You step into an art gallery. Then another – one inside the other, like white cube matryoshka dolls. Inside each space screens show an artist performing: a man up a ladder, painting the white walls white. In another space the artist is up a different ladder, filling the walls with black squares.
This is The Eternal Opening, the latest work by Australian art’s chief provocateur, Mike Parr. The work refers directly to a previous performance work, LEFT FIELD [for Robert Hunter] (2017), staged in Melbourne’s Anna Schwartz Gallery. Parr has rebuilt that same gallery inside Sydney’s Carriageworks, and this second exhibition is a vessel for referencing the first.
Elsewhere, there’s video documentation of another piece, BDH [Burning Down The House] (2016), in which Parr set fire to three quarters of a million dollars of his own work at the Sydney Biennale. It’s not “gone”, just transformed into a new state.
Curator Beatrice Gralton describes The Eternal Opening to Broadsheet as a "cacophony of minimalism” – a multi-layered addition to the ongoing tapestry that is the 74-year-old artist’s body of performance work. Having painted with his own blood, thrown up on canvasses, and spent three days entombed under a busy road in Hobart, this new, quieter work continues his themes of isolation, repetition and engagement with art history.
Parr asked to be interviewed over email. We present his responses verbatim, as requested by the artist, edited only for clarity.
Broadsheet: How do you prepare yourself for a performance?
In the beginning I didn’t prepare at all – though right from the outset I used language, its repetition and the isolation of meaning, to focus my mind, to get at what I was really thinking about, or define what I couldn’t think about. My very first performance before an audience, as distinct from performances done essentially for the movie camera, was preceded by a statement. “Arrange for a friend to bite into your shoulder … He or she should continue biting for as long as possible or until their mouth is filled with blood.”
Working with my own archive recently I realised this performance instruction has been rewritten a number of times. It has a final form now that has been slightly different in the past. It makes me realise afresh how I get language and thinking right and how important grammar, syntax, euphony are for me. That “getting the language right”, paring the intention down to its form as a kind of linguistic armature, is the trigger that enables the performance to occur as radical acting-out. The words are giving onto a scenography. The scene is coming to preoccupy me and I perform a kind of hallucination.
I still write performance statements. I still right performance statements (I’ve just corrected an inadvertent typo but inadvertent typos can precipitate performances, because I worry about that word “right”… write, right, rite …). My diaries of 50 years are full of forays into language states. Sometimes I do primitive sketches that roughly notate performance set-ups. Always on separate sheets of halved A4, which are inserted back into the diary as markers, so the “Word Situations” of 1970/71 still allocate gaps of affectivity.
Thinking the scenography of the event in advance of the event has become more important for me as I’ve gone on. My most recent performance was done entirely blind. I closed my eyes for seven and a half hours. All my performances are unprecedented. I don’t repeat performances because one then becomes an actor in relation to oneself. But Towards a Black Square, which was performed blind, is unprecedented in another way because I will never arrive at Malevich’s absolute, so it’s a performance without a proper ending and experiencing this has become very interesting for me. (It’s also unprecedented as an audience experience and as an exhibition of painting.)
[Kazimir Malevich was a Russian avant-garde painter who in the early 1900s developed the theory of “absolute non-objectivity” where “nothing is real but feeling”. – Ed.]
I undertook a disciplined program of exercise, food reduction, meditation to do this performance, as a bulwark against its impending unstaunchability. All my performances as ideas alarm me in different ways and my preparation is an attempt to anticipate the force of this anxiety and to use it productively, because a performance that does not alarm me has no necessity.
Broadsheet: This new work takes a previous performance of yours as its starting point – why that show?
In July 2017 I performed and installed LEFT FIELD [for Robert Hunter] at Anna Schwartz’s gallery in Melbourne. On the night of the opening I did a performance. The opening was being held in an empty gallery. While the opening audience began to accumulate I started painting. I was using a roller to paint the long right-hand wall of the gallery white, using exactly the same white paint that already covered all the walls of the gallery. I was accompanied by Gotaro Uematsu my cinematographer, Zan Wimberley my stills photographer and Robert Campbell my co-performer. We worked methodically from left to right down the length of the wall.
I’d already suggested to Gotaro and Zan that light glancing off wet paint might be the image that best defined this work, so much of the documentation was made at an angle to my activity. I suppose it took about two hours to do this work.
As the piece proceeded I realised that the noise of the opening was increasing. The Melbourne audience had got the point and were now relapsing into a more congenial state. I found the thought of that to be strangely touching. The next morning, and for the duration of the exhibition, the documentation of the performance was installed as the work. Two plasma screens played the two video channels in synchronisation at the centre of the facing long wall.
It was a beautiful empty exhibition and looking at the video, the light reflected from the wet paint rose in crescendos to the rhythm of my work. I decided to do LEFT FIELD because I retain great affection for the memory of Robert Hunter and his work. [The late Australian painter was a proponent of minimalism – Ed.] The Carriageworks invitation gives me the opportunity to reinstall this work – to reinstall Anna Schwartz’s Melbourne gallery as an “art object” in her former great Carriageworks exhibition space and to play again the video work that LEFT FIELD produced. I have suggested to the Carriageworks technicians that the sound of the opening that accompanied my performance then be played a little louder now.
Mike Parr’s The Eternal Opening is at Carriageworks from October 25 until December 8. Broadsheet is a proud media partner of Carriageworks.
This story originally appeared in Sydney print issue 20.