Aus­tralia Artist Is Buried Alive to Sym­bol­ize His­toric Cover-Up

Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore
The New York Times, 15 June 2018

HOBART, Aus­tralia — The Aus­tralian per­for­mance artist Mike Parr walked through a cheer­ing crowd on Thurs­day, climbed down a lad­der and dis­ap­peared into a hole cut into the street.

As he set­tled into a 25-square-foot steel box, work­ers sealed it with three inch­es of steam­ing-hot asphalt. With­in hours the road was reopened to traffic.

Mr. Parr had been buried alive.

His per­for­mance, Under­neath the Bitu­men The Artist,” is part of Dark Mofo, an annu­al arts fes­ti­val in Hobart, the cap­i­tal of Tas­ma­nia. Mr. Parr will remain under­ground for 72 hours, and if all goes accord­ing to plan he will emerge on Sun­day night.

Mr. Parr, 73, is no stranger to extreme acts. He has sewn his lips togeth­er to high­light Australia’s treat­ment of asy­lum seek­ers, nailed his arm to a wall and spent 10 days in a glass cage with only water for sustenance.

Cred­it Anna Maria Antoinette D’Ad­dario for The New York TimesIf you’re going to start con­sult­ing with peo­ple in order to do an art­work, how does that end?” Mr. Parr asked this month from his Syd­ney stu­dio, shrug­ging off the sug­ges­tion that he owed it to Abo­rig­i­nal Aus­tralians to con­sult them on his performance. 

This week’s per­for­mance also car­ries a polit­i­cal mes­sage, hon­or­ing the hard­ships of the ear­ly con­victs brought to Tas­ma­nia and the Indige­nous peo­ple slaugh­tered here. It sym­bol­izes, too, the bury­ing of Abo­rig­i­nal his­to­ry, par­tic­u­lar­ly the Black War, a 19th-cen­tu­ry con­flict fought between British set­tlers and Indige­nous Tas­ma­ni­ans, who were vir­tu­al­ly wiped out.

The stunt has stirred debate, but not the expect­ed one. The island’s Abo­rig­i­nal res­i­dents are divid­ed on whether a white artist, like Mr. Parr, has the right to co-opt Abo­rig­i­nal his­to­ry and tell their stories.

Michael Mansell, 67, a Tas­man­ian Abo­rig­i­nal activist, came with his daugh­ter and grand­daugh­ter to see Mr. Parr being buried and lend his support.

For 200 years the major­i­ty of the pop­u­la­tion buried the truth,” Mr. Mansell said. This man is only being buried for three days.”

We sup­port this bloke,” he said of Mr. Parr, call­ing him a coura­geous man.”

But oth­ers were not as encouraging.

Mr. Parr and his wife, Felizita, moments before his descent. Cred­it Anna Maria Antoinette D’Ad­dario for The New York Times

Heather Sculthor­pe, chief exec­u­tive of the Tas­man­ian Abo­rig­i­nal Cen­ter, called the work an insult.”

The idea of our Abo­rig­i­nal his­to­ry being hid­den from most of Tas­ma­nia is a valid point,” she said. The most effec­tive way of bring­ing it out is not climb­ing under the road. It doesn’t do any­thing to pro­mote under­stand­ing of Abo­rig­i­nal history.”

Fur­ther­more, she said, Mr. Parr did not con­sult with Abo­rig­i­nal Tas­ma­ni­ans about the per­for­mance. It’s when peo­ple feel used as objects and not part of the ven­ture that peo­ple get annoyed — as in this case,” she said. No attempt was made to dis­cuss it.”

Mr. Parr said last week in an inter­view at his stu­dio that he could not be an inde­pen­dent artist if he need­ed to always ask per­mis­sion for his work.

If you’re going to start con­sult­ing with peo­ple in order to do an art­work, how does that end?” he asked. That’s not respon­si­ble polit­i­cal art. It’s pop­ulist. You’re try­ing to be all things for all people.”

Mr. Parr’s said his van­ish­ing act was designed to tap into our deep­est anx­i­eties. Inspired by Kaz­imir Malevich’s paint­ing Black Square,” the per­for­mance, Mr. Parr said, was about the null of the image.”

On Thurs­day night, a pal­pa­ble ten­sion filled the crowd of more than 3,000 peo­ple. I feel sick,” whis­pered one man as Mr. Parr pre­pared to be entombed. I won­der what insur­ance com­pa­ny he’s with,” anoth­er joked nervously.

Inside the box, which Leigh Carmichael, Dark Mofo’s cre­ative direc­tor, called a tor­ture pen,” Mr. Parr has a bed, waste buck­et, sketch pad, pen­cils and a copy of The Fatal Shore,” a his­to­ry of Australia.

Fresh air is being pumped in from the sur­face, and a micro­phone in the box allows Mr. Parr’s team to track his breathing.

Mr. Parr’s bur­ial is intend­ed to sym­bol­ize the bury­ing of Abo­rig­i­nal his­to­ry in Tas­ma­nia. Cred­it Rémi Chauvin/​Dark Mofo

This is not a mag­ic trick,” said the work’s cura­tor, Jar­rod Rawl­ins. There is no trap door ready for him to slide out when he’d had enough.”

With next to no mar­ket­ing and no sign on the site, the road was reopened to traf­fic with­in hours of the bur­ial. Many will dri­ve along Mac­quar­ie Street past Hobart’s colo­nial-era Town Hall, obliv­i­ous to the fact that Mr. Parr is interred alive beneath them.

Under­neath the Bitu­men,” an Aus­tralian term for asphalt, was pri­mar­i­ly fund­ed by David Walsh, the mil­lion­aire founder of Hobart’s avant-garde Muse­um of Old and New Art. The arts orga­ni­za­tion Detached also contributed.

When Mr. Parr is exhumed on Sun­day evening, his steel prison will be filled with con­crete and the road resealed.

Every­one goes back to dri­ving in obliv­ion while talk­ing on their iPhones, and under­neath the bitu­men there’s this block,” Mr. Parr said Wednes­day, stand­ing on the road­side before his burial.

And if he doesn’t make it out? I haven’t thought of that,” he said with a laugh. No, no, no, I’m com­ing out def­i­nite­ly. I have all sorts of per­for­mance plans.”

Fea­tured image: Con­struc­tion work­ers prepar­ing to seal a steel box in which the artist Mike Parr was buried alive in Hobart, Tas­ma­nia. Cred­it Anna Maria Antoinette D’Ad­dario for The New York Times.
Arti­cle link: here
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