artist / participant
Victim of Success Ross Woodrow
Mike Parr’s slide work, 150 Programs & Investigations, 1971–72, includes the statement: ‘If it’s socially impotent then it’s not art.’ Thirty years on, this once profoundly radical declaration might find a place in a public art statement by the most conservative provincial council in Australia, since almost all art is now seemingly motivated by some instrumental or social purpose. But social purpose and social potency are two different things. Parr has not succumbed to the current trend for artists to add value to social experience by playing the polite role of intuitive outsider. After thirty-five years of art practice, Mike Parr is a towering figure in the Australian art scene yet he is still one of the few artists willing to do the dirty work of dismantling attempts at political or social control.
His recent performance work, Sitting Member, staged in Newcastle, New South Wales on 3 October 2005, follows a series of most disturbing and gruelling events in which Parr obliterated the maxim that art and politics do not mix. For Sitting Member, Parr sat for eight hours enclosed in a large wooden box positioned in the middle of a massive, abandoned railway workshop that reverberated with the booming sound of recorded Parliamentary debates on the Federal Government’s Industrial Relations reforms. Since the stump of his left arm protruded through a hole in the box as an obscene appendage, the pun in the title is obvious, but this event collapsed one myth propagated by the new conservatives – that workers without collective power will be free agents – with an even more powerful fiction, first proposed by Karl Marx in 1847 – that artists are the only free spirits operating outside the slavery of wage labour.(1)
In 1970, when Parr set his agenda to close the gap between art and lived experience, the avant-garde art scene was dominated by rarefied varieties of formal abstraction. Art for art’s sake was such an entrenched philosophy that there was often no distinction made between means and ends in art production. The painted surface was the terrain of painting and the essence of film or video was sought in the nature of the filmic process rather than through narrative or symbolic form. Parr’s 1971 work, Pushing a camera over a hill, perfectly evokes the period. It was originally shown at Inhibodress Gallery in Sydney in what was the first exhibition of video art in Australia. In his review of the exhibition, Daniel Thomas highlighted this work precisely because of its exploitation of the ‘eyes and ears of a camera’. Watching the DVD version of Pushing a camera over a hill confirms Daniel Thomas’s assessment: ‘very disorienting and illuminating it [is] to travel for ten minutes so close to the ground and to hear so much noisy grass’.(2)
This happens to be one of the few surviving examples of Parr’s early video works, although it is atypical in the sense that the performer, as camera operator, is out of view. In most of his early work with video, Parr was searching for a synergy between camera and audience for his performance pieces. As he discovered, the static camera acting as an impassive substitute-viewer intensified the focus on the recorded performance and created something that was not quite a surrogate or substitute, but a new work. By eschewing the desire to find the art in video, the filmic records of Parr’s performance works are themselves classic examples of the power of the video medium. Some works, such as The End of Nature, performance on the Baltic Sea, 18 February 1998, or Forms of Independence, 1999, were performed with complete cognizance of the video camera and anticipation of a filmic viewer. Both have a hypnotic quality that can only result from the unremitting, inescapable framing of the performer in the context of a contingent sequence: in the first case, the disturbing image of Parr in long wig and flimsy white bridal gown walking across the frozen water towards the receding camera; and in the second example, attempting to tie his shoelaces with one hand. Often the echo of home video production is evoked as Parr attempted to domesticate rather than aestheticise the record of the performance.
Certainly, it is possible to see an entirely different sensibility, if not sensitivity, in Parr’s use of the medium of film, as demonstrated in the 16mm film, Family Under Water, 1978–81, where a series of fragmentary, distorted portraits seamlessly glide together in a fluid sequence. This work is from a period in the late 1970s when Parr began his Self-Portrait Project and took particular interest in editorial control over the filmmaking process. Not unrelated was his renewed interest in drawing. Cloacal Corridor (O vio Prote / O vio Proto / O vio Loto / O Thété) Self-Portrait as a Pair or Self-Portrait as a Pun, is a seminal work from 1983, first exhibited at the Institute of Modern Art in Brisbane in conjunction with a film showing. The four large drawings take Antonin Artaud’s chaotic writings and drawings as a point of departure. Reading in a sequence from left to right, Parr’s gridded self-portrait head is squeezed, skewed and squashed as if by the force of a lumpy peristalsis as it moves through the passage of discarded graphic fragments and gestures.
Any aficionado of 1980s expressionist figuration might locate this work in that decade, although its timeless impact results from the astringent critique of the stylistic options of the period. The parody that motivated so much 1980s art is here turned inside out as the Cartesian grid confronts the self-deprecating option of the comic totem or the bold gesture and obsessive mark. This series of drawings encapsulate the histrionics involved in fabricating the fantasy of the artist. All the options are present and accounted for: the big secret, the big gesture, the big joke, the big dick, the big mark and the big explosion. These drawings also highlight a particular paradox in much of Mike Parr’s work. The more he attempts to dismantle the mechanisms by which style, processes and formal qualities dictate the value of art, the more his art is valued.
(1) From Karl Marx, Wage Labour and Capital, quoted in Helen Molesworth (ed.), Work Ethic, exhibition catalogue, Baltimore Museum of Art, Baltimore, Maryland, 2003, p. 138. (2) Quoted in David Bromfield, Identities: A Critical Study of the Work of Mike Parr 1970–1990, University of Western Australia Press, Perth, 1991, p. 21.
Ross Woodrow is Senior Lecturer in Art Theory at the University of Newcastle, New South Wales
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