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Mike Parr retains the ability to unsettle gallery directors, though he may be the country’s most deeply engaged, self-analytical artist. By Fiona McGregor.

Artist Mike Parr’s relentless self-portraiture

Mike Parr at the National Gallery of Australia
Credit: Courtesy NGA

There’s a Mike Parr portrait on the floor, a dark scrawl printed on Hahnemühle paper, the head a mass of turbulence. I’ve seen many of these over the years – Parr is his own most common subject. The representation is acute, though the facial features are barely distinguishable. The etchings are done in dry point then printed off the burr, rendering two or three per edition.  

Parr’s studio is on the second floor of a warehouse in Alexandria, in Sydney’s inner east, its windows taped over to accommodate the large canvases he also creates. With his wife, Felizitas, Parr has lived here 30 years, since the area was industrial, the forges in nearby Eveleigh Carriageworks still warm.

He takes me over to a bench and shows me a drawing board.

“All my art starts from nothing,” he says. “I think it’s the best starting point. For the last 35 years I’ve been in the habit of working on these bits of board which sit on that desk in there and when the phone rings, I sort of doodle on them.”

The boards, used on both sides, “become the basis for something, in a figurative sense, but it’ll get drowned in various ways as I work it up onto copper… I’m getting a sort of feeling and… It’s a sort of ante-image, you know...”

I hear ante, but anti may also apply.

A primordial energy churns through Parr’s work, whether it’s these self-portraits in deeply traditional form or the endurance performances begun in the early 1970s, themselves self-portraits of a kind. Performance was where he began and where, I think, he remains at his best. The “schizophrenia” he attributes to his practice could extend to the cerebral discipline that frames this energy. Prolific and celebrated in both genres, Parr funds the latter with the former.

“I very publicly don’t take funds from the Australia Council for my performance art. I love to sort of shove it in everybody’s faces. What am I going to tell them? ‘I want to hold my breath for as long as possible’? They wouldn’t give me a grant then, and they wouldn’t now.”

We go into the living space, twice the size and flooded with light. In signature jacket and trousers, the empty left sleeve tucked into the front pocket, Parr has an imposing physique yet gentle presence, appearing younger than his 71 years. Few artists have used their faces so relentlessly. After seeing it so often in those tumultuous two-dimensional self-portraits; on video, expressing myriad ordeals; live, contorting with agony while being stitched up; it is slightly strange to see it at rest, drinking tea, polite, genial, the features only distorting when he laughs, which is often.

There are no trappings, nothing fancy. The most noticeable things are books – crammed in shelves, piled on the coffee table. A voracious reader, Parr’s speech resembles his drawings: densely layered, tangential, circling. Vignettes detour to theory, psychoanalysis and a personal history of adversity and triumph. Politics are ever present, the use of himself as subject and vessel not so much an identity inquiry as a path to responsibility.

“I come from Wilhelm Reich’s theory of the mass psychology of fascism,” Parr says. “In 1933 he saw an inevitability of national socialist reaction as an expression of the German working-class family, squarely in terms of patriarchal structure. That’s a very interesting idea to me, because it means we have to rethink the notion of effectiveness. We can’t delegate problems, remain in our privileged bourgeois enclaves and democratically elect someone to solve them. We have to change in ourselves.

“The whole trajectory of my art has been like that. When I say the political is personal it pushes me deep inside myself where I can kind of act out these fascist fantasies, but then I take responsibility for them. I sort of traumatise myself through my own impulses and urges, and it’s that traumatic form I reconceive as political. It enables me to think. People say, ‘Why do you do such extreme things?’ And I say, ‘Once I’ve done them, I can think. I can accept criticism and responsibility.’ So that’s the nexus that interests me – not the micro-political one.”

