Mike Parr is an artist who is prepared to suffer for his art and make everyone else suffer as well. Spending hours at Carriageworks last week watching Parr put himself through a series of unpleasant, protracted tortures, I had plenty of opportunity to reflect on the experience. “You’re the only one who’s watched the whole thing!” the gallery attendants told me. At first I wondered what I’d won, then thought how strange it was that all those people who profess to adore avant-garde art hadn’t been parked in front of the video monitor sucking it up for hours on end.
Of course I didn’t watch the whole thing. My stamina was limited to watching Jericho – a sequence of five performances captured on film during the early hours of the morning of November 16. There would be little point in watching the entire video of LEFT FIELD, which finds Parr up a ladder, roller in hand, painting the white walls of a cavernous space based on Anna Schwartz’s Melbourne gallery. Once you got the message that it would be hours of white-on-white in homage to the late Australian minimalist Robert Hunter, (whose own work was infinitely more subtle), there was no need to hang around.
Parr is back up the ladder with his eyes closed in the video of Towards an Amazonian Black Square, painting crude swatches of black on the gallery’s white walls. As usual his rationales emerge from a semiotic stew, which includes his outrage over the forest fires in the Amazon; Kazimir Malevich’s Russian Suprematist icon, Black Square; Nietzsche’s concept of the Eternal Return (I won’t elaborate here), and a great deal of psychological turmoil and uncertainty. What viewers actually see is a heavily-built, one-armed 74-year-old man dragging black paint across various bits of wall.
It’s intriguing at first but the novelty soon wears off. The same might be said for the five parts of Jericho, although the longest segment, Un-face is also the most absorbing, as we watch another artist build a mask of clay over Parr’s real face. The completed clay face is painted in lurid colours then wiped off on the wall. This is arguably the strongest part of the set. The mask has all kinds of metaphorical possibilities, and there’s a slow-building fascination in watching the features take shape over time.