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When artist Kazimir Malevich died in 1935, his cremated remains were placed in a box and buried beneath the symbol for which he was best known: a black square. The Russian painter’s radical eponymous work — made in 1915 to represent the so-called zero point of art and heralding the dawn of modernism — had been displayed on a wall above his deathbed and on flags brandished by mourners at his gravesite.
Malevich, however, had requested a simpler fate in death: that his ashes be scattered under an oak tree near the town of Nemchinovka, west of Moscow. His wish was later fulfilled, but the town would be no place of eternal rest. As World War II spread across Europe, the tree was destroyed and its accompanying memorial obliterated. In the decades that followed, the site was used as farmland until 2013, when the Russian government approved plans to develop it as a housing estate.
Almost a century after Malevich’s Black Square gripped the public imagination as an antidote to the Western artistic tradition against the backdrop of a world in turmoil, the memory of one of the 20th century’s most important painters was paved over, interred beneath a block of shiny, high-density apartments on the outskirts of the Russian capital.
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A roadworker leans lazily on a shovel, watching Mike Parr as the artist scans a leafy thoroughfare in Sydney’s inner city. Parr’s gaze falls on a nondescript patch of bitumen, and he smiles as if he has seen an old friend. “This is where I got the idea,” he says. “I thought immediately of Malevich.”
The 72-year-old doyen of Australian performance art has, during the course of his career, variously sewn together his facial features, stuck drawing pins in his body, doused himself in litres of his own blood and set fire to hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of self-portraits. For 50 years, his art has existed at the furthest edges of the extreme. But Parr’s latest performance is radical, even by his standards: next month, he will spend 72 hours buried alive in a steel box, without food, a few metres beneath one of the busiest roads in Hobart.
Underneath the Bitumen the Artist Mike Parr, arguably the most audacious artwork performed in Australia, is being staged as part of Dark Mofo, the Museum of Old and New Art’s annual winter arts festival, with the assistance of arts organisation Detached. It involves Hobart City Council excavating a section of Macquarie Street, outside the town hall, and dropping a steel box below the surface. Parr will enter the box on Thursday, when the roof will be fixed, the hole backfilled and the road resurfaced for traffic. He will emerge on Sunday, when the box will be filled with steel and cement and the road relaid.
The box — a 4.5m x 1.7m x 2.2m mini-shipping container — has been made specially by the festival (a company originally appointed to create the box pulled out of the project once it discovered what it was being used for, says Parr). The space will be empty but for a mattress on the floor, a light and a bucket.
Parr will take with him his drawing tools and a copy of Robert Hughes’s epic history of Australia’s colonisation, The Fatal Shore. Air will be piped into the box (“I will insist this is handled appropriately. The prospect of oxygen deprivation doesn’t appeal to me”), he will have an emergency button (not his idea), and he expects to be able to hear the traffic flowing above during his interment (“it might be a bit of a nightmare, actually”).
The work, which was given the green light only a fortnight ago, is the third and final in a series of annual performance works Parr has undertaken for Dark Mofo. Last year’s Empty Ocean featured a pre-dawn choreographed paean to ageing on Bruny Island by 70 elderly performers; in 2016, the artist entered a “mind-altered state” for Asylum, for which he spent 72 hours in an abandoned psychiatric hospital in New Norfolk as a tribute to his brother, who suffered from mental illness.
Underneath the Bitumen, however, speaks to something within Parr himself: to a deeply felt political sensibility and a personal connection with Malevich and the Kafkaesque philosophies that drove his work.
Malevich, who founded and all but singularly occupied the geometric supremacist movement, completed the first of four variations on his Black Square painting in 1915. The multi-layered black-on-white work was first shown at the Last Futurist Exhibition 0, 10 in St Petersburg. It is widely regarded as a seminal work of abstract art; a potent symbol of revolution, and of possibility, at a time of global tumult.
“I transformed myself in the zero of form,” said Malevich of the work, “and emerged from nothing to creation.”
Says Parr: “I have always been interested in Malevich but particularly in the notion of zero, and the zero point. The Black Square was a high point of iconoclasm that was meant to terminate the Western pictorial tradition.
