The Eter­nal Open­ing: Mike Parr

Fiona McGregor
Running Dog

I am fas­ci­nat­ed by dualisms, mir­ror images, blind­ness and invis­i­bil­i­ty, subject/​object rever­sals, the roles of artist and audi­ence and all my work, since my ear­li­est per­for­mances of the 1970s exac­er­bates such ten­sions, as the deep­er struc­ture of both thought and image.’
Mike Parr, (Jan­u­ary 1998)

Enter­ing the space, you see a large rec­tan­gu­lar instal­la­tion ref­er­enc­ing the Anna Schwartz Gallery (ASG) that occu­pied this end of Car­riage­works for years. No roof, three walls, a video play­ing high on one, its sound­track — glass­es chink­ing and peo­ple chat­ting — fill­ing the space. The but­tress­es of the out­er walls are exposed. This white cube with­in a white cube is Built Repli­ca of Anna Schwartz Gallery, Mel­bourne’ (2019). In the nar­row cor­ri­dor formed beyond, is the first of Mike Parr’s per­for­mance series Towards an Ama­zon­ian Black Square’ (2019).

The artist is paint­ing black squares onto the white wall. His eyes are squeezed shut. He is attend­ed by four men. One of them, Glenn Thomp­son, is list­ed as a co-per­former because he is so fre­quent­ly in shot. But Gotaro Uemat­su is the most sig­nif­i­cant oth­er, han­dling the video feed with the deft­ness and sen­si­tiv­i­ty that only a decade of col­lab­o­ra­tion can bring.

The squares are pro­por­tion­ate to how far Parr can reach with his right arm, that is to say about a metre and a half. When I arrive at 4.30, he has done about six. Some­times he mounts a lad­der, moved by Glenn, alter­nat­ing between high and low squares. The brush is tucked beneath his left stump as he places the flat of his right hand on the wall and paus­es to get his bear­ings, head bowed, gri­mac­ing with concentration.

Back in the white cube instal­la­tion, the mon­i­tor is mount­ed so high it’s impos­si­ble to see front on. On it plays doc­u­men­ta­tion of LEFT FIELD (for Robert Hunter)’, a per­for­mance that took place at ASG in Mel­bourne in 2017. In a homage to the Aus­tralian min­i­mal­ist who worked in geo­met­ric white-on-white, Parr paint­ed sec­tions of ASG’s walls white dur­ing the two hour open­ing. When peo­ple arrive for tonight’s open­ing, the sound­track will min­gle with actuality.

It’s a bru­tal­ly sim­ple idea, end­less­ly fold­ing inwards and out­wards.
Rep­e­ti­tion, futil­i­ty, reflec­tion, oblit­er­a­tion. Memory’s era­sure, and per­sis­tence.
The Eter­nal Open­ing also puns on Nietzsche’s Eter­nal Return. But Niet­zsche wasn’t the only one to claim that his­to­ry repeats.

On the oth­er side of the white cube instal­la­tion, two mon­i­tors play a live feed of Mike paint­ing. Above them, Malevich’s Black Square (1913) is invoked, again mount­ed so high you have to crane your neck to read it, the plaque diag­o­nal as though warped by heat.

Smelt Malevich’s black guil­lo­tine into new liq­uid forms of
Per­for­mance art.

Ini­tial­ly, I recoil from the Male­vichi­an square. (Oh no, I don’t under­stand, I dropped out of uni I didn’t go to art school, impos­tor impos­tor!). But in its very blank­ness lies so much. It is the order placed onto chaos, implic­it in Malevich’s ini­tial ren­der­ing in the build up to WW1. Its mute­ness can be read as protest, or com­plic­i­ty. For many, it is the begin­ning of for­mal­ist art’s abne­ga­tion of respon­si­bil­i­ty. And, of course, it is one of Parr’s endur­ing tropes, for all these rea­sons as well as the sim­ple fact that his lin­eage is pre­dom­i­nant­ly Euro­pean. It is, in this con­text, burnt earth: car­bon, car­bon, more and more car­bon, dead­ly when dominant.

Holo­caust trans­lates lit­er­al­ly as burnt earth’.

It is worth not­ing that thir­ty years ago Parr made a col­lab­o­ra­tive work, But Now I Would Lie to Speak as an Artist’ (1989), protest­ing the log­ging of forests near Eden for wood­chips. Much of today’s dis­course around cli­mate change is so pan­icked it for­gets how long envi­ron­men­tal degra­da­tion has been prob­lem­at­ic (some point back cen­turies to the indus­tri­al rev­o­lu­tion, and to coloni­sa­tion; alarms have been sound­ed for decades, but most world lead­ers haven’t lis­tened.) The corol­lary of this is amne­sia around art­works made in response. One of the oth­er artists in But Now I Would Like’ was Janet Lau­rence, whose work with trees most recent­ly fea­tured at the MCA and AGN­SW, and extends back to at least the 1970s. Twelve artists, includ­ing Lau­rence and Parr, knelt in a row and buried their heads in the ground while John Coburn read out a state­ment by Albert Tuck­er. An arrest­ing pho­to of the ges­ture made the cov­er of Artlink. But where­as Lau­rence may be moti­vat­ed most­ly by the feel­ings of trees, Mike is prob­a­bly more moti­vat­ed by his own feel­ings, even if refract­ed through the Reichi­an con­cept of per­son­al psy­chol­o­gy as the por­tal to social psy­chosis, and the fas­cist state.

