Reviewing a 1971 group show of which the then emerging Australian artist Mike Parr was involved, curator Daniel Thomas remarked – "if you are tired and hungry and going home very late then this exhibition will be too much for you. Be prepared … with food and strength."
While Parr is widely regarded as one of Australia's pre-eminent artists his practice has always been divisive. Emerging from a background of conceptual art in the early 1970s, his interrogatory poems and word works escalated into the provocative performance art for which he is now recognised internationally. Foreign Looking, staged at the National Gallery of Australia between August 12 – November 6 is a survey of sorts, though it resists a conventional chronology. Instead, it works to reveal the dense and delicate connections evident in Parr's experimental practice, spanning performance, film, sculpture, printmaking photography and drawing.
Born with a congenitally malformed arm in Sydney in 1945, Parr grew up in rural Queensland. His mother, Maxa, had trained as an artist but it was not activity of which her husband approved. Her practice was hidden, emerging only when her husband went away. Maxa taught her son to draw a little as a child and he won second place in a school competition for a picture of a bushranger. Years later, Parr and his mother would work together on a series of drawings 48 Portraits (1985-89) after Gerhard Richter. Maxa also appeared in several of her son's performance films, featuring most prominently in Rules and Displacement Activities III (1978 – 83), which examined the role of the family in individual identity. In its dramatic conclusion Parr's mother, father, wife and daughter appear beneath a rock pool that monstrously distorts their features. Family structures and relationships, memory, dream and the tensions between the conscious and unconscious minds suggested by psychoanalytic theory have continually underpinned Parr's work.
As a youth, Parr experimented with poetry, publishing in a number of journals and magazines. Although he grew discontent with the art form, deeming it self-indulgent and romantic, it allowed him to begin arranging his ideas and visual perceptions. Cutting bluntly into stanzas and using rapid meters to push and pull words together, he fashioned sequences of strange, amorphous images. These are the first works of an artist who will relentlessly transgress material constraints and social norms.
After several years' worth of early experiments, Parr moved to Sydney in the late 1960s with his partner, Felizitas. Enrolling at East Sydney Tech he soon dropped out, working a number of odd jobs to support himself. A turning point came in 1970. With artists including Peter Kennedy and Tim Johnson, he established Inhibodress, now recognised as Australia's first artist run initiative. Based in a second story factory space in Charles Street, Woolloomooloo, the gallery was modest but its activities were influential. With Pinocotheca gallery in Melbourne, Inhibodress was largely responsible for introducing conceptual art (idea art or non-object art), performance art and video art to Australian audiences. On an evening one might see Parr set fire to reams of poems, Peter Kennedy coax bizarre sounds from intricate AV assemblages, or Phillippa Cullen merge experimental dance and electronic sound. Still enamoured with the Antipodean figuration of Sid Nolan and local variants of American abstract expressionism, the Australian art world did not always respond favourably to the work produced at Inhibodress. Nonetheless, Inhibodress was a determined endeavour by a group of young artists to operate as part of the international avant-garde.
It was at Inhibodress that Parr's performance practice emerged, and swiftly intensified, originating in an unassuming work called Steps (1971). A sequence of white marks on the gallery stairs led visitors in a deliberate choreography. This gentle act of behaviour modification soon gave way to more physically demanding works including Light a candle. Hold your finger in the flame for as long as possible (1972), in which Parr's initial typewritten instruction was performed and captured at close range on 16mm film. This was not art that luxuriated in the effects of paint or that summoned sunny Australian landscapes. This was new art that took the body as its subject, and that eagerly probed the relationship between word and concept, action and physical response. Hold your finger in a candle flame, with other early works including Hold your breath for as long as possible (1972) signalled the beginning intense of an erratic and often demanding relationship between Parr and his audience. This anxious relationship reached an extreme in the 1977 work Social Gestus No. 5 (the "Armchop") in which the artist re-enacted the trauma of losing his arm by slashing a prosthetic limb from his body filled with minced meat. Unaware that Parr had been born without an arm, many members of the assembled audience were horrified. In a single, strident gesture Parr had collapsed the idea that performance art was theatre.
Parr's performance practice soon gained international attention. He undertook a series of performances in Switzerland in 1973 (that formed the basis of his first experimental film, Rules and Displacement Activities I), was invited to perform at the Paris Biennale in 1977 at the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, and represented Australia at the prestigious Venice Biennale in 1980. But although his reputation was growing, the increasing popularity of performance art caused him to question its centrality to his practice. There was also the problem of earning a living sufficient to support his family. The performance sequence Dream (1978-82) was one in which Parr began retreating from his audience. Employing Lake Burley Griffin as a central motif he became an invisible, nocturnal presence inhabiting the region of lake. He set himself adrift on its waters, traversed its shores and set bright fires on its banks, briefly signalling his presence. On concluding Dream, he made a break with performance that lasted a decade.
It was at this time, in the early 1980s, that Parr's drawing and printmaking practice emerged as both an extension and negation of his performance practice. Largely untaught in the ''academic'' aspects of art-making he began teaching himself how to draw. 26 Untitled Self Portraits (1981-96) includes his earliest efforts. Reflecting his intense engagement with psychoanalytic theory, the shifting collection of likenesses reveals the self as impermanent and unstable. Emerging from above and beneath the paper, the drawings are like unconscious identities floating up towards the surface of skin. The appearance of the portrait in Parr's work formed the conscious beginnings of the Self Portrait Project, the banner under which the vast bulk of the artist's work has since assembled.
In the early 1990s Parr realised that the accumulating portraits were an "expanding alphabet, a dream like text" and a return to performance was necessary in order to "staunch the flow, or haemorrhage, of self-images". On a single evening in 1992 he undertook 17 linked performances, one of which was 100 Breaths, a work in which he successively held 100 self portrait etchings to his face by breath alone. While the first inhalation was deep, the last was shallow, and in between were strange sounds, alternately soft, gargling, dogged, aggrieved, drawn up from the depths of the artist. 100 Breaths was a portrait that exceeded representation rendered in word or image: one that envisaged self as laboured breath, immaterial and expansive.
The piece signalled an emphatic return to performance that Parr now maintains alongside of his drawing, printmaking and sculpture practices. Propelled by intersecting political, psychoanalytic and philosophical motivations, the early 2000s produced performance works including Close the Concentration Camps (2002) in which the artist's face was stitched together – a not so subtle allusion to the lip-sewing undertaken by asylum seekers in Australian detention centres. But as ever, with Parr, the challenging nature of his art is countered by its beautiful aspects, and very often these qualities coalesce within even the most difficult works. In the new installation The montage in space and time (1972-2016) Parr's most self-aggressive and disarmingly poetic performance films are brought into concert. Flicking back and forth over time and projection channels, the circular nature of Parr's work becomes apparent. Visual motifs, family members and ideas recur and are transformed, betraying an ambitious and original practice that continually reflects and enriches itself.
Mike Parr: Foreign Looking opens at the National Gallery of Australia on August 12 and runs until November 6.