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Mike Parr is Australia’s most-celebrated performance artist. His latest work undoes assumptions about what it means to look and to see. By Erik Jensen.

Performance artist Mike Parr

Mike Parr performs Half Way House in April.
Credit: Zan Wimberley. Courtesy of the artist and Anna Schwartz Gallery.

1.

Mike Parr doesn’t want to see the paintings. He doesn’t want to go through the business of making them into art. “I don’t look,” he says, “because I don’t want to learn.”

He made the pictures in a three-hour performance at Anna Schwartz Gallery in Melbourne. He began at noon, working with a ladder and a can of paint. For the duration of the performance, he kept shut his eyes. The photographer and cameraman were instructed to do the same. “I feel very excited,” he says. “These photographs taken blind perfectly represent the performance.”

Parr calls the paintings “monsters”. He says, “These monsters who belong to no family.” He will make more of the blind pictures in the course of the exhibition, which is broken into three chapters. “Blind painting is becoming really serious for me as painting,” he says, and then: “Blindness is enabling me to retreat behind the image. I’m keeping the image-world intact in my head … It suddenly makes painting more real for me and more strongly possible in my mind.”

The work is called Half Way House and the blind documentation is its key. This disorientation of the image records the mental state and intention of the work. It is not just about the performer’s mind: it is about the space that exists between certain people and the rest of the world. “I have to say this is my brother Tim’s world,” Parr adds. “Its completeness as documentation makes me tremble inside.” Another email begins: “Half Way House was always about Tim.”

 

2.

Early in the performance, the camera is knocked. The temperature of the image is affected and the photographs burn in yellows and thin, sour greens. Parr feels for a ladder. He finds his way along the wall. He hooks a paintbrush under his stump. He breathes hard, exerted breaths. By the end of the performance the muscles in his face are exhausted from the tension of not looking.

Afterwards, on the gallery walls, there is a ring of paint at shoulder height. Sometimes it is a streak; sometimes it is a set of tapping fingers, like the wing flaps of a bird in a locked room.

The paintings themselves have a fierce energy, noisy and alive. Shapes are there because the eye must tell stories: a squat horse, a building, a rake of finger marks like a Twombly boat. The blind camera wanders, woozy, sometimes withdrawn. Parr feels the painted surface with a fingertip, then the back of his hand, like a parent caring for a fevered child. He reaches – once, twice – for a tin. He finds it. After a lifetime of making art, is this a performance of familiarity? Is not looking as you work the same as refusing to see what you have done?

 

3.

Parr remembers it being on the front steps of a house. It was late spring and he was about 17. Probably it was 1962.

“I was feeling calm, detached,” he says, “but suddenly I was outside myself and staring and for the first time in my life that I remember, I had one arm. It was an extraordinary, disorientating experience that can’t really be communicated with words and even now in the telling it is electrifying. I was also suddenly in the presence of God: void-like indifference, separation, equanimity; a kind of ringing, heraldic blow of severance and I apprehended the stump of my left arm. Again impossible to communicate this staring, dissociated realisation, which was like hanging from a tree in the sunlight.”

Earlier he remembers seeing a cage poster for the local newspaper. There was a photograph of another young man from Southport, whose arm had been amputated below the elbow. “He had become popular and well known as a lone sailor and won dinghy sailing races.”

Parr remembers that he was walking to a friend’s house in Labrador, near the Gold Coast, although that can’t be right because he had only one friend and Ian didn’t live at Labrador. Perhaps he was walking to the Church of God, an evangelical sect with which he had a grim fascination.

“I turned and walked away but was completely different in relation to myself,” he says. “Two years later in my first year at university studying law I had the first of my ‘breakdowns’ that changed my life forever.”

So much of Parr’s work is about staring or being stared at. Sometimes it is about the people who don’t want to look at all.

“Perhaps also this goes right back to people either looking too obviously at me or looking away … and the fierceness of my stares, which I was aware of in the early years, as I tried to ward off or steer the gaze of other people … People wouldn’t look at me or if they did I noticed that they were immediately looking away.”

Another thought: “I’m intensely aware of the presence of others when I’m doing a performance, and the surge of energy which creates the strong feeling I have of being completely immersed in the action is based on an equally strong feeling of hostility towards the audience. I don’t quite know where this hostility comes from, but I sense it has something to do with the fact that I am forcing people to look at me.”

 

4.

Parr says knowing who you are is only half the work. Performance art is about being believed. “I think that’s the real limit state,” he says. “One finally will do anything to be believed.”

He never thought of the self-portraiture as a continuation of the violent performances, the ones where he cut himself or forced the edges of his body. When he dressed as a Bride, that was another thing altogether. He always said he rejected painting, as he did photography. The latter was an ersatz form.

“I really only understand the problem of self-expression by juxtaposing the same ‘complexes’ in different forms and different mediums,” he says. “It has always immensely interested me that Beckett abandoned his mother tongue for French and in the process not only found a language for writing but also cured his manifold physical symptoms.” And then: “Didn’t cure his mother, though; she died as rigid as a board.”