Parr always indicates his childhood as the storehouse of “personal damage” that he likes “to scale up and make public damage”. He grew up in bushland near Lismore with his sister, the artist Julie Rrap, and a brother with mental illness. There was no electricity, running water or sewerage. Parr’s father, a traumatised returned soldier, “still dressed to the hilt every day and thought of these broken-down farmers around us as irredeemable rednecks”.

“He was a very pedantic man in his personal habits and they regarded him with a mixture of awe and suspicion. I had one arm, so I used to be like the echo chamber of all this ambivalence. I got bailed up by the redneck kids. They’d say, ‘How’d you lose your arm, mate?’ And I’d stop ’em in their tracks and say with complete sangfroid, ‘Oh, it got caught in the chaff cutter and was completely chopped off and got mixed up in all the chaff and we just sort of fed it to the cow, y’know?’ ” Parr laughs. “The point being that these stories sort of opened up a space. I was kind of like ‘WOW!’ ”

Heroic?

“Heroic. It was like using gelignite, you know? I’d just blown a hole in the fabric of the collective reality and I was smugly located.” He laughs again. “I think the heroic is firmly lodged in my performance and I think it’s incurable.”

We talk about his performance at this year’s Biennale of Sydney, where he torched 120 of his prints. “Six or seven hundred thousand dollars of work,” he says. “It was very satisfying.”

I arrived just after it began. On the paving adjacent to Carriageworks, Parr stood with his back to us, petrol can dangling from his hand, Talking Heads’ “Burning Down the House” pumping over the crowd. The ground ignited, releasing a black pall, bringing the toxic destruction of coal seam gas mining to the heart of the city. When the flames subsided the audience approached the smoking expanse, examining charred remnants of prints weighted by etching plates. They were ecstatic, some claiming Parr had borrowed back artworks donated to the Art Gallery of New South Wales without telling them what he intended to do.

“No, no, no, no!” Parr breaks into laughter. “That would’ve really been something. This was my stock that I could have sold.”

The confusion lay with a corresponding work inside Carriageworks: 164 of Parr’s drawing boards, which he had donated to the gallery, were laid on the floor, and the audience was invited to walk over them. The project was named for what the boards showed: The Side I Least Like. According to Parr, the state gallery “kind of flipped out”.

“They put me through this extraordinary kind of interrogation. They’re all nice people, they interrogate very gently.” When they objected to the damage that would be done to the boards, Parr reminded them it was a conceptual work and would be finished, not damaged. But the invigilators operated with customary zeal. “So there was this other agenda, which was to prevent my work from happening. We’ve got this notion of culture as inviolate and precious but at the same time we’re destroying the environment. It’s a problem of values, and meaning. It’s sentimental. These prints of mine are now in all the museums and are regarded as something really kind of precious.”

Parr doesn’t regard his performance videos as art, only documentation, always aiming for “a sort of photographic barrenness”.

“I’ve been doing this for 46 years,” he says. “I’ve got two 200 hours of performances on film. Krist [Gruijthuijsen], the new curator from KW in Berlin, was out here recently, and he said to me, ‘Surely the museums are collecting them. What about the MCA?’ I said, ‘Well, [MCA director] Liz Ann Macgregor thinks I’m psychotic.’ ”

I laugh, anticipating the punchline. Parr is in fits. “And Krist said, ‘What’s that got to do with it?’ ”

 

Parr’s reputation as an incendiary maverick endures, yet he is also recognised as one of the most deeply engaged, highly skilled, genuinely risky artists at work today. These views are more mutual than exclusive, for even in conservative times the status quo likes a rebel. Parr’s edginess adds to his capital, as well as his high reputation in Europe. He may never look nice on a coffee table, but this week the National Gallery of Australia opens a major exhibition of his work.

Multiple projections of performance videos will feature, including those from Inhibodress, Australia’s first artist-run initiative, managed with Peter Kennedy and Tim Johnson. Highly experimental, these works captured the attention of benefactors and critics, placing Parr in the canon. The formalism was always there, the script honed – Arrange for a friend to bite you on the shoulder … for as long as possible or until their mouth fills with blood – the action aimed at the limit of endurance.