“He had this extraordinary admission that the secret of coups d’etat and the reconstruction of people’s lives lies buried in the painting. Yes, the Black Square was intended to nullify Western art, but it also was meant as a rejection of, in his language, bourgeois values and middle-class tastes.”
The best known of the paintings is held at Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery and has been studied exhaustively; in 2015, conservators used X‑rays to discovered a riot of supremacist colour lying beneath its tar-like layers of black.
“I found myself staring at the bitumen and thinking of the Black Square,” says Parr. “Bitumen is really the most abstract and totalising surface that modernism has produced. It’s the very essence of the modernist state in a dappled sense. It’s the control of the state imposed on us increasingly and the psychological state of individualism in our culture.”
For the Sydney artist, the Black Square and Beneath the Bitumeninvoke totalitarianism: Stalinism, Nazism and the still problematic notion in Australia, and in Tasmania especially, of colonial genocide. Indeed, Beneath the Bitumen may be seen as a memorial to the victims of state-sanctioned violence and, pointedly, a monument to the victims of horrors perpetrated against Aborigines in the 19th century.
“Australia’s black war in Tasmania is not a story that is not well known but is ever present just beneath the surface,” Dark Mofo creative director Leigh Carmichael says. “The fact that Mike’s work will happen underground, just out of sight, is clearly no coincidence.”
Tasmania, it seems, is the natural home for Parr’s late-career suite of performances, a series his gallerist Anna Schwartz describes as “monumental”. Parr sees parallels between Tasmania’s compromised history — passages about which are referenced heavily in Hughes’s book, which Parr plans to read aloud during his interment — and the acceptance there of his work.
“I think those ideas are really condensed in Tasmania because it is the site of 19th-century British imperial totalitarianism,” he says. “These ideas cut to the bone there, and the audiences are very alert.”
The success of Hobart’s Museum of Old and New Art, of which Dark Mofo is an offshoot, has helped in no small way to create the state’s reputation as a home for the avant-garde. (Last year’s epic blood-soaked performance by Austrian artist Hermann Nitsch and a deceased bovine is instructive).
Parr raises his finger and traces in the air an imaginary outline of his steel box. “Maybe that’s why I love Tasmania so much. I don’t think you’d get away with this anywhere else.”
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Parr was born in rural Queensland in 1945, the son of a war veteran father and an artist mother. He studied briefly at the National Art School before founding Australia’s first artist-run collective, Inhibodress, in 1970 with Peter Kennedy. He has swung for periods — decades, in some cases — between the subsets of drawing, sculpture and poetry. But performance, always at the limits of physical or mental endurance, has been his primary driver.
In the late 60s, Parr began making his so-called psychotic operations — recorded performance pieces in which he attacked his body — before embarking on a period of work that included sewing dead fish to himself, letting a dog drink his blood and branding the word “artist” into his skin. His first live performance work was in 1972 — an interpretation of an artwork called Let a friend bite into your shoulder until blood appears (it was exactly what it says on the tin) — but it wasn’t until 1977’s Armchop that Parr entered the zeitgeist. The artist, who was born with a deformed left arm, made a prosthetic limb and filled it with blood and mincemeat ahead of a lecture he was due to give in Sydney. During the talk, Parr — without warning — pulled out a hatchet and, to the horror of an audience mostly unaware of his disability, began hacking at the offending limb.
In 1981 he gave up live art and threw himself into printmaking and drawing, only to emerge a decade later hungry for more performance. In 2002, he made Water from the Mouth, where he sat, live on webcam, for 10 days in a glass cage at Sydney’s Artspace with only water to keep him alive. In the same year he made A Stitch in Time, wherein his face and lips were sewn together in response to Australia’s immigration policy. Then there was the work named for the artist he so admires: for Malevich (A Political Arm), Parr spent 30 hours blindfolded, with his right arm nailed to a wall.
Parr is a deep-thinking intellectual, prone in conversation to taking long, philosophical detours. He has a grandfatherly quality about him, a softness that belies the extreme nature of his work. It raises two common questions: how and why does he put himself through such torture?
