A shift­ing of the senses

Andrew Stephens
The Age, 5 October
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. 
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