When Mike Parr was buried in a steel box underneath a busy Hobart street for three days in June, he had already been on another, related journey into earthy darkness. An inveterate explorer, he’s accustomed to feeling his way forward, darkly – and the results can seriously, wonderfully niggle at viewers. Parr’s long history as an artist is full of upheavals – among them the shocking performances of the 1970s, the move into printmaking at the end of the 1980s and, more recently, the arresting public performance-based works that can’t help but provoke people to think, feel and reflect. The Hobart burial was one of these, even though it attracted the newspaper headline “Nothing to see here”. That, one historian wryly noted, was precisely the point. We had to imagine Parr below, alone with water and no food, and to contemplate the possible meanings of the work, which was billed by its Dark Mofo hosts as memorialising victims of totalitarian violence, in particular the genocidal effects of colonialism in Australia. Parr’s latest piece, Kindness Is So Gangster, (Specified Abstract Expressionism) was begun in 2017, and preceded and nurtured the Hobart work (called Underneath the Bitumen the Artist). Kindness, showing at Anna Schwartz Gallery as part of the Melbourne Festival, is the culmination of last year’s creation of 19 glass heads, and takes in a private performance with Parr drawing on the gallery walls while blindfolded. The show includes the sculptures and drawings, as well as videos of the performance.
Like the drawings, the making of the heads last year also involved a level of sightlessness: Parr spent two days burrowing into boxes packed full of clay. As he gouged into each box, he felt his way around inside, scooping and scratching to create a self-portrait in the negative. He worked quickly, roughly, instinctively, and as soon as one was finished, he dived straight into the next. “It was a very physical task, requiring great concentration,” Parr says. “It was very much like the energy I bring to the performances. I didn’t really stop to wonder about what I’d produced. I just took the feeling of modelling, dragging the clay out and creating this sort of vortex … sort of poking forward and feeling like I’d located the features of the face, but never feeling like that was conclusive; so I’d immediately go on to the next one, hauling the clay out again.” He says it was like being a blind person, and that he shifted all his sensations in the direction of touch. “With negative modelling the first thing that happens is you lose that orientation, so you are really relying on the force of something in your mind. It is very ambiguous in that respect. When I had finished all 19, it was like one continuous process. I felt like I’d worked hour after hour.” Each box was then poured with plaster to make a positive version; moulds were taken of the plaster casts and these were later transferred into glass positives, blowing in superheated glass. It was a drawn-out, difficult process and Parr says the glass sculptures embody an exceptional technical achievement, only made possible by the commitment brought to it by Richard Whiteley and his team in the Glass Department at Australian National University’s School of Art.
It seems astonishing that when Whiteley was having the plaster casts poured, and asked Parr if he could inspect the results, the artist refused. “I didn’t want to do any of that,” Parr says. “I just wanted them to make the moulds and work out the problems of getting them into glass. I never actually saw the sculptures until three months ago when they were glass.” And they were, of course, a complete surprise: he’d made them with his own hands and memory but didn’t know what they looked like.
“Seeing them in glass, I didn’t feel like the authors of these works,” he says. If someone had said they were found objects dug out of a hill, he’d have believed them, such was his sense of separation; they could have been a Neanderthal population. “They have this absolute crudeness, which is distinctive because it is not intentional in any way. I am not trying to make crude images … that is an accident. That is crucial.” The works form part of a much larger, longer endeavour known collectively as the Self-Portrait Project, covering a large swathe of Parr’s career. He says that when he started doing self-portraits more conventionally, they were unsatisfactory. He wanted to ask deeper questions about portraiture. In many ways, this project became a response to photographs of performances he had discarded because they revealed aspects of his behaviour he didn’t want to face. “The other thing is that the early performances were heroic in a naïve way; there was something happening that I didn’t quite understand.” He also realised that “doing a nice drawing”, a likeness, wasn’t going to address those deeper questions about representation, so he started doing other drawings of what he remembered rather than saw. “It formally contradicted the self-portrait because here is this struggling image emerging, this self-representation.” He realised that what he was drawing was really just a small percentage of what was underneath the surface.
This led to the move to printmaking with dry-point etching, where images are scratched into a copper or zinc plate and then put through a press: the resulting image is in reverse. “It is like an involuntary image appears, you don’t fully recognise what you have produced. This is a kind of blind self-portrait. That explains why I became interested in this idea of what isn’t visible.” For the drawing performance for Kindness Is So Gangster, done in the days before the exhibition opening, Parr drew on the walls blindfolded, then indicated randomly where the 19 heads should be placed. Those sculptures have very distinct surfaces, thanks to the superheated glass picking up every fine detail of “all this frenzied scratching and jabbing and blind digging”. “They are constantly refracting the light. I didn’t want the lusciousness of glass: I wanted something that picked up this inarticulate struggle to get the image. The detail is astounding. Glass is translucent, so it is a very ambiguous thing; it is uncanny because you aren’t looking at them but you are looking through them. “At one level the glass is very beautiful; this is a good counterpoint to the brutality of the image-making.” Kindness Is So Gangster (Specified Abstract Expressionism) is at Anna Schwartz Gallery until December 21. The Age is a media partner of The Melbourne Festival.