Since the 1960s Mike Parr has been defining performance art. Known for his performances of extremis, from hacking off a fake arm (with indelible realism), stitching his lips, piercing and cutting his body, to burying himself underneath a Tasmanian road for three days. Most recent are Parr’s “blind performances” where, with eyes firmly shut, he paints gallery walls under various self-imposed rules or contexts. He tests himself and his audience.
Underneath any shock value, whether across performance, printmaking, drawing or sculpture, is an interrogation of subjectivity and self-portraiture, questioning the possibility for both authentic personal and political expression. With a new, three-part exhibition at Anna Schwartz Gallery, Parr talks about catharsis, interacting with the institutionalisation of performance art (the label didn’t even exist when he first started) and how he’s rethinking the motivations behind his art.
Tiarney Miekus: In various reflections on your work, whether by yourself or others, the word “cathartic” often comes up, but its use can be ambivalent. Do you find catharsis to be an important reaction for yourself when performing, or for the audience to feel?
Mike Parr: I think it cuts both ways. It’s cathartic for me because people often ask me, “Why are your performances so extreme?” And I say, “Well, they enable me to think.” I add that I do a lot of thinking and writing in advance of deciding to do a performance, and invariably I come up with a script that condenses the thoughts that are driving the performance. But when I say that performance art enables me to think, it means that after the performance I think in a different way. This is the cathartic aspect; it allows me to release an image or a mental state that is blocked.
“The performance is cathartic for me, but also incredibly confronting for an audience. You know, the earlier ones that everyone knows, like Hold your breath for as long as possible .”
I came to that realisation in the 1960s when I was writing poetry and I wasn’t very happy with it. It was romantic and conventional. But when I moved from handwriting to a typewriter, it refocused my attention. It put the emphasis back on the process of writing in a more fundamental way, leading to a kind of concrete poetry. All the lyrical stuff got stripped to the bare bones of language and I began to rethink poetry in terms of analysis of meaning through the process of typing. To give an example, I did a poster called Red Dread , but by simply typing the word “read”, r e a d, and putting it into the colour red. Doing that repeatedly, the feel became “red dread”. And it was topical because it was political. I was saying something about the fears of the time. I’d gone from one single word to creating the shadow of a collective anxiety. This led to writing instructions for performances, and that’s when I realised there was a gap between writing about things and actually performing and experiencing them.
The performance is cathartic for me, but also incredibly confronting for an audience. You know, the earlier ones that everyone knows, like Hold your breath for as long as possible . And literally doing that in front of a 16mm film camera, and continuing until I passed out, literally reeled back and people could see that this was really happening: this person was holding their breath until they passed out. It absolutely dramatised the notion of performance.
When I did that action, the concept of performance art didn’t really exist in Australia. It didn’t have a name, and not having a name made it even more overwhelming and compelling for people because they couldn’t slot it into an art category. But if you were going to do performance, you had to go from inner necessity to collective necessity; the performance had to grip something that was latent to the imagination of the situation of art at that time. And that time has never gone away because if you keep political art, performance art, direct and fresh, it’s the political that’s intransigent and unprecedented. It leads me directly to the work I’m doing now, the blind painting performances.
“I’m very critical of the idea of performance art being institutionalised because it’s the end of performance art as I understand it. I often use this expression of it becoming part of the matinee program at the museum.”
TM: Like you say, you were defining performance art as you were performing it, and you’ve been doing this for almost six decades. Yet performance art is largely institutionalised now, it’s an established, recognised category—how do you interact with that?
MP: Well, I don’t in one way. I’m quite critical of that. I’m very critical of the idea of performance art being institutionalised because it’s the end of performance art as I understand it. I often use this expression of it becoming part of the matinee program at the museum. You go in on a Wednesday afternoon and—it sounds very disparaging—but I’m just creating an atmosphere where there are people standing around and there’s someone doing an experimental choreography or something. I’m not against people doing that in principle, but it is destructive of the idea of performance art, as I understand its necessity and politic.
I think it’s that notion of the personal becoming the political, which was important for feminist art, particularly for key women like Marina Abramović, who’s a friend of mine. I felt that [the personal as political] was the important aspect of performance art, perhaps because I was a bit different too.
It enabled me to point to that difference and preserve that difference without having others mediate it for me. I’m certainly not disabled, and it’d be very dishonest of me to claim to be a disabled artist, because the whole assertion of my career has been to say and demonstrate that I’m not. Performance art means the possibility of introducing difference that remains different, that preserves difference within the context and potential of art.
TM: That reminds me of how you reject the idea that your work is like theatre. You’ve talked about getting to a point of not even being a performer anymore; you’re literally just a person holding their breath. In that way you call yourself a realist artist.