Mike’s black fin­ger­prints speck­le the wall from where he has touched the squares to assess their perime­ters, and the thick­ness of paint. The wall com­plet­ed, eyes still squeezed shut, brush clamped beneath his stump, he feels his way up to the qua­si-foy­er at the end of the space. On the walls here are mon­i­tors play­ing a live feed, one high, the oth­er at head height.

In the space adja­cent, a table is being laid with glass­es, bot­tles of red, a giant wheel of parme­san and bread­sticks. Almost two hours have passed, and the rare qui­etude of pre-open­ing is break­ing. Mike has always been in the per­for­mance art camp that repu­di­ates the­atre for its rep­re­sen­ta­tion­al­ism. Yet the instal­la­tion is a form of rep­re­sen­ta­tion. And his fum­bling as patrons arrive has a whiff of theatre.

Every­thing has been planned: it is high­ly aes­thet­ic. The char­coal grey smock and black trousers; the choice to leave his eyes uncov­ered so blind­ness is con­veyed not by a cov­er­ing but, con­verse­ly, a rev­e­la­tion of his effort; the way this also empha­sis­es the amount of black paint that has end­ed up on his face, right across his eyes (ouch).

He knows more or less where he is; I sense he has cho­sen to come up this end of the space to greet peo­ple. To remind us he is per­form­ing (in case we thought it was just about the fan­cy cheese and wine). The shy exhi­bi­tion­ist, the gre­gar­i­ous intro­vert. Sor­ry I didn’t say hal­lo, I was run off my feet. It’s moments like this that I feel a surge of warmth, hilar­i­ty even, and Parr does have a great sense of humour, and a feel for the absurd. For all his claims to hate the art world’, it’s a var­ie­gat­ed thing, much of it sup­port­ive and lov­ing of him.

When he stum­bles fur­ther into the space where the vict­uals are laid, he quick­ly retreats. Prangs into a door­way. Reori­ents. Then gropes his way back to the end space.
Parr paint­ed from 3 – 9.30pm, long after the open­ing was over. He had a bit of water, but no break.

• • •

Return­ing to the space a week lat­er, I see the three walls that sur­round the instal­la­tion are cov­ered in this sequence of black squares, one up one down. In the end space, on a white chair, is an emp­ty tin of black paint, the con­gealed brush laid on top. The mon­i­tors that were play­ing a live feed now play trace videos. They have all been reversed, so Mike appears to be paint­ing with his left arm, the entire space fac­ing the oppo­site direc­tion. It is at once serene and disturbing.

Dom­i­nat­ing the sound­tracks are the clack­ing of the lad­der being moved, the swish of the paint brush. The sounds of the artist’s labour, repet­i­tive and banal.

I think of the labyrinth, anoth­er Parr trope, dat­ing back to Father’ (1996). More recent­ly, On Manus Island’ (2016) at Camp­bell­town Arts Cen­tre. Except here, the maze has been bombed, the white cube instal­la­tion its crater, its emp­ty centre.

You have to vis­it the atten­dant instal­la­tion two bays down, and watch the video doc­u­men­ta­tion of BDH (Burn­ing Down the House), the 2016 Bien­nale per­for­mance in which Parr set fire to an 1812 metre grid of his self-por­trait prints, worth approx­i­mate­ly $750,000. The floor to ceil­ing screen makes it an immer­sive delight. Filmed from above, this doc­u­ment shows more than what was appar­ent in real time: a Male­vichi­an square form­ing as the prints burn down to ash, dis­solv­ing the grid.

The scorched earth of min­ing. With­out art, there is no civil­i­sa­tion. The endgame of Parr’s paint­ing out series. An artist in his final years, drilling down to essence. A sort of self-abne­ga­tion, show­ing again Parr’s ambiva­lence about the huge prices his prints fetch in that loath­some art mar­ket, with­out which he would not have the funds to cre­ate (and destroy) these grand, imper­a­tive performances.

For all that these works con­sti­tute a clar­i­on call, they are also sim­ply a pri­vate com­pul­sion. We must keep mak­ing art even if nobody is look­ing. We must keep sound­ing the alarms even if nobody is listening.

Pho­to: Mark Pokorny


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