performance art up close at a distance

barbara campbell: books about mike parr

Mike Parr, Malevich (A Political Arm), performance for as long as possible

Mike Parr, Malevich (A Political Arm), performance for as long as possible

Mike Parr, Malevich (A Political Arm), performance for as long as possible

LOOK AT THESE TWO BOOKS. SAME ARTIST: MIKE PARR. SAME PUBLISHER: SCHWARTZ CITY. SIMILAR TITLES: MIKE PARR PERFORMANCES 1971-2008 (2008) AND THE INFINITY MACHINE: MIKE PARR’S PERFORMANCE ART 1971-2005 (2009). THE FIRST IS COMPILED BY THE ARTIST AND IS VERY MUCH OF THE ORDER OF AN ARTIST’S PROJECT. THE SECOND IS WRITTEN BY EDWARD SCHEER WHO TEACHES IN THEATRE AND PERFORMANCE AT THE UNIVERSITY OF NEW SOUTH WALES. HIS IS AN ACADEMIC’S PROJECT, THAT IS, WE APPROACH PARR’S WORK THROUGH THE INTELLECTUAL FILTER OF THE AUTHOR. BOTH BOOKS ARE LARGE AND RICHLY ILLUSTRATED. IN THESE TIMES, WHEN SO MUCH ON ANY GIVEN SUBJECT CAN BE ACCESSED THROUGH ELECTRONIC MEANS, IT IS SOMETHING OF A PUBLISHING MIRACLE FOR JUST ONE, LET ALONE TWO LARGE MONOGRAPHS ON THE SAME ARTIST TO COME OUT IN QUICK SUCCESSION.

The book is a form that to me inhabits the world of stasis (object) and the world of movement (text). And with these books and this artist, more than usual attention has been given to the experience of the reader who is simultaneously the performer of the object and the audience of the text.

As I mentioned, both books have the same publisher who is also able to handle distribution and has obvious connection to Parr’s dealer, Anna Schwartz. They also share the same editor, the always thorough Linda Michael and the same designer, John Warwicker of tomato, who has applied some stylistic crossovers but recognised the essential differences between the projects.

Parr’s book is a staggering 960 pages, printed on thin, absorbent paper that somehow manages the ink-heavy, often full-bleed illustrations extremely well. Scheer’s book is 200 pages with a high gloss cover and heavy coated stock that gives both images and text a more substantial feel. The closeness of the production team has ensured objects of great quality.

As the titles signify, a long chronological overview is important in both texts. And it’s being applied to a single strand of Parr’s practice: performance, or at least as far as that’s possible when one is dealing with an artist whose media extend to writing, film, video, drawing, photography, print-making, sculpture and installation. By privileging performance, one gets the sense that these other media (and even performance itself) are driven by a greater force, that of time itself.

This is certainly the guiding principle of Scheer’s text which is nothing short of a long essay on time, or more specifically on “duration” which he points out, “implies a specific construction of time.” He goes on to describe a “durational aesthetic” in Parr’s work and observes the changing shape of this aesthetic over what he sees as five distinct (chronological) phases of Parr’s work: the self-aggressive performances; the Black Boxes; the Self-Portrait Project; the Bride performances; and the political works. I found the focus on duration particularly nuanced and sustaining though more convincing in relation to the first and fifth phases, less so in those works dealing with the fixity of the arrested image such as the Black Boxes and the Brides.

Parr’s book is more catalogue raisonné than essay. He sets out to document his entire performance oeuvre. Each performance, including those that were never actualised, is fully catalogued in the back of the book. The front (major) section addresses most but not all of these performances according to photographic documentation and other appropriate forms of evidence, for instance “scripts,” letters to curators and controversial newspaper reviews. Parr has handled the notoriously difficult relationship between original performance and secondary evidence as a challenging opportunity to extend the reach of performance into its equally engaging after-effect.

One example is the treatment of the infamous “armchop” work from 1977, Cathartic Action: Social Gestus No. 5 from Rules and Displacement Activities III. Fourteen double-page spreads are devoted to drawing out the short, sharp blow of the tomahawk that Parr wielded to his meat-filled prosthetic left arm before a shocked audience. The images are frames from the original video footage. The 14 frames therefore represent less than a second in real time, but here we can slow time down or use it like a flip-book to reconstitute the original act. The following pages are occupied by six luscious colour stills taken by John Delacour illustrating the second, often overlooked part of the performance in which members of Parr’s family fit him with a replacement hand-knitted pink woollen prosthetic arm and Parr engages the audience in dialogue about what they’ve just witnessed. The documentation of this work concludes with a written statement by Parr exploring the provocations of the work for himself and his audience.

It’s interesting to compare how the same work is discussed in Scheer’s book. Occurring in the 1970s, all The Rules and Displacement Activities series fall within the first chapter of Scheer’s text. Here the writer introduces the importance to Parr’s work of the psychoanalytic theories of Freud, Jung and Lacan. In the subsection to Chapter 1 titled The Time of Abreaction, the Cathartic Action performance is the primary example for elucidating Freud and Breuer’s work on abreaction and its part in catharsis. Scheer maps the theory onto Parr’s own life experience of how his left arm came to be surgically removed shortly after birth and how this trauma is restaged for an audience. But, as Parr does with the inclusion of the Delacour images and explanatory text, Scheer is careful to devote as much attention to the post-traumatic phase. In keeping with his overarching theme, Scheer expresses it in terms of time: “Abreaction involves a complex movement of time in which there is a climactic cathartic moment followed by an extended period in which the subject’s traumatic episode can be gradually reintegrated into consciousness, the time of healing.”

From the early performances in the 1970s to the more recent, more politically directed works such as Close the Concentration Camps (stitched face) and Kingdom Come and/or Punch Holes in the Body Politic, performance for as long as possible (arm nailed to wall), Mike Parr has expected no less from his audience than he has demanded from himself. In such works, the demands are so high that the audience/artist divide dissolves. Many choose not to make the commitment and for many reasons. Scheer has certainly ventured where others feared to tread and in doing so has given, at least this reader, the critical time and space to reflect on Mike Parr’s work away from the affect-laden closeness of the performance arena.

Mike Parr, Mike Parr: Performances 1971–2008, Schwartz City, Melbourne, 2008, RRP $199.00

Edward Scheer, The Infinity Machine: Mike Parr’s Performance Art 1971-2005, Melbourne, Schwartz City, 2009, RRP $49.95

Both books available through Black Inc, www.blackincbooks.com

RealTime issue #102 April-May 2011 pg. 47

© Barbara Campbell; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

19 April 2011