MoFo & Mike Parr

Dark Mofo, MONA’s [museum of new and old art] winter festival, delves into centuries-old winter solstice rituals, exploring the links between ancient and contemporary mythology, humans and nature, religious and secular traditions, darkness and light, and birth, death and renewal. 

I went to this festival with Anita a few days ago, and the peak experience for us was the work of one particular artist, Mike Parr, a famous Australian “extreme performance” artist. His contribution to MoFo was to be buried beneath Macquarie Street, the main street of Hobart, in a shipping container, for three days. So it was a performance piece in which there is nothing to see (but you know it is “there”). 

Afterwards we joined a large group to go hear the artist speak of his artwork and his experience as “disappeared”.

Parr is a 73 year-old man with, as he says, a disability. His left arm is missing below the elbow. He has turned this disability into an asset for some of his previous artworks. I’ll leave it to your imagination but remember he is an extreme performance artist. As well as being an artist, Parr is also a poet! Now, I don’t mean he writes poetry as a craft. I mean something much more than that. Parr’s utterances were all spontaneously poetic. No matter what the man said, no matter what we were talking about, his speech was a stream of poetry. He couldn’t help himself. Tropes flowed off his tongue. Furthermore his being  was saturated in the art world. I thought I knew a little about Impressionist art but when he spoke I realized I knew practically nothing. He viewed Impressionist art through the perspective of his performance art and I suddenly saw how Monet’s work, for example, expressed a complete rupture with past Traditional art. Monet can be considered the first performance artist in the way he placed paint on the canvas. For good measure Parr folded into the discussion some references to modern art via Mondrian and Malevich. He was not speaking as an expert. Speaking in the most ordinary way, as a “true blue Aussie,” he drew us into the life of the art world, as only a poet could.

Parr’s “poetry” became most evident when he described the artistic intent of his work at MoFo. It was titled, Under the Bitumen the Artist. He used words like, “disappeared”, “radical or complete absence”, “radical negation”, “hiding from view” or, “the hidden”, in order to address what he calls a universal in his artwork. This universal itself springs, locally speaking, out of the Colonialists’ horrible treatment of the indigenous people of Tasmania. They thus became became one version of the “disappeared”. But Parr felt that the artwork could just as easily be performed in Nuremberg or Buenos Aires, or Egypt. He likened it to Picasso’s Guernica, which also has a reference beyond the local Basque horror—hence its universal quality. But where Picasso is addressing horror as a universal, Parr’s poetic speech pointed us to an even deeper reality, perhaps the deepest of all: the ultimate reality of absence, nullity, as a concrete universal.

That is to say the artist is showing us that behind all appearances is a negative reality, a real “absence” that is not a something i.e. an appearance. His artwork is not the box under the road, not the artist in the box, not the physical hole in the road, not reducible to a powerful political message about local genocide.

And this “absence” is not a mere nihilistic nothingness, nor a terrifying existential black hole, though it may be experienced by some that way.

Parr found away to give poetic speech to a universal emptiness that lies below and behind everything we do. And yes, this emptiness can be filled (and usually is) with our disturbed psychology, as the Rorschach Test so often is. But Parr’s experience with “absence” leads him and us more deeply into this nullity as the “source” of fresh imagery, which can lead us into a very different future. He seemed to suggest that we must begin with facing all the images of the horrors of the past, normally hidden from view, but his artwork points “beyond”, i.e. deeply within, all those very real horrors to the fertile nullity that is, in essence, a universal “hiddenness”, prior to all images (hence universal)—that “place that is no place”, giving birth to images of an unknown future.

There is simply no way to understand this artwork without hearing Parr’s spoken intent, any more than it is possible to understand Malevich’s “Black Square” without knowing that it was the first attempt to “free art from the dead weight of the real world”.

Parr’s magnificent contribution, I think, lies in showing us that the nullity that lies “beyond” the real world is in fact to be found within the real world, or, better, as the “within-ness” of the real world, in its infinite and unknowable depths of interiority. Artistic contact with these depths can lead to an outpouring of fresh imagery or thinking, and thus new possibilities for life.

For example, in describing his attempt to get the artwork accepted for the festival, Parr notes a logical problem: “how to expose something by hiding it from view”, or how to ask for permission to do it without destroying the artistic intention by the very description which would then become canonical (i.e. the only interpretation)! Parr is here thinking a very fresh thought, one that led him and us into a very different conversation about approaching the past and the future.