The godfather of Australian performance art is celebrated at the National Gallery of Australia with a survey of provocative and political work
One might accurately refer to Mike Parr as the godfather of Australian performance art because of his age and credentials. One might also be alluding to his willingness to decapitate a live animal to send a message.
In the NGA’s current survey exhibition, visitors can watch videos of the artist sacrificing said animal (a chicken) and then covering himself in its blood and feathers. You can also watch him over-painting another large canvas with red paint – for two-and-a-half hours; watch him drink and then violently vomit-up milk; or see him burn his own finger by holding it over a flame. For his opening night performance, Parr donned a white bride’s dress and had his nails and make-up done in front of attendees, before allowing a nurse to extract several vials of blood which the make-up artist splattered on him, Jackson Pollock style, while he lay on the gallery floor in front of the artist’s iconic abstract expressionist painting ‘Blue Poles’.
A casual observer, after a cursory glance at the proceedings, might well dismiss this as a collection of the worst clichés of performance art.
But it would be a mistake to pigeonhole Parr – and an even bigger one to dismiss him. If Foreign Looking reveals anything in its aggregation of prints, performance, photography and installation, it’s that Parr is one of Australia’s most complex and consistently transgressive artists – precisely because for him, transgression is the only way to cut through the white noise of everyday life and get straight into the hearts and mind of his audience.
Transgression is also a fundamental part of Parr’s art practice. Co-curator Elspeth Pitt says, “He’s always trying to push – whether it’s against family structures, politics, language – everything; he’s trying to make something new. He’s disruptive. It can be unsettling – but also fascinating, and liberating.”
“It’s not always comfortable,” Pitt concedes of the exhibition experience. “The things he’s doing are often so shocking that you feel like you’re almost doing them yourself. That’s quite incredible.”
Now in his fifth decade of practice, and aged 71, Parr continues to be prolific and provocative. At this year’s Biennale of Sydney he pinned down a grid of his print works in the forecourt of Carriageworks in Eveleigh, before setting fire to them and watching them burn in front of the assembled audience (to the tune of ‘Burning Down the House’); a video of the work, featured in Foreign Looking, is accompanied by an artist statement entirely comprised of quotes and statistics around climate change.
In a more personal work at at this year’s Dark Mofo festival in Hobart, Parr created an elaborate installation in the abandoned Willow Court asylum, within which he staged a 72-hour endurance work for which he drew continuously; it was a tribute to his brother Tim, whose ongoing mental health issues contributed to his death in 2009.
“Mike talks about his art practice taking place in these ‘limit states’ or extremes,” says Pitt. “In the first room of this exhibition you’ve got this frenetic, challenging performance work – and then you’ve got these still, silent portraits of his coats. And he operates between, and within, those two extreme states.”