Mike Parr | Foreign Looking

In the interview with Ashley Crawford for ARTIST PROFILE Issue 26 Mike Parr stated “I’ve never been sure how Australians read my work hence my unstaunchable efforts to communicate and explain ...” Well, "Foreign Looking" at the National Gallery of Australia remedies this ignorance with a major culmination of all media across Parr’s voraciously experimental practice from 1970 to the present. Spanning nine galleries with installations of performance, film sculpture and photography – if you don’t understand Parr and his practice from this you probably never will.

Mike Parr may be one of Australia’s best-known living artists in his own country, but strangely his presence overseas is, for all intents and purposes, non-existent. That may be about to change. In 2012 Parr was honoured with his first European retrospective titled Edelweiss, at the Kunsthalle Wein in Vienna, to rapturous response. Wasting little time, Berlin’s prestigious ARNDT Gallery followed up with a major commercial exhibition which opened on September 20, 2013. To top off a frantic period, Parr recently held a major exhibition at Anna Schwartz’s Sydney space featuring 85 of his confrontational and challenging self-portraits.

There is a degree of irony in Parr’s late European incursion. His work has, virtually from the beginning, been informed by European traditions of philosophy and art. Indeed, when I first interviewed Parr, back in 1984, our conversation revolved around such figures as Wilhelm Reich, George Bataille and Anton Artaud, far from average fare for most Australian artists at that time. From his massive and unruly charcoal self-portraits through to a series of intense performance-art pieces and sculptural installations, Parr has galvanized the Australian art world for several decades both intellectually and aesthetically. Now he is entering the global stage.

“In Europe I feel very much like an Australian artist,” Parr says. “So I think all my reading, which has been eclectic and wide, and my interest in Modernism is really part of a general education in the absence of a particularly formal one. Perhaps because I’m essentially a self-taught artist it had to be that way…Self-education had to do with trying to establish the credibility of my ideas and work as an artist in Australia, because my performance work in particular is regarded as outrageous there, so my position needed defending and this wasn’t something that I could delegate.”

But in Europe, he says, he feels freed from this pressure. “It means in a way that the real depths can come to the surface…the depths and the particularity, the inventions and the obsessions become clear in a way and I think this difference is why Matthias Arndt is interested now in getting my work out of Australia. There is something extraordinarily liberating about communicating beyond language…about knowing that this is possible, because so often in Australia I feel cornered by other people’s anxieties.”

Parr’s retrospective in Vienna inspired a fresh take on his work. “I’ve never been sure how Australians read my work, hence my unstaunchable efforts to communicate and explain,” he says. But a glowing review of the Edelweiss retrospective was particularly concerned with both the political aspects of his performances of the last decade, “and the early pieces which exposed deeply disturbed family relationships and events of my childhood.”

A number of European commentators responding to Edelweiss noted that Parr is perhaps the most extreme performance artist in the world. “But this doesn’t mean that for them I am beyond the pale,” he notes. “In Australia I still feel that my performance work is beyond the pale and perhaps this makes me a little defensive, or alternatively the arrogance of desperation. The graphic work and now the painting, which I feel is the final condensed form of all that drawing and printmaking, is understood as flowing out of the performances. It’s crucial for me that these dense reciprocities be understood because it is this convergence that drives the work forward.” “I’ve never been sure how Australians read my work hence my unstaunchable efforts to communicate and explain. But a good review of Edelweiss in a German magazine was particularly focused on both the political aspects of my performances of the last decade and the early pieces like ‘Totem Murder 2’ and ‘Marx Father’ which exposed deeply disturbed family relationships and events of my childhood…he wanted to argue the connection between these apparently divergent contents. I don’t think this happens in Australia, or at least it doesn’t happen with the same depth and sophistication.”

Parr is also somewhat unique in the Australian art world for his outspoken political beliefs. As but one example, in his more socio-political works Parr has consistently attacked the Australian government over the ‘boat people’ imbroglio and associated policies. “Of course Europe has its own problem with refugees,” Parr notes. “The same distorted responses, the same desperate people and the same European history and this means that the educated and the sensitive have always been acutely aware of these problems of dispossession, statelessness, racism, injustice and their own powerlessness in the face of the bureaucratic solution…so the intensity of my work immediately lifts these surface scabs.” “Perhaps my work has an even greater, more immediate relevance in the European context because my audience here are more likely to see the relevance of my extremism. Australia in a way enjoys a kind of privileged detachment, that’s why both sides of the House can advocate the same inhuman solution to so-called ‘illegal refugees,’ as if our notions of legality could be relevant to the desperate plight of these people, because legality in this context is only about maintaining the order of the queue…is in this context a purely bureaucratic response…an island of dissociation.”