“I always say the same thing in answer to that: these works enable me to think. I need it. I see things more clearly at the point of the extreme,” says Parr.
“I am very interested in setting up situations that question the culture but also my own motivations. Art for me is much more than just making a living or becoming proficient at making nice pictures. It is a primary form of communication.”
Parr gestures through to his working studio. A series of 12 monochrome drypoint pictures hang on a huge wall before him. “These might be the last self-portraits I ever do,” he says. “I am giving up. Starting again.” The zero point. “Maybe I’ll take up painting in my old age.”
Does the forthcoming piece in Hobart signal the end of his performance career? The health risks are real and surely, at 72, he could be forgiven for slowing down.
“Every performance is my last,” Parr says, smiling, “until the next one.”
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Parr remains a towering figure in the movement taken to the mainstream by his friend and contemporary Marina Abramovic, and his work is housed in collections — public and private — around the globe. But Australia has always had an awkward relationship with performance art, its galleries confounded by how to display it. Parr has seen the form and perceptions of it change in his 50 years of practice. But do we really get it yet here?
“That is a difficult question. I don’t think the form is maligned here,” he says. “(The response to it) has settled at the edges in a place of continuous ambiguity. I am reading some proofs for a new Australian book, and the working title is What is Performance Art? I’ve been doing this for 50 years and now we’re asking: what is it?
“I could never imagine (anyone in Europe) exposing that insecurity or doubt. This underscores for me the problem of provincialism: it comes in and out of focus. It never occurs to us in Australia that (these perceptions) might still be disfigured by problems of isolation.”
Parr has spent the year in Berlin; he returned to Australia only last week when the Dark Mofo project was approved. One of the reasons he was there was to find a permanent home for his back catalogue. He has his heart set on the Morra Foundation in Naples.
“I saw something extraordinarily affirmative there and I knew I was in the right place,” he says. “They were able to deal with performance records in the most extraordinary way. It was a transcendent art experience. I am planning on donating work there.”
Parr stresses he is not turning his back on Australia: “All my works are duplicatable. But the Morra offers an exemplary siting for my work; there is no opportunity of that here.
“I want to be in the company of those other artists. I want to be part of the right tribe. Otherwise my work could end up just a cluttered archive in the basement of the National Gallery.”
Parr turns his attention back to Hobart. He has begun fasting and increasing his meditation in a process of slowing himself, mind and body.
“I am starting to pull back from society. I’ll become isolated and try to visualise what it’s going to be like, to find areas of anxiety where I might panic,” says Parr. “I feel very apprehensive. But, then, if I didn’t feel apprehensive what would be the point of it?
“That is the difference between theatre and performance art: you rehearse theatre. Everything is knowable and then you add style. Performance art is the very opposite of that. The good pieces condense that feeling of anxiety and uncertainty. That’s when you know you’re on to a good thing.”
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The art world confounds Parr. He doesn’t fully comprehend its couture-clad coteries of collectors and the ravenous appetite for a canvas adorned with a big name. “Art has become about hedge funds,” Parr says. “It’s bizarre. There is all this talk of the art economy, but actually art is meant to interrupt all that.”
In New York last week, auction house Christie’s played host to a high-stakes bidding war. The prize? Malevich’s 1916 painting Suprematist Composition. In a record for the Russian avant-garde artist, the work sold for a staggering $US85.8 million ($113m).
What, one wonders, might the anarchic Bolshevik have thought of that? Had he a grave, he might well have rolled in it.
“Trying desperately to liberate art from the ballast of the representational world, I sought refuge in the form of the square,” Malevich said when asked to reflect on the political climate that gave birth to his most famous painting.
A century later, at the far end of a very different world, an Australian artist will take refuge in his own square as testament to, and in memory of, the history that has come between. Underground and out of sight, a vision will be realised; on the surface, the world will continue its unrelenting march towards tomorrow.
Dark Mofo opens in Hobart on Friday. Underneath the Bitumen the Artist Mike Parr, Macquarie Street, Hobart, June 14 – 17.