In 2021, Anna Schwartz Gallery changed their programming: the usual six-week commercial exhibition run was extended to three months, allowing exhibiting artists to conceive of the gallery as a project space which can transform across the course of its display. The first exhibition to be shown under this new rubric is Mike Parr’s Half Way House.
The ability to re-visit the exhibition across its life is perfectly suited to Parr, whose new works often contain an echo or residue of earlier pieces. Similarly, the exhibition itself has also become a medium for interrogation and re-use by the artist. As a result, for those familiar with Parr’s concerns and practice, each new work forms part of a continuing conversation. Half Way House is no different, drawing on the artist’s decades-long self-portrait project and particularly his Blind Self-Portraits, which use performance as their starting point and have been executed as paintings, prints, drawings and sculptures.
I saw Part II of Half Way House. On entering, the gallery was dimly lit, with large black, gestural abstract forms painted along the length of both walls; the remnants of the performance by Parr on 30 April that launched Part I. This iteration of the exhibition includes the video of this performance, a deliberately disorienting viewing experience that captures Parr painting the gallery walls with his eyes closed.
The physically challenging nature of this undertaking is conveyed by the artist’s laboured breathing. Watching him inching towards a ladder and grappling with its rungs as he climbs in preparation to paint (and descends to move it along the wall), grasping for the edge of the paint tin before he dips in his brush, and feeling his way with his fingers along the gallery wall searching for wet paint so that he can resume in the right place, is at once excruciating and compelling. Parr’s assistant Rob Campbell, photographer Zan Wimberley and videographer Heath Franco are co-opted as performers, with photographer and videographer also shooting ‘blind,’ with eyes closed. Thoughts of what we choose to see (and not see) as both individuals and as a society, immediately come to mind.
Parr’s insertion of the video MIRROR/ARSE (reading backwards from the Australian National Dictionary), 2012, into Part II revisits his earlier endurance performance Close the Concentration Camps, 2002, in which the artist’s lips, eyes and ears were sewn together with thread. Created in response to, and in solidarity with, the 2002 incident in which refugees sewed up their lips in protest against their prolonged incarceration in off-shore detention centres, Parr is seated on a chair for the entire performance, his right leg branded with the word ‘ALIEN.’
In MIRROR/ARSE the artist’s face is once again painfully disfigured by the thread sewn into his skin, its surface serving as a canvas for co-performer Linda Jefferyes who paints the thread’s criss-crossed forms in a palette of orange, black and white. As we watch Parr’s face become increasingly abstracted – a kind of fleshy, scrunched harlequin – and as the camera moves in and out of focus, the artist’s distorted, monotone voice echoes throughout the gallery. We can discern the occasional word: biscuits Arnotts / school / class / kingfisher / bullshit / ratbags / asshole … A sad litany of ‘Australian-ness.’
Part II of Half Way House amps up the quiet yet bold marks made during Part I, overlaying video and sound to create a disjunctive installation that unsettles and overwhelms. My response was palpable: a feeling of tightness in the chest that stayed with me long after leaving the gallery, just as the content of the show bounced around in my mind for several hours to come.