Mike Parr Foreign Looking is a retrospective look at one of Australia’s most influential artists and his provocative works spanning 50 years of performance, film, painting, sculpture, and printmaking.
Born in 1945, Mike Parr grew up away from the city and developed a passion for the arts, thanks largely to his mum, who was an artist herself. He began his artistic practice in Sydney, where he quickly became known for his unprecedented – at times, disturbing – performances.
One of his more controversial pieces, entitled Cathartic action: social gestus No. 5, involved attaching a prosthetic limb made from meat and blood to his non-existent arm (the real one was removed at birth) and hacking it off with an ax in front of a shocked live audience.
Parr would continue to use his body as a medium in the years to come. A 2002 performance, called Close the Concentration Camps, saw him stitching his lips shut to protest the inhumane conditions experienced by asylum seekers in Australia.
Other times, he sewed on buttons on his chest, vomited ink, and burned part of his leg into a spiral pattern using a dynamite fuse.
In his seemingly never-ending Self-Portrait series, Parr explored impermanence and psychoanalytic theory through his own image. Using medium such as etching, pencil, photographs, drawings, bronzes, drypoints, and performances, he was able to make thousands of portraits.
These works – along with others made from 1970 all the way up to the present – will be on display at the National Gallery of Australia between August 12 and November 6. Foreign Looking will feature a look back at Parr’s performance and filmmaking practice inside a series of projection rooms, while other spaces will be made available for talks, workshops, and new performance commissions.
We recently talked to Elspeth Pitt, curator of the exhibition, to know more.
Mike Parr was born in rural Queensland, yet both he and his sister went onto to become very successful artists. Where did his interest in art stem from and how was it cultivated during his early years?
“I think Mike is a born artist. I feel this more strongly about him than any other artist I’ve ever worked with or observed. It’s as though he came out of his mother’s womb red-faced and angry and asking questions about the world.
“There is a passage in David Bromfield’s book (Identities: a critical study of the work of Mike Parr 1970–1990) that describes him as going down to the Seventh Day Adventist church as a child so he could argue with the congregants. Even though he didn’t have any training as an artist he began to think about himself in that way by the mid-1960s, equating art with a certain mistrust of authority.
It’s as though he came out of his mother’s womb red-faced and angry and asking questions about the world.
“In a recent interview, Mike talked a little about his mother, how she too had been an artist, but that it wasn’t something that her husband approved of. Her art practice was hidden, emerging only when he was away. A little later, as a teenager, Mike began experimenting with poetry but rejected it, thinking it too romantic. Yet it was a provisional way of making images and of giving form to ideas.
“In the late 1960s he moved to Sydney with his partner Felizitas. He enrolled at East Sydney Tech but soon dropped out. 1970 was a turning point. He co-established Inhibodress with artists including Peter Kennedy and Tim Johnson. Inhibodress was a sort of gallery-come-studio-come-experimental-space now recognised as Australia’s first artist collective that occupied the second storey of a factory space in Charles Street, Woolloomooloo.
“Mike’s first show there was called Word Situations, which comprised typewriter pieces installed on the walls and windows. Inhibodress only ran for two years but it was influential. Along with Pinocotheca Gallery in Melbourne, it really introduced conceptual art (idea art), video art, and performance art to Australian audiences.
“In many ways, their activities were anti-art. Mike set fire to reams of typescript and Peter Kennedy coaxed bizarre sounds from AV assemblages. There weren’t many women involved, although dancer and choreographer Philippa Cullen was a notable exception.”
How did his body art performances through the 1970s influence his subsequent print art work during the 1980s?
“Prints and performance cyclically emerge and coalesce in Mike’s work. For example, pieces like Light a candle. Hold your finger in the flame for as long as possible (1972) first appeared as a printed poem or aphorism that he later performed and documented on 16mm film. His performance practice grew steadily from this intersection between word and action.
“The big drawings and prints of the 1980s are both an extension and negation of his performance practice. By that I mean that he felt he had to escape performance art in the 1980s because it had become too popular.
He felt he had to escape performance art in the 1980s because it had become too popular.
“But to do so, he began contemplating old performance photographs, drawing and then printing a lot of self-portraits that eventually formed the conscious beginnings of the Self Portrait Project, the banner under which the bulk of his work has since assembled.
“There were also pragmatic considerations regarding the shift from performance to printmaking. Mike had a family and he needed to support them. Performance is ephemeral, but prints can be sold.”
Tell us about the task of pulling together an exhibition of work on this scale?
“It was a real undertaking! We started talking and emailing around two years out, thinking about how an exhibition like this could be approached. Mike has been working as an artist since 1970 but he’s always been a contemporary artist, and always disruptive, so a conventional survey wasn’t ever going to work. In the end we put a checklist together as did the artist, and the exhibition developed from there.
Mike was very involved in every part of the process, he was very determined.
“Mike was very involved in every part of the process, he was very determined. Sometimes it was really hard but I think it will be worth it. Mike is a very important artist in the Australian cultural landscape. His work is difficult and divisive, it is often hard to look at, but it can also be very delicate, infinitely perceptive and surprisingly poetic.”
Do you have a favourite Mike Parr piece or pieces? If so, which one/s and why?
“That’s a tough one, but I do have a few favourites. Like the work Poem (1971) which involved Mike sending a poem to friends and instructing them to Tear into tiny pieces/Scatter into the wind/Or throw onto/The sea. Each of the participants documented the destruction of the poem and these documents are now held in the collection of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney.
“I’m also fascinated by the sequence of performances called Dream, performed in Canberra between 1978 and 1982 as part of Ingo Kleinert’s ACT performance art festival. Using Lake Burley Griffin as a leitmotif or central image, he became a mythical, nocturnal presence inhabiting the region of the lake, setting himself adrift on its waters, traversing its shores, and marking its banks with bright fire.
“A final favourite is Rules and Displacement Activities (1973–83). Among the most ambitious experimental films ever made in Australia, its decade-long production involved a fluctuating band of collaborators. Divided into three parts it probes the innate drives compelling human behaviour and relations.
“The first part documents Parr’s relationship with his audience; the second endeavours to remedy alienation with sensuality; and the dramatic conclusion probes the role of family in individual identity.
“In the vivid action Family under Water (1977–81) Parr’s father, mother, wife and daughter appear beneath a rock pool that monstrously distorts their features. In the show there is a devoted theatrette so people can watch this film cycle from start to finish.”
Given his own physical characteristic with his arm, much of Parr’s work centres around body shapes and mutilation. How important is it for visitors of this exhibition to understand the stories and the psychology behind his artwork?
“It’s very important. His absent arm is a site of exploration. In one of his most renowned works, Social Gestus No. 5 (the “Armchop”) (1977), Mike attached a prosthetic arm filled with mincemeat to his body and hacked it off with a cleaver. This was an effort to re-enact the trauma of losing his arm.
It’s very important. His absent arm is a site of exploration.
“A lot of Mike’s work is underpinned by psychoanalytic theory, dredging up concealed memories and performing cathartic acts. Something that is really apparent in the show is that every material gesture, every physical work of art, carries great psychological charge.”