For bodies at risk

Edward Scheer: Mike Parr, performance artist

Mike Parr, Daydream Island

Mike Parr, Daydream Island

Mike Parr, Daydream Island

“It is crucial…in advancing art’s political agency, to identify and make visible—and open to discussion—the forces in play…” Dean Kenning and Margareta Stern, ‘Which side is art on?’ Art Monthly, Sept 2013.

A performance by Mike Parr is always an event for the art world, ironically perhaps given his well known antipathy to art’s rituals, its “alcoholic” culture, its “window dressing” as he calls it, the attractive display while the real business grinds on behind the scenes. His performance artworks, in their public manifestations (there are also now a number of significant closed performances made for camera), are also rituals of a kind, for the artist, and for a certain public. I form part of that public but have also been studying these works and writing about them for almost 20 years (since 1996). In this time, the artist and myself have become occasional collaborators, passionate interlocutors and friends. So if I have come to lack objective distance in the case of Mike Parr perhaps I can make up for it in insider knowledge. On the other hand, his kind of performance art plays on this very border of intimacy and public imagery so in a sense I am not in a unique position at all.

Daydream Island is the name of a savagely ironic piece of what Parr calls ‘theatre’ and while it actually felt like theatre for much of the time—we spectators were sitting, intent on the action, observing passively from our seats in the auditorium—it wouldn’t be the sort of thing students at NIDA are learning much about. On the contrary, where the most complex acting is simulation, Daydream Island featured only the actions of participants (“non-matrixed” in the critical language) carrying out various real tasks. I am used to seeing Mike’s wife Felizitas at these events and admiring her sangfroid as her partner’s body undergoes various acts of violence. Acts which are measured but no less real. This time I couldn’t see her and asked John Loane, sitting adjacent, where she was. He pointed to the stage area where she was engaged in sewing tiny toys and monsters onto her husband’s face, eliciting grunts of pain when she went too deep with the needle.

Two videographers circled them relaying close-up visuals to three large HD screens. The lighting was altered awkwardly, clumsily by manually inserting coloured gels over one of the spots as if to say, this is ‘theatre.’ Lisa Corsi stage-managed the event and would interrupt the action when a ‘scene’ had been completed for example when Felizitas had completed, the sewing of objects. While the ‘scene’ changed Mike sat in his chair on the stage unrecognisable behind a mask of fishing line and monstrous children’s toys. Felizitas Parr gave way to Linda Jefferyes, a visual artist, and took her seat downstage with her back to the audience like the other participants. Black monochromes were fixed stiffly to their backs (part dada gesture, part Parr’s typical mobilising of the minimalist image). The sewing became face painting as at a children’s party but instead of Spiderman or a princess, Parr’s face was camouflaged. When this was complete he lay prostrate, subjectilian, on the floor and a Pollock style drip painting was enacted on his face. At the climax of this scene a battery-powered toy pig was let loose on the stage space waddling around the inert form of Parr and grunting. At the close, Corsi read a statement which quoted Prime Minister Abbott’s recent remarks describing any linkage of climate change and increased bushfire activity in Australia as “hogwash” and asked the audience to return to wherever they had come from.

Like Parr’s other performances of the past decade, this intertwining of delicately elaborated sado-masochistic action and imagery with overt political statement is a clear vernacular. (While it may be tempting to observe that it is an aesthetic vernacular that has found its essential theme in the ghastly asylum seeker politics of our time, it is also true that Parr has worked this seam for over 40 years, but I will remain with the most recent work here. For anyone interested, the performances of the first decade post 9/11 have been covered in my book The Infinity Machine, Schwartz City Press 2010.) But it’s different in a crucial respect too. The earlier works were all durational, that’s to say they were elaborated over an extended measure of time, 24 hours or more, while Daydream Island was just on 80 minutes, the length of a Williamson play. This was a deliberate structure imposed on the work but one which I want to question.