Yet performance art never paid, being immaterial, and Parr was almost 40 when he got his big break. After a sojourn in Europe, he scraped by with cleaning and part-time teaching jobs. Having only lasted three weeks at art school, Parr taught himself to draw, and “found I was very good at it, and loved it”. The collector and philanthropist John Kaldor, who knew him from Inhibodress, bought his first works, got him a show at Roslyn Oxley9, then took Parr to MoMA PS1 in New York with Imants Tillers and Ken Unsworth. “Overnight,” Parr says, “I went from being the rat in the rathole to making some money.” With subsequent support from Gene Sherman and his current gallerist Anna Schwartz, whose husband publishes this newspaper, Parr was made.

It is impossible to imagine anyone else being able to do such extreme work in the current climate. Occupational health and safety regulations are so prohibitive that Sydney is deplored by art producers worldwide for the restrictions placed on art in public spaces, as well as in museums where the mere lighting of a candle is forbidden. Parr’s projects often run like obstacle races.

“My hysteria helps me,” he says. “I go out like a madman and work like a maniac and sleep about five hours a night.”

For MIRROR/ARSE, his 2008 Sydney Biennale installation, Parr was given at the last minute a dilapidated building on Cockatoo Island when his original concept at Pier 2/3 was foiled “by insuperable OH&S”. The biennale’s curator, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, was “distracted by that time. And I said, ‘Don’t worry. I’ll take care of everything.’ ”

What Parr built on Cockatoo Island was a vision of trauma. Corridors rang with bellows of pain from videos flickering in dank, debris-strewn rooms. Buckets of piss in the toilets brought to the nose acrid discomfort, as recordings from parliament piped from each cubicle. It was a shock to the system, articulating more about Australian politics than the most august, well-researched journalism. It was also, at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars from Parr’s own pocket, one of the most generous gifts an artist has given us.

BDH at Carriageworks similarly emerged from a protracted series of meetings with the head of the Art Gallery of NSW, Michael Brand. Parr visited Liverpool Plains farmers affected by the Shenhua coalmine. He wanted to truck in 50 to 100 tonnes of dirt to spread on the lawn above the gallery’s underground car park, in accordance with his enduring trope, Malevich’s Black Square. Brand was nervous. When a farmer informed them the dirt carried seeds of noxious weeds, Parr had to do a last-minute rethink. Brand was relieved.

“I was going to be the guy that introduced Noogoora burr to the Domain,” Parr heaves with laughter. “I would’ve been execrated.”

 

We talk later about an old colleague, Marina Abramović.  Parr and Felizitas were once very close with Marina and Ulay, Abramović’s previous partner and collaborator, and Parr speaks empathetically about Abramović’s pain when Ulay left her for another woman. He thinks she has commodified herself now.

Last year, when here for the Kaldor Public Art Project, Marina Abramović: In Residence, Abramović asked Parr to do a presentation. He showed his 1972 performance where he holds his finger in a flame. Abramović’s photo portrait of her doing the same decades later, with an expression of serenity, contrasts starkly with Parr’s yelping pain. 

“And I said, ‘This is bullshit, Marina. It’s a Photoshop job’ … It was a very interesting encounter, that whole installation. John [Kaldor] was there, and I insisted it all be filmed. I felt like the sort of Ceaușescu, you know, arm-in-arm with Marina as she walked me through the sort of slave labour camp” – Parr laughs uproariously – “with everyone looking and thinking, ‘Hello, the King and Queen have arrived.’”

If you were the Ceaușescu, I ask, who was John Kaldor?

“Karadžić!”

More laughter. I pick up my pen.

“No, no, no, no!”

How do you spell that again?

“Just put… Kafka.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 13, 2016 as "Parr for the course". Subscribe here.

Fiona McGregor
is the author of five books.