Mike Parr is an artist who is prepared to suffer for his art and make everyone else suffer as well. Spending hours at Carriageworks last week watching Parr put himself through a series of unpleasant, protracted tortures, I had plenty of opportunity to reflect on the experience. “You’re the only one who’s watched the whole thing!” the gallery attendants told me. At first I wondered what I’d won, then thought how strange it was that all those people who profess to adore avant-garde art hadn’t been parked in front of the video monitor sucking it up for hours on end.
Of course I didn’t watch the whole thing. My stamina was limited to watching Jericho – a sequence of five performances captured on film during the early hours of the morning of 16 November. There would be little point in watching the entire video of LEFT FIELD, which finds Parr up a ladder, roller in hand, painting the white walls of a cavernous space based on Anna Schwartz’s Melbourne gallery. Once you got the message that it would be hours of white-on-white in homage to the late Australian minimalist Robert Hunter, (whose own work was infinitely more subtle), there was no need to hang around.
Parr is back up the ladder with his eyes closed in the video of Towards an Amazonian Black Square, painting crude swatches of black on the gallery’s white walls. As usual his rationales emerge from a semiotic stew, which includes his outrage over the forest fires in the Amazon; Kazimir Malevich’s Russian Suprematist icon, Black Square; Nietzsche’s concept of the Eternal Return (I won’t elaborate here), and a great deal of psychological turmoil and uncertainty. What viewers actually see is a heavily-built, one-armed 74-year-old man dragging black paint across various bits of wall.
It’s intriguing at first but the novelty soon wears off. The same might be said for the five parts of Jericho, although the longest segment, Un-face is also the most absorbing, as we watch another artist build a mask of clay over Parr’s real face. The completed clay face is painted in lurid colours then wiped off on the wall. This is arguably the strongest part of the set. The mask has all kinds of metaphorical possibilites, and there’s a slow-building fascination in watching the features take shape over time.
In the next part, Red Square, a medico sticks a tube in Parr’s arm, from which a quantity of blood is extracted and used to paint a red monochrome canvas – now faded to a dull, rusty red-brown. Watching the artist’s slick technique with the brush I thought for a moment I’d found the answer to one of the big questions that had been drifting through my mind: “Who can I get to paint the front fence?” I soon realised it might be difficult for this particular painter to abandon his bloody fixations in favour of a creamy white.
(Coincidentally, after leaving Carriageworks I went to the Japan Foundation to see a show of horror manga. In a comic strip by Hideshi Hino a ghoul was sticking a knife into himself and extracting enough blood to paint kitsch landscapes and still lifes.)
In the three final segments of Jericho a weary-looking Parr pushes some ice cubes into a glass jar full of grease; breaks a piece of glass with a hammer and sticks the shards into a loaf of bread; and – in a last dramatic flourish – squashes an orange against the wall. I’ve never seen a tennis player be so brutal with an orange in the break between sets, even after losing a tough point.
The show is rounded out by a half-hour video of Burning Down the House, a Carriageworks performance of 2016 in which Parr arranged a lot of his old prints in an 18 by 12 metre grid, and set them on fire. It’s another climate change protest, given added gravity by the fact that the incinerated works were valued at more than $750,000. One can appreciate the integrity of the sentiment and the gesture, but it might have been better to sell the prints and do something constructive with the money.
Mike Parr can be a charismatic personality but when he goes into ‘performance artist’ mode he might just as well have bolts in his neck. The endurance works in The Eternal Opening are beyond satire, presented in a poker-faced trance. He would have been well-advised to give more thought to the title, which suggests a certain part of the anatomy.
I don’t doubt the sincerity of these acts, or the degree of pain and fatigue they generate. One abiding problem is that they don’t add a great deal to the story of performance art in the wake of the Viennese Aktionismus artists – Rudolf Schwarzkogler, Günter Brus, Hermann Nitsch and Otto Mühl. One could hardly be more extreme than these guys. Schwarzkogler is believed to have jumped out of a window to his death, while Mühl was sent to prison for doing unspeakable things to minors.
Looked at from one angle Parr’s performance marathon is an obliteration of the self, from another it appears intensely narcissistic. Only a fearless spirit could put himself through so many ordeals in the name of good causes, but the burden it imposes on the viewer is totalitarian. Parr expects everyone to subjugate their own consciousness (and time) to this monstrous spectacle.
There is, presumably, a therapeutic aspect. As we watch the artist wrestling with his own demons in slow motion we are invited to empathise with his trials. He is the scapegoat who takes the sins of the world on his shoulders. One thinks of Christ on the Cross, the Christian saints and martyrs.
The problem is that these are absurdly inflated comparisons for a man painting a wall with a roller or beating up an orange. As such, Parr’s performances take on a comedic dimension. Useless, pointless, rather silly things are done with the seriousness of a toreador facing an angry bull. Unlike the bull-fighter, all considerations of style are cast aside: the artist wears a shapeless shirt or an old jacket that is soon covered in paint and muck. He moves slowly and ponderously, zombie-fashion. It’s disturbing but also wilfully boring. It’s left to the audience to decide whether this attempt to scrape the sides of the psyche ends in profundity or self-parody.
Mike Parr: The Eternal Opening
Carriageworks, 25 October – 8 December, 2019
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 30 November, 2019