I wrote to Parr after the event to point out the following:

“The piece (…) left those present with a mark, a tiny wound, to work at and re-work… It also raised some issues for me in its theatrical nature, specifically its limited duration. In my view this tends to shut things down in the manner of a theatre piece rather than open things up, which your durational works do, in allowing a wound its own time to develop and the viewers their own time to experience and to work through. I wonder if the structure of the piece might tend to suture over the wound…”

The discourse of wounding is, of course, an important currency for performance art since so much of this form engages directly the artist’s body by placing it at risk or subjecting the body to interventions of different kinds. The language of the wound also explains the peculiar affective quality, its sometimes repulsive valency as well as its ethical and aesthetic power, literally aesthetic in its capacity to forcefully engage the senses of a spectator.

Parr responded in part with a version of the theatre metaphor:

“…theatre is a kind of scab so this piece was about opening up a wound and closing it down at the same time….Burying it in a way…that’s why I decided we should perform the piece with our backs to the audience and with the monochromes attached to the backs of my crew so that Modernist patches were created to block vanishing points…a miscellany of negations of drafted theatrical space and the fixed positioning of the audience…”

The embodied vanishing point is a concern of many of Parr’s works as it deals with the art historical discipline of drawing in perspective while also alluding to a certain disciplinary structure on the self, the way we are taught to view art and by extension the world around us. By blocking it he resists this kind of discipline and the viewer is forced to find another way into the image. I guess this is art-speak for trying to get people to look for themselves…Parr’s response also reconnected the shorter form of the work to the issue he was trying to represent:

“…I felt that this structure of theatrical convolution was exactly like our treatment of the wandering arrivals to our northern shores…wounds that are constantly opened and closed… boats turned back and people left adrift…the collusive, muffled reportage. I’m thinking now about theatre space, theatre conventions and wondering if I can condense and invert my understanding of ‘theatre’ to a further extremity. Amputating duration in this way was a fierce hit for me.”

The telescoping of ‘wandering arrivals’ and their grisly fate in our camps into a form of national theatre seems just right, an entirely accurate observation, but this still does not address the issue of the recurrence of the experience Parr is trying to capture in this work, the eternal return of asylum seekers and of the carefully administered suffering our representatives continue to inflict on our behalf, in our name, whether we like it or not. To represent this accurately and truthfully which we surely expect our artists to do, the work must forcefully engage these tropes, these experiences. For me the durational form Parr adopted in previous works was the more adequate vehicle, but we will continue to debate this question.

For now, after the recent Biennale brouhaha, the broader question of the proper role artists can play in this scenario is still pertinent and very fresh. What valid function can art have in this context given that intervention at best provokes a debate about—and possibly a crisis for—arts funding and not ultimately a debate about the policy of indefinite detention itself. What can art ever do in the face of the major party/neoliberal consensus about the threat posed to the concept of the ‘public’ by stateless individuals?

Of itself, of course it cannot affect the policy. At best art can recompose the terms of the debate and the relations between the actants, whose identities seem so fixed, like a well-made play: the evil politicians, the hapless asylum seekers, the concerned citizens etc. In Parr’s ‘theatre’ these entities, indeed all entities, become unrecognisable. Painted over. Subjectilian (a surface to be painted on). What takes their place is the play of forces, the flux of urges and drives. The cruelty it stages and re-performs is ours, we share in it. We love it. After all we pay to see it. Of course we are ultimately hurting ourselves. The wound we create for others, for us, is an elaborate durational artwork of its own. A national treasure like Blue Poles. As Mike Parr observes of the work: “a wound is on display but it is being hoarded.” Maybe the bitter message of Daydream Island is that enlightened self-interest is the only way out of this labyrinth.

Mike Parr, Daydream Island, performera Mike Parr, Felizitas Parr, make-up Linda Jefferyes, Project Manager Lisa Corsi; Performance Space, 30 Ways with Time and Space, Carriageworks, Sydney, 30 Nov, 2013

RealTime issue #120 April-May 2014 pg. 5

© Edward Scheer; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

22 April 2014