Buried alive, under a road

Tim Douglas
The Australian, 26 May 2018

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.

Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square.Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow
Kaz­imir Malevich’s Black Square. Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

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.

■ ■ ■

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.

Hobart Town Hall, where Mike Parr will be buried beneath the road
Hobart Town Hall, where Mike Parr will be buried beneath the road

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 abandoned New Norfolk psychiatric hospital where Parr spent 72 hours for Asylum (2016)
The aban­doned New Nor­folk psy­chi­atric hos­pi­tal where Parr spent 72 hours for Asy­lum (2016)

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.”

Empty Ocean, performed on Bruny Island last year
Emp­ty Ocean, per­formed on Bruny Island last year

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.”

Best Man (2006).
Best Man (2006).

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.”

Jackson Pollock the Female (2016).
Jack­son Pol­lock the Female (2016).

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.”

■ ■ ■

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.

Cathartic Action: Social Gestus No. 5 (the ‘Armchop’) 1977
Cathar­tic Action: Social Ges­tus No. 5 (the Arm­chop’) 1977

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.”

Malevich (A Political Arm) 2002
Male­vich (A Polit­i­cal Arm) 2002

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.”

■ ■ ■

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.

Symphonic man drift 17
Sym­phon­ic man drift 17

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.

Mike Parr Self-portrait (2004), detail
Mike Parr Self-por­trait (2004), detail

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.”

■ ■ ■

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.

Fea­tured image: Mike Parr in his Alexan­dria stu­dio in Syd­ney with his most recent work, a series of not yet exhib­it­ed self-por­traits he start­ed in 2016. Pic­ture: Brit­ta Campion.
Arti­cle link: here
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