MP: Yes, I often do make the distinction that I’m essentially a realist. I’m a bit different as a performance artist and I realised that from the outset. The other day at the Pompidou I was looking at videos of Bruce Nauman’s very early work Art Make-Up , where he’s naked with an exposed torso, industriously smearing makeup on his body. And the wall label is talking about how he realised working with the film community that makeup is what you put on before you appear on set, so he’s putting makeup on his torso and having himself videoed. And I looked at the video—and I won’t bother to do this, it’s not necessary anymore—but I immediately thought, “Well, I could easily redo that work and it would look incredibly different.”
I realised very early on that I was in this peculiar position that I was a performance artist with one arm and that was an extraordinary visuality whenever I did a performance. That immediately occluded that metaphoric transposition that so much performance art has sunk into, because always you are brought back to the real, this conspicuous truth of difference. It’s that realism that’s inherently political because I’m demonstrating a difference without explanation or translation, without situation of any kind. It’s an indelible fact that I can leverage in relation to a lot of other issues.
“We couldn’t relate to the people around us at all, and they couldn’t relate to us. It was this real fundamental difference, even the way my father dressed, because he was one of these people that dressed impeccably and never appeared in public without a shirt and tie.”
TM: That makes me think of how often comedians self-deprecate to beat everyone else to the punchline. And I also know that you grew up in rural Queensland, and I have extended family in those areas—and I understand how difference is looked upon. Sometimes it feels so claustrophobic that you want to say, “If you think I’m being weird now, then I’ll really give you something weird!”
MP: I’ve gotcha. I should say straight away that my father, after the Second World War, came back needing to really change his life—and that meant changing the life of the whole family. So he moved us to a small farm. He had no experience of farming, but he bought this 56-acre farm in the hinterland behind the Gold Coast, and we were moved from Sydney. He and my mother had come from quite well-off, sophisticated families, and he’d dropped us into the middle of this farming community. We couldn’t relate to the people around us at all, and they couldn’t relate to us. It was this real fundamental difference, even the way my father dressed, because he was one of these people that dressed impeccably and never appeared in public without a shirt and tie. That was already a marker that made him appear incomprehensible.
But I think my first performance scripts were like your comedian. As a little kid, and this is true, I had this brazenness. The kids in that area, they’d be across the road, and I’d be trying to go to school, and they used to yell out at me, “What happened to your arm mate?” And I’d say, “It got caught in the chaff cutter. It got cut up!” We had a huge patch of bananas, and we used to cut up the stems after we chopped off the bunch, mix them up, and give them to the cows when we were milking them. The cows loved eating this stuff. So, I’d say, “Got caught in the cutter, it got cut up and mixed with the banana salt and the cows ate it.” As a 10-year-old, I would say this with absolute, cold-blooded conviction. And they’d all reel back, they didn’t know how to take it. They didn’t know whether I was crazy or whether I was being funny. You could say that was the beginning of my performance work. I don’t mind that connection you’re making with comedians and that business of turning the joke on abjection. It’s an interesting strategy, isn’t it? And it’s one that is in the best performance art too.
I recently saw the [work of the] Japanese Gutai, a performance collective, and one of the early members was Kazuo Shiraga, after the Second World War. He did very interesting pieces. I saw a painting he produced by being suspended by a rope above a canvas, and he constituted the painting using just his feet. And he’s using very heavy, dark red and black oil paint mixed together. It’s like mud, dried and cracking after all these years. And Shiraga says, “I want to preserve the impact of oil paint as material. I don’t want to transfer a meaning onto it. I want it to be the thing in itself.” And my performance is that thing in itself. I make these connections with other artists to preserve the coherence of my own position.
“It’s deliberately disorientating because you see an extremely young Mike Parr that looks like a teenager and Mike Parr now that looks very much older.”
TM: But later, say from the 2000s onwards, your performances start to explicitly reference government policies from the treatment of asylum seekers to climate change. Was it an issue for you to maintain that sense of performance as performance while also making something explicitly political, about things other than performance?
MP: You’ve put your finger on it. You’re leading me now to a very recent, major video work, where I wanted to address that problem, so I’ve edited this two hour and 44 minutes, six channel projection.
TM: And that’s the new work that will be at Anna Schwartz Gallery?
