-angled stage as a monstrous version of a sixteenth-century fashion item, a neck ruff. Most viewers simply observed the reality of the situation: a disembodied head thinking. Punished for thinking. The work’s title invokes Descartes’ proposal that the human body is a machine that obeys the laws of physics; the rational mind controls the body, but the body can also influence the mind.

Parr’s body is a key to his art. He was born with a disability: his left arm is only a stump. He once made a prosthetic meat-filled arm and chopped it off. He has exhibited a photograph that reveals the compensatory over-development of the right half of his torso. Parr’s past performances and wedge constructions might in part have been metaphors for the absent limb, and for the stumbles caused by an unbalanced body. His unusual figure has caused him to think up artworks that employ bodies – his own and others’ – as materials.

Attracting less attention than Cartesian Corpse, halfway along the wall between the big screen and the tilted stage, a small screen plays a film called Major / Minor. In it, Parr, holding his own life-cast rubber head, and wearing a World War II Australian army uniform and a glued-on replica of his late father’s moustache, gazes around the grandest room at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, where nationalistic paintings by Streeton, Roberts, Ashton and Long are treated more seriously than they deserve. The camera follows Parr’s momentarily out-of-focus gaze through long vanishing trajectories, to regain consciousness perving on a woman’s neck in a strangling pink ruff, or breast cleavage, or the foreshortened naked body of Christ lifted down from the cross, or a gold-digger’s shovel, or a labourer’s corpse on a stretcher; and then the camera finally rests on a monstrous four-metre battle painting in the next room. It’s an empty bit of French salon rhetoric – Vive l’Empereur (1891), by Édouard Detaille – and a telling art-historical context for the Australian paintings. Major / Minor suggests Parr is still angry about John Howard’s manipulative fetishisation of militarism and nationalism.

A complex treat for art historians and theorists, Major / Minor perhaps goes over the heads of many viewers. The latter, rightly, fall for the authenticity of Parr’s strange presence observed face-to-face in Cartesian Corpse, in the same way that we are often enthralled by the strange individualities of everyday Australians on reality television. Expressionism, postmodernism or conceptual art: these categories don’t suit Mike Parr’s art. His work is less self-centred than it seems. It represents nothing; instead, it presents a reality which, offered to others, might tell them something about themselves. Let’s call it reality art.

Cover: February 2009
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