In preparing for a performance, Parr draws up a script. Every moment is imagined before it happens. He specifies the brand of paint and sends ahead the chair he will sit on. He reminds performers that what they are doing is also funny. A lot of his work lives on the edge of hysteria. He writes: “I think it would be good if you could think in this absolutist way as you explore your blindness with the camera.” And: “You should try not to rest or as little as possible.”

Parr talks about these new works as painting beyond painting. He has freed himself from the various forms of abstraction and figuration and the smallnesses he found in them. These pictures are vast and remote. Parr sees them as an estrangement from the outcomes of painting. That is how he works: over and over, repeating, returning. There is defiance in the paintings. They are full of their own belief, and in being so are enough.

“This is my answer to the problem of self-portraiture,” Parr says. “This is the monumental end to the problem of self-portraiture. Rembrandt’s chiaroscuro announces the possibility of ‘blind’ self-portraiture, because deep shadow in Rembrandt’s late painting is the real domain of his self-portrait, because chiaroscuro is animating a dialectic that makes looking a problem of seeing-through.”

 

5.

Parr didn’t realise until later that Tim had seen the installation on Cockatoo Island. It was part of the Biennale of Sydney in 2008, an affecting survey of his performance videos mounted in a former sailors’ quarters. There were videos of face-stitching and of thumbtacks being forced into his leg. One showed him and his father killing chickens in a gallery, remembering the horror of this task after a cyclone ruined the family farm and there was no money for feed.

“One day, a short while before Tim died, he began talking to me about the videos that he’d seen in those rooms,” Parr says, “and I realised that my appearance as a Bride and the blood and the self-inflicted violence and the whole riddled ambiguity of my art was too much for him. There was nothing I could say. I simply listened to his agitated description of what he had seen.”

Tim was a year younger than Parr. He was smaller, but broad and immensely strong. Parr says he retained a child’s trust in the world. They remained very close. On Fridays Tim would visit and Parr would cook them a lunch of baked beans on toast.

Tim carried a briefcase in which he collected sticks and ropes for making whips. Sometimes he would give demonstrations or play his mouth organ at train stations or outside shopping centres. He collected pages from books, which he underlined and read slowly aloud. “A lot of his preoccupations,” Parr says, “seemed close to my own.”

Once Parr saw him in the main street of Leura, in the Blue Mountains outside Sydney. He had gathered a small crowd and was giving a whip-cracking demonstration. “I was amazed at the transformation,” Parr says. “He seemed swelled by monstrous power and unrecognisable authority. He yelled and accompanied every explosion of the lash. I was alarmed, aghast. I turned and walked quickly away before he realised I was there.”

After Tim died, Parr was approached at an event by two schoolteachers. One of their senior students had made a video with Tim. By that time Tim was living in a housing commission flat in Lithgow. “On the appointed day the student arrived at the flat,” Parr says. “Tim had dressed himself as a Bride and as a Bride he gave his interview.”

The teachers told Parr he could have a copy of the video. There was a heaviness to this. “They warned me discreetly that it was disturbing. It arrived and I put it into one of my filing boxes.”

Parr has not watched the video. He cannot bear to think what he might see.

 

6.

Two weeks after the first blind performance, Parr writes in his diary. His sentences rattle on the page. There is no pause between thoughts. “This is my idea now,” he writes, “that performance art must wound or disorientate the recording eye and the documentary mediums.”

Parr is hesitating at sending some older work to the performance artist Franko B, although he promised. They are new friends. The recognition was instant and Parr says they have become brothers.

“He’s Italian and he was brought up in Italian orphanages,” Parr says. “He’s gay. He reminds me very much of Tim. His written English of course is very broken but he has Tim’s innocence. A very open man.”

In his diary, Parr writes about the Church of God, about Sunday school culture, about violence and unintelligibility. He imposes these states on the audience. “I am suddenly very unsure about the build-up of this projection,” he writes. “It’s a primitive state in relation to Franko’s openness.”

And again: “Franko has said nothing about my cross-dressing performances. What could he say? They must seem extraordinarily naive to him.”

Parr does not resile from the feelings he has towards his audience. His work requires the wilderness of rejection, whereas Franko’s has been affirmed within a culture. It is a fundamental difference. This is the truth of Australia, Parr thinks: you could make a work no one could bear to look at, and in doing so would create a moment of clarity.

“Perhaps the double-talk of Australian culture … is driving me mad,” he writes to himself. “Of course ‘driving me mad’ is the engine of my art. But that constant susceptibility must now be thought about. Looked at. I’ll wait on Franko’s response. Looking at … is what I do best.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 12, 2021 as "Blind Judgement".

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Erik Jensen is the editor of The Saturday Paper. He is the author of Acute Misfortune: The Life and Death of Adam Cullen.