Parr’s work, along with his writings, lectures and comments in interviews, has never sidelined major issues. He clearly sets out to provoke, challenge and inform his audience. “My work has never been intentionally educational,” he claims. “It doesn’t work like that. I’m preoccupied by the incoherence of the ground of art because I see this as a necessary state…I also see this incoherence
as a form…a state of material exuberance, power and difference and that is why after 40 years I want to return to painting, why I want to reinvent painting as the primary form of art… as a way beyond the suspensions of novelty.”

In some respects, Parr culminated his various activities with ‘Fresh Skin like a Baby’, a 34-minute film that tackles many of Parr’s ongoing themes and obsessions including xenophobia and the process of self-harm, a repetitive process. “I performed the pieces for ‘Fresh Skin like a Baby’ in one full day session in my studio in April 2010. It’s taken me three years to complete the final 16mm film, because I needed to establish the right distance from this material. I wanted the final film to be a very clear, condensed response to hours of documentary footage.

At the time I was preoccupied by some very simple, peculiar ideas. One: I wanted to perform a series of face-sewings reiteratively. I wanted to experience the problem of desensitisation directly as a mental state and I wanted to see it. Two: I also wanted to perform and film the whole session in my studio, working with my small team of trusted associates. Three: I wanted to go from the studio to the Art Gallery of New South Wales at the end of the day to do a final public performance that took as its ground all this cumulative damage. And four: I wanted to ‘disguise’ all these performances as art… after each face-sewing the face was elaborately made up as a picture using the distorted face as a ‘ground’, and I wanted to clog this peculiar admixture by shooting the final stages of all these performances through my mother’s glassware, using complex camera work, coloured filters and imitation art which I had painted as props to accompany each performance.”

“The film synthesises all this stuff and there’s a complex soundtrack as well, which mixes the micro sounds produced by the session with my backwards reading from the Australian National Dictionary, together with a lot of digital amplification and FX. The final agglutinated form of the film assaults the concept of identity, while also making a mess of pictoriality and entertainment values.”

One would be tempted to read a work such as ‘Glass Eyes of Heaven’ as specifically biographical in terms of physical events. Parr had once spoken about the difficulty of learning to ride a horse as a child with one arm, and ‘Glass Eyes’ depicts a horse which makes one wonder whether his recent works are more ‘personal’, even nostalgic. “Nostalgia is the wrong word, because a work like ‘The Glass Eyes of Heaven’ is ballooning with something else. They’re works that are hard to think about, that don’t admit of translation. They’re also completely spontaneous as drawings so they’re not preceded by anything even vaguely diagrammatic, so illustration isn’t really part of them, because what is visually peremptory is the kind of fusion that occurs as all this stuff comes to the surface. When we’re printing drawings like this I’m really thinking about the literal compressions of the surface; in a way the drawing is over, in the background and another more antithetical latency is emerging. The works on canvas have sprung from these processes, from these states of contradictory tensions but these are the forces that have driven my work from the very beginning…that aren’t meant to be resolved because resolution would be a false memory.”

Writing on these works, The Guardian noted that: “Visiting Parr’s latest show Easter Island at Anna Schwartz Gallery in Sydney is to be reminded once more of the artist’s singular position in Australian art and to recall that discussion. No one in Australia has really ever made art like this, and certainly not with the same consistency. The exhibition comprises 85 large-scale photographic prints, all of them images taken from Parr’s sketches and drawings and all are self portraits. Hung above head height, and lined up with the very top of the high walls of the gallery, the effect is powerful.”

In the catalogue for the show, Parr quotes a note from his diary: “Easter Island is the graveyard of the image. The drawing boards are both a sketchbook and a notebook that has come to the surface and this coming to the surface super-saturates the space. All look and no seeing… the stranded effect of presence… its over-exposed reciprocities. Those megaliths on E.I. look like the end of the egocentric… a cemetery of falling mentalities and the end of history. Profound isolation of these stage objects. As Slavoj Zizek might have said, Easter Island is populated by the frozen form of the ‘indivisible remainder’… something that looks back while trying to carry the gaze forward. Monumentality & profound emptiness + the disconnectedness of repetition…”

Having tested the limits of his physical and mental endurance, and that of his Australian audience, Parr may well be on the verge of becoming a deservedly international art figure, who will continue to challenge his audiences at, it seems, almost any cost.

Mike Parr is represented by Anna Schwartz Gallery, Sydney/Melbourne, and ARNDT, Berlin


Mike Parr | Foreign Looking 

Until 6 November 2016
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Courtesy the artist and National Gallery of Australia.

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