MP: Yes, one of the works. It was the principal work at a show at the Bogotá Museum of Modern Art. You see six projections which, over the period of two hours and 44 minutes, effectively encompass 52 years of performance. But it’s not chronological. It’s deliberately disorientating because you see an extremely young Mike Parr that looks like a teenager and Mike Parr now that looks very much older. There are 60 performances, but I’ve only taken the crisis point of each performance. The performances all have a duration, they go on for as long as possible, which is a determining duration and that can sometimes be three hours or three days. But in the video, I take what I feel is the crisis point in each of those performances. It strips the performances of other extraneous intention because I started to worry about the political performance, that I was taking issues that really did concern me, but they were also allowing me to deploy, to indulge, a language and a situation that was very familiar. I was empathising with the refugees, but at the same time I was regressing to the level of something that I really wanted to do myself. They [asylum seekers] were performing in extremis when they sewed their lips together. I was performing in extremis too, but there was a very big difference in our situations. I began to worry about what the political performances were really doing.
TM: As in what your motivations were for those more political performances?
MP: Yes, my motivations. I began to think the political performances were implicating me in a strange way that I had to account for. So, the Montage in Space and Time becomes an almost unbearable self-portrait.
TM: Unbearable because…?
MP: It doesn’t allow you the wriggle room of translation. You can’t say, “Well, he’s doing it for this reason.” There’s no reason other than the barest necessity. It’s like what happened with the poetry, in the late 1960s when I stripped it of its lyricism, turning the word into an inescapable confrontation in a way: the Montage in Space and Time imposes the inescapable realism of the work. The performances themselves were experienced by the audiences as overwhelmingly realist. But the montage exposes a deeper real.
“The Archibald portraits speak the language of portraiture to win the prize; they scale themselves up, they look dramatic. There’s celebrity. It has got everything to do with the colours in which they’re painted, the people that they choose to paint.”
TM: It’s interesting that you’ve been doing that for over 50 years—using self-portraiture or performance, or in some cases erasing your own self-portraits by painting them out, always trying to expose what you feel is a deeper realism.
MP: Yes, and the blind painting performances are the way I can end the self-portrait project. They’re the only way I can really confront the false authenticity of self-portraiture. Self-portraiture seemed to provide the possibility of exposing the conventions of portraiture. One of the reasons I’m critical of the Archibald is that it lines up portraits that want to represent a photographic realism. The Archibald portraits speak the language of portraiture to win the prize; they scale themselves up, they look dramatic. There’s celebrity. It has got everything to do with the colours in which they’re painted, the people that they choose to paint. Self-portraiture seems to be a way of answering that deception of portraiture because it’s dominated by a feedback loop. The artist is looking at himself or herself and is wanting to, probably truthfully, speak about their own state of mind, and they want to do this to declare a kind of authenticity: that a self-portrait can be authentic. But it’s that very notion of authenticity that I think is completely delusional. I’ve done thousands of self-portraits. They’re all different. I began to realise that repetition produces endless difference, but this difference can never be said to be the self-portrait. It’s just another transience and not an authenticity. So, the blind painting is a way of bringing self-portraiture to an end because there’s no way to edit or select from it.
That is also why I began to paint them [Parr’s previous self-portraits] out. It ended my relationship with John Loane [printmaker Parr worked with] because he was understandably shocked by what he thought were the final masterpieces—that we had lifted printmaking to that level. But I walked into the exhibition at Anna Schwartz Gallery in Sydney [in 2015], and I thought, “All this magnificence is completely fake.” This is the Napoleonic delusion. I was horrified. I said to Anna—and Anna’s amazing, she really understands me—she could tell I was in a real state of dizzy shock. I was obviously sick. I felt terrible. I felt like vomiting. I said, “I have to paint these out. And you have to send out an announcement and say, ‘You are all invited back to drink vodka.’” And I played the ‘The East Is Red’ [a Chinese Communist Party revolutionary song], because I’ve got my old lefty background, so it was roaring in this space, and I just climbed up and I painted, over two hours, and painted all these prints out in red. It was a crisis of the self-portrait. I couldn’t trust representation after that.
TM: That reminds me of this Rainer Maria Rilke story in which there’s a character who keeps peeling back layer after layer of their face, until all that’s left is just this kind of horrible, abject, nothingness. And the narrator is appalled, but also feels like he’s finally seeing something honest.
MP: Yes, I understand. It’s like that because I think self-portraiture is a process of infinite regression. I’m very interested in psychoanalysis, and I know why it’s called the endless cure: because the trauma is always displaced by repression. You never arrive at the origin of the disorder. You just go through the screens of its ghosts. Self-portraiture, in a way, is the fullest dramatisation of that debacle. It’s the crisis of the image, and I believe that the crisis of the image is inherently political.
This article was originally published in the November/December 2023 print edition of Art Guide Australia.
For detailed information on the various stages and dates of the three-part exhibition, please visit annaschwartzgallery.com
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