October 2016

Arts & Letters

Self effacing

By Fiona McGregor

Mike Parr, Jackson Pollock the Female, 2016. Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Australia

‘Mike Parr: Foreign Looking’ brings the anti-institutional artist to the National Gallery of Australia

The people of the Marquesas Islands in the South Pacific had a tradition of tattooing their bodies repeatedly until the designs were barely perceptible, the skin a black ink monochrome. The process took years, each application having fresh importance. The Marquesans were not working in the European tradition of formalism, where obliteration is a form of oppression. The designs could still be seen through the tattoo monochrome like grain in wood, the blackened face and body a mark of wisdom and respect. The ideas behind them, and the skills involved, were as sophisticated as any in the Pacific region, central to this ancient art form. Uniquely on these islands, tatau only ended when the men’s bodies were fully covered.

I think of the Marquesans as I wander through Foreign Looking (until 6 November), even though Mike Parr doesn’t refer to indigenous art – local or otherwise – in relation to his practice. This exhibition considers him in relation to the Australian art world, the title as suggestive of his feelings of difference as it is of our xenophobia. And the skin – epidermis, copper plate, paper, canvas – is pierced, gouged, pressed, printed, burnt, often to erasure. Thus the work is finished.

A shelf of Parr’s diaries runs along the wall at the entrance, like a brace on the exhibition inside. Collins foolscap, the artisans’ favourite, they span four decades. In them the artist tables his routine in black ink: “Pick up film … call Peter …” In red, he responds to himself, sedulously crossing out completed tasks. We see Parr in Sydney, Canberra and overseas. There is little in these diaries that is private apart from the occasional dinner party or dietary regulation, so a page describing the rescue of Parr’s now deceased brother, Tim, from a drinking bout, stands out in its plangency. Tim’s struggles informed a lot of Parr’s work, including an installation at the Willow Court asylum in Tasmania (part of this year’s Dark Mofo festival), which was a homage to him. Felizitas, Parr’s wife of more than 40 years, also cannot escape mention, due to the crucial role she has played in photographing and sometimes medically assisting Parr’s work.

The very fact that the diaries are so humdrum makes them interesting. Inspiration is hogwash; this is our daily life: appointments, phone calls, itineraries, acquisition of materials, plans for work. A long entry about an Albert Tucker retrospective reveals critical acuity: Parr highlights Tucker’s lack of compassion, adjudging him undeserving of the mantle. As the years go by, the stakes rise. In the 2000s there is a bitter entry, describing how Parr’s application for the Australian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale was “rejected out of hand”. Pathos is later added through his contention that an artist represented at the Biennale copied his work. It is brave of Parr to open these pages, which also point to the contradiction underpinning the entire exhibition: How – why, even – does an artist whose philosophy has been so consistently anti-institutional, assume the mantle? In what context can his achievement be displayed without compromise? What happens to art predicated on “completing the break with modernism, the art gallery system, the museums” (as an early manifesto declares), when it enters the very spaces it decries?

How could Mike Parr not assume the mantle, at the age of 71, with such a powerful, idiosyncratic body of work, so astute in its reflection of our nation’s darkest heart?

Parr’s ambivalence and intransigence show in his choice to screen his “aversive” performances in the first gallery. Four channels cross one another, the projections larger than life, the room filled with cries of pain. White (2004), in which the artist vomits a white liquid, speaks for itself. Its precursors, including The Emetics (Primary Vomit): I Am Sick of Art (Red, Yellow and Blue): Blue (1977), are narrower in scope but just as intense, and somehow funny. The montage is a big slap in the face; that is to say, exhilarating. We Are All Monochromes Now (2003), a long photographic sequence of Parr’s jackets, each with the left sleeve tucked into a pocket, coolly observes this mania from the far wall.

Parr’s missing left arm is ever present, the labour of his body sometimes more visible in two-dimensional works than performances. In a massive series of etched self-portraits titled The Golden Age (Field Day) (2011), thick gouges swirl from plate to plate, depicting and obliterating the artist at once, in the method of dry point he has honed over decades, in which his full body weight often looks to be applied.

Even in fixed media, Parr seeks instability as the most real representation of the self. Effort is never erased; process is central. Fixed media sometimes conjoins performance, as with House of Cards (2004), where the artist builds the titular structure from self-portraits on paper, failing and rebuilding with a body that, though compromised, has a strength and eloquence of its own.

There are times when the relentless self-examination doesn’t transcend the ego. Hung in a narrow space, The Golden Age is slightly oppressive in its monumental masculinity. The Bride, Parr’s alter ego in performances since the early 1990s, doesn’t provide a straightforward contrast. In the centre of a gallery she lies on a table as a wax double. She also appears in the giant photo Fruit (2005) at the exhibition entry, her left stump gold-leafed. Parr’s Bride, apart from an obvious reference to Duchamp, is not so much an interrogation of gender as what he calls a “constructed image, a kind of screen or cosmetic overlay”. Only a man, removed from the millennia-old subjugation implied in a virginal white bride, could assume this entity so obliquely.

The Bride is representative of a threshold in many of Parr’s endurance performances. In The End of Nature (1998), she walks on the frozen Baltic Sea until collapse. As with House of Cards, this work will only ever come to us on video – or more precisely film, as Parr still insists on using 16 millimetre (converted to digital for screening). Some performances, such as La Triviata/Bad Son (2010–13), are done for camera in the privacy of his studio.

