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In 1977, Mike Parr chopped his left arm off below the elbow in front of a group of onlookers. Of course it wasn’t his real arm – it was a meat-filled prosthetic replacement for the limb he’d been born without. Titled Cathartic Action: Social Gestus No. 5, this was neither Parr’s first nor most painful performance piece.

Since 1971 he had been testing his physical and emotional limits through a series of actions, undergoing such self-imposed ordeals as Light a candle. Hold your finger in the flame for as long as possible, 1972, and Push tacks into your leg until a line of tacks is made up your leg, 1973. Nevertheless, as the blood spurted and the gasps of shock died down, Parr’s infamy as an Australian artist was secured.

Parr made his mark on the history of Australian art much earlier, though, when, in 1970, along with Peter Kennedy and Tim Johnson, he co-founded the Inhibodress Gallery in Sydney, Australia’s first artist-run exhibition space.

A major focus of Parr’s practice over the last four decades has been the collection of information, artists’ ephemera and documentation of experimental practitioners, both international and Australian.

In 1974 he founded the organisation Inhibodress Archive (Department Mike Parr) to present the information to the public. Now Parr’s archive has a new home at the National Gallery of Australia, and some of this rare material will be on view in the major survey show, Mike Parr: Foreign Looking. As senior curator Roger Butler explains, the aim of the archive room in the exhibition is to recreate the spirit of Inhibodress as “a place where people can come and learn”.

And what visitors to Foreign Looking will discover is the depth and breadth of Parr’s practice. He is recognised as a significant performance artist in both Australian and international contexts. Parr has exhibited around the world, including in Japan, Germany, Sweden, Brazil, Turkey, Canada and the US, and in 2012 he was honoured with a solo show at Kunsthalle Wein, Vienna. But Parr doesn’t express himself solely through performance. As an artist, he utilises a wide range of media in both two and three dimensions – and the way disparate aspects of his practice feed into each other can be unexpected.

blue vomit
Mike Parr and John Delacour (photographer), The Emetics (Primary Vomit) I am Sick of Art (Red, Yellow and Blue), Blue, 1977. Image courtesy of the artist.

As Butler points out, there have been some major Mike Parr exhibitions in the last decade or so, but they have tended to focus on a narrow section of his wider practice (such as the 2006 exhibition Volte Face, at MCA in Sydney, which featured the artist’s self- portraits). The NGA show brings all of the various threads of Parr’s practice together into a synchronistic whole. “The exhibition is like a singular work in its own way,” Butler says. Foreign Looking showcases Parr’s prints, performances, drawings, sculptures and films. “It shows the inter-relationship between all of these things, and the early work and late work,” he explains. For Butler, these juxtapositions and dialectics foster new insights into Parr’s complex practice. “So yes,” he says. “I think people will get a surprise.”

Despite highlighting Parr’s dexterity in multiple mediums, and his innovations in film and printmaking, Butler points out that performance is still what drives all of Parr’s diverse work. “I think in all these fields he has done extraordinary things. But all of his work is performative in one way or another,” he explains. “You could say his printmaking is performative printmaking.”

In the early 1970s Parr was a pioneer, pushing both his own body and the notion of what art could be beyond conventional limits. Though performance art has entered the mainstream, Parr continues to push boundaries, subvert the status quo and pack a political punch. In Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, Oi, Oi, Oi [UnAustralian], 2003, as a protest against the jingoism that flourished during the John Howard era, Parr had his face painfully bound with thread and invited the public to torture him with electrical shocks. In his recent performance at the Sydney Biennale, BDH, 2016, Parr handed out leaflets on climate change, poured petrol on hundreds of his own prints (reputedly valued at approximately $750,000) and set them on fire to the tune of ‘Burning Down the House’ by Talking Heads.

As an artist, Parr is mercurial. His practice isn’t fixed; it has been evolving for more than 45 years. According to Butler, this constant reinvention is part of what makes him an important artist. “But,” he says, “it’s reinvention that is always fuelled by being relevant to the times.”

Mike Parr: Foreign Looking
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
12 August – 6 November

Tracey Clement