Mike Parr Looks Foreign at National Gallery of Australia

From the top of Mount 2016 the distant horizon of the 1970s almost fades from view. But not quite. This Mike Parr survey exhibition brings it all flooding back.

The only difference is that you don’t have to spend mind-numbing hours in dimly-lit warehouses gazing at grainy black and white videos or, worse still, having to sit through a performance scripted by a deluded dramaturge.

In Foreign Looking, time is compacted – the past blends seamlessly into the present and the full menu of this remarkable artist’s work laid out in a neat order. To begin, it helps to remember that the things which mattered terribly back then, such as the subjugation of art by the forces of corporate darkness and an irrepressible itch to redefine art, played on the minds of a generation of artists. The response was revolution that saw art pronounced as dead and the art museum fit for burning.

And if museums couldn’t literally be reduced to smouldering embers then they could be challenged from within and out by forms of art that couldn’t be hung on a wall or stood on a plinth. One of the exhibition catalogue contributors, Donald Brook, provides a sparkling account of the turbulent later ‘60s – early ‘70s period in which the rickety scaffold (as he calls it) of the façade that painting clung to was being dismantled by alternative ideas such as art being formless or limitless or inclusive of audience participation.

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Installation view of Mike Parr: Foreign Looking at the National Gallery of Australia. Mike Parr, Bronze liars (minus 1 to minus 16) 1996, Sydney, bronze and beeswax sculptures. Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, purchased 1996

Central to the radical thinking of these times, and to Parr’s emerging practice, was the idea that perhaps anything could be art. And if such is the case how does one distinguish, as Brook asks, art from everything else? Conventionally it was something called ‘aesthetic value’ or, as the 20th century wore on, something essential like expression of some kind of interiority.

Initially, Parr pushed the boundaries of Conceptual Art through text-based gestures that emphatically relocated viewing and response of the ‘art work’ within the realms of logic and language. A good example is Parr’s Word Situations produced in the 1970s in box files format. The boxes contained single sheets on which a single word ‘did things’ like performing fleas within the confines of the sheet. Being hand-typed onto soft paper, each sheet incorporated the tactile impress of the key strokes. ‘Blind’ typing (without the carbon ribbon) created braille-like passages of tantalisingly, almost readable words and sentences.

The irony was obvious – text being mediated by aesthetic levers while at the same time perverting the normal function of words to create accessible meaning. Even given the passage of time these almost insubstantial sheets of paper speak with an insistent voice.

This line of enquiry in Parr’s formative work signposts the radical shift that was taking place in his thinking. At a single (key) stroke he vaulted beyond being yet another beat poet to becoming a maker of ‘concrete poetry’ in which everything from words to the materials used to give them visual form, and the manner in which the text is composed within the total ‘work’, matters.

mike-parr-looking-foreign-national-gallery-adelaide-review-4Mike Parr, The Sickness Unto Death 2010–2015, Sydney, colour photographs. Private Collection Performer: Mike Parr, photographer: Paul Green, face sewing: Garry Manson; Make-up artist: Linda Jeffreyes; Madame Matisse’s hat: Clare Milledge

Along the way, Parr began (in the early 70s) to explore the possibilities of the aphorism as a way of banging di erent truths or truisms together, as in a haiku, or an Allen Ginsberg bop-beat poem. Alex Selenitsch’s catalogue essay ‘TYPEWRITER+’ which surveys this aspect of Parr’s development is an excellent starting point for anyone trying to join up the dots that compose Parr’s multilayered creative journey. Allied to this is fellow catalogue contributor Sarah Rice’s almost impossible quest for meaning in the labyrinth of the Parr Archive – shelf upon shelf filled with archive boxes containing almost every piece of paper the artist touched or created in the past 45 years.

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Rice’s experience to date has been characterised by a ‘sickening excess’ akin to Sartrean Existentialism – “the rationalist’s sickness in the face of the conceptual indigestibility of the world”. But the typographical verve of the essay’s layout captures the spirit of Parr’s nimble thinking about the zones between language and form as spaces in which logical thinking can be held at bay and the imagination take flight. From such experiments emerged ‘text-as-instruction’ such as ‘light a match. Hold your finger in the flame for a long as possible.’ In performing such typewritten instructions, Parr “jumps”, as Selenitsch says, “from signifier to signified”.

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Installation view of Mike Parr: Foreign Looking at the National Gallery of Australia. Mike Parr, Double-sided drawing boards 2012–2015, Sydney, drawings in mixed media. Collection of Megan Bartlett, Sydney

Without recognising the imperative of this moment for Parr it may be impossible to come to terms with what is to follow, particularly the artist’s well-known public performances which embody extremes of physical trauma. It would be easy to dismiss Parr’s more confronting performances (such as sewing his lips shut) which claim to draw attention to socio-political issues such as the treatment of refugees, as personal aggrandisement or delusional behaviour.

But seen within the ontology of his studio practice to date such acts, despite ongoing debate about their efficacy, make sense. They are also responsible for some powerful imagery about things that matter which may endure long after the culture wars of the recent past, with their neatly catalogued archives, have faded over the horizon.

Mike Parr: Foreign Looking
National Gallery of Australia
Until November 6
nga.gov.au

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