Like all performance artists who survived the 20th century, Parr has been assiduous in his use of photomedia. Forty-four years of performance films and photographs underpin the exhibition. While Parr insists that they are not art in themselves, their artful installation is intrinsic, the films acquiring fresh meaning each time they are screened. Further, the camera operator has worked under specific instructions. The studio performances are not only as scripted as the first actions undertaken at Inhibodress, Parr’s artist-run space in Sydney in the early ’70s, but also art-directed and costumed. As strictly as Parr insists on the anti-theatre ethos of early performance art, many of these works use its conventions.

La Triviata, one of several studio performances, is part of Parr’s series against Australia’s refugee camps. In later years, his use of face stitching has been overlaid with colourful paint. The cultural inscription goes full circle. Reputedly sunny and easygoing, Australia is actually a world leader in incarceration. Parr’s performative responses are always called extreme, provoking the old chestnut Why do you do this? But given our brutal punishment of asylum seekers as well as the shocking statistics regarding indigenous and youth imprisonment, let alone our penal colony roots, I’d venture the works to be clear reflections.

The final image in La Triviata features the artist seated in his studio wearing a red suit and a large garish hat. His face is distorted with long, asymmetrical sutures (much like his anamorphic self-portraits) and luridly daubed. The result is brilliant in its grotesquerie.

The same gallows humour was evident in Burning Down the House, a performance for this year’s Biennale of Sydney in which Parr immolated hundreds of his prints laid on the ground in a square, in protest against coal seam gas mining. Now, watching the video of Burning Down the House, I see Parr’s enduring motif, Kazimir Malevich’s The Black Square, appear as the camera pans back to frame the scorched area from above, a point of view unattainable to the live audience. Such careful orchestration, irrelevant to us then, is now fundamental.

In the same gallery are six massive monochromes that began as prints in Deep North, Parr’s exhibition at Anna Schwartz’s gallery in Sydney last year. Beneath the final black and red are layers of ferocious dry point, ink and paint, all done with master printer John Loane. This is how I saw them in Sydney, each with a red dot worth tens of thousands of dollars. Now I see the video of Parr painting over them, an arduous task filmed by another long-time collaborator, Gotaro Uematsu. The first lives peep through the final imperfect layer. Time becomes circular, destruction a natural part of the cycle. Back to square one, so to speak.

The verbal instructions that frame Idea Demonstrations (1972), Parr’s collaborations with Peter Kennedy, contain or repress energy in a similar manner to Malevich’s formalist brace. Some of Parr’s instructions, like concrete poetry, are exhibited. Others appear in the films.

Push tacks into your leg
… until a line of tacks
has been made up
your leg

The attention to euphonics and form points to Parr’s early attempts at poetry, which he admits he failed at. He deconstructs language as he does imagery. I find the word games too opaque to engage with deeply, but their autistic probing has the same relentless energy that fires his best work, the same humour in mad pursuit. A replica of a 1970 installation Facts about the Room is exactly that. Factual sentences about the room are printed on the walls. It is in turns quirky, ingenious, boring and finally suffocating, a Kafkaesque prison of thought.

In announcing his intention to paint over the giant prints of Deep North after they had sold, Parr may have put himself at risk. His gallerist backed him but one wonders how the effacement of his most bankable work has affected Parr’s selling power. Though it was consistent with his practice, I can’t help wondering if Parr in this case was cocking a snook at the art market.

This completion in obliteration – of the body’s energy, the painted surface, the fade to white – evokes mortality as well, like the Marquesans’ tattoos. Foreign Looking shows an artist in his maturity, with the long view.

On the opening night Parr performed, and I was fascinated to see how he would grapple with his erstwhile contention, reiterated to me only two weeks earlier, that museums “have beckoned performance art onto the rocks. You have the nine to five and the kids and the nice-ification, and it’s all over.”

In the gallery, with Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles as a backdrop, Parr assumed the Bride persona. We waited 20 minutes for her appearance while, next to a chair and table covered in materials, two assistants posed like sentinels. Eventually, the Bride walked out in her white gown and sat in the chair to be made-up by one of the assistants. The second assistant then attended to the Bride, blocking my view. Uematsu filmed, as usual. The live feed in the main gallery failed, but the sudden hush of the audience behind, in the foyer, told us that the assistant was taking blood.

After several vials were decanted into bowls, the Bride lay on the ground in front of Blue Poles. Her little satin pillow told us this wasn’t a performance of duress. Parr had chosen Pollock because the purchase of the painting for $1.3 million in 1973 signalled a change from Australia’s usual disregard of the arts. According to many art historians, Pollock also belongs to the lineage of performance art by virtue of his “action painting”. The Bride lay passive, horizontal, a foil to Pollock’s macho heroics as her blood was splashed across her by her female assistant. The resultant drip painting was an arresting image and remained for some time.

The audience quickly dispersed, keen for more nori-encrusted prawns before they switched to mini ganache tarts. (The bloody marys were delicious too.)

For me, the best part of the performance was this: the Bride prostrate – art object, chattel, blood sacrifice – laid out in the background while her audience drank and chatted. To whom did she belong? The artist who created her? The institution who housed her? The gallerist and collectors whose support she relies upon?

The nation she was born in? All of us? None?

The Bride slipped away when we had our backs turned, leaving a faint outline of blood spattered on the floor.

Fiona McGregor

Fiona McGregor is a Sydney-based author and performance artist. Her books include Suck My Toes and Strange Museums. Her latest novel, Indelible Ink, won the 2011 Age Book of the Year Award.

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