Thoughts on Empty Ocean and Exhibit A by Mike Parr

Empty Ocean and Exhibit A  (Dark Mofo, Bruny Island and Detached Gallery)

Excited to be getting on a ferry at 1am to make the trip to Bruny Island, I was rugged up and already tired. The trip through the water with the full moon in the sky, and the cold arctic wind winding its way onto the deck, seemed a perfect way to be transported to Mike Parr’s latest performance work Empty Ocean. On arrival we were ushered off the ferry, asked to not speak, and walked with torches to a paddock close to the Island’s shoreline. Around 30 chairs made a square in the landscape like an empty auditorium, and we were instructed to stand around creating a three-sided square held in shape by a rope on the ground. We waited, wondering what would happen and when. After a short interlude, Mike Parr’s voice could be heard in the distance as he repeated the numbers 1,2,3,4 through a megaphone, reminiscent of ground troops in one of the old world wars, or maybe prisoners walking home to their quarters. If I turned around I could see a long group of people, wearing blue vertical striped pyjamas with navy dressing gowns, walking the same path we had, their torches facing down. The seats that were in the middle of the spectators were for them, with Parr, in everyday clothes of pants and a jacket, standing to the side. Parr’s pyjama clad volunteers, each had two stones, which,once sitting they started tapping together. This continued for about 90 minutes.

From the beginning we were part of the mise-en-scene. Our silence as we walked in a human line lit by torches. Our standing to attention in a 3 sided square as we waited eagerly for Par to arrive. As the clicking sounds of rocks set in, the expectant energy shifted to a slow realisaton that this was possibly the totality of the performance. It was cold and I lay down to relieve my aching back. I fell asleep for a bit. Many others took to lying on the ground, and whether sleeping or in a meditative state, shivering or cuddling a loved one for warmth, the giant moon above us, the undulating landscape around us and the shoreline close by, opened the empty ocean to our consciousness. The image was quite moving and surreal. The instruction not to talk was a godsend. The quietness was heaven.

In the harshness of the Island’s coastal elements this was a gentle work. I appreciated being forced to engage with the extremities around me. Becoming cold and tired made simple the need to surrender to the situation whilst the action occurred. This was perhaps an action of endurance for both performer and spectator. The cold serving to focus the senses ensuring the only choice was to submit and absorb the beautiful moon, the stillness of the scene and the sound of rocks clacking. Me, I like being pushed into the elements and feeling the intensity of nature gnaw at my body. I heard later that other people were not so impressed by this forced endurance spectating, but then performance art isn’t about making people comfortable or happy. Leave comfort and happy consumption for the objects one can buy in the Mona gift store.

I must admit the work was not what I expected, and others seemed confused at how it played out. I am familiar with Parr’s works where his own body is acted upon, often violently, whilst his spectators act as voluntary witnesses. This work kept us ‘captive’, whilst a group of people over 55 years old, sat rhythmically clinking rocks in a paddock. When I unintentionally ran into Parr on the street the next day we casually chatted about the work. He said the age of his volunteers was important to him. His generation were born on the back of WWII and that was the global crisis that shaped them. Now however, young people are facing different forms of crisis such as, climate change, rampant consumerism, and a whole new way of engaging in war. His war references in Empty Ocean were evident to me; the megaphone voice of 1,2,3,4 creating a marching troupe, the vertical striped penal like pajamas, and the audience standing to attention in the beginning but slowly fading onto the ground like soldiers in a field.

I didn’t realise until speaking with Parr the age of the performance volunteers which led me to ponder about those people clinking their rocks, who may not live to see the breaking point of current global crises, which they are part of creating. Members of their generation hold positions of power politically. Members of their generation own assets and have equity. Their generation has made, and continues to make policies that ignore the environment and compounds the complexities of the global security situation. Their drive for wealth and material comfort is leaving our oceans, our rivers, our forests and our farmlands devastated. Of course we, the younger generation are also playing a part in these disasters, but these people are our elders and our role models. Like they followed the 1,2,3,4 and marched to war in the 1940s, so we follow them into perhaps, an empty ocean.

Parr also staged an installation/exhibition Exhibit A in the city of Hobart at Detached Gallery. It was simple in form, and carried on a theme from many his works – urine in buckets. Literally rows of steel buckets of urine were arranged in the gallery similar in form to the rows of seats in the paddock on Bruny Island. The smell of the ammonia from the stale urine was overwhelming. It’s a smell that takes me back to my grandfather’s nursing home where he saw out his last days in striped pyjamas. When considered as a whole, these two separate yet linked art actions/works, Exhibit A and Empty Ocean, have shared associations; the smell of the urine in the gallery, tiny oceans of toxic human waste in each bucket, and the performers being over 55 years of age and wearing pyjamas as if they’d escaped the nursing home. The vulnerability of the old people in a freezing cold field perhaps speaks to the vulnerability of old people as they near the end, which may well be in a urine scented nursing home. Surely this is a time when they look back and see the results of their lives both individually, socially and globally. Ageing seems to be an issue here.

Similarly Asylum, created last year for Dark Mofo in the Willow Court Asylum, New Norfolk, spoke to Parr’s position as an ageing artist. In Asylum he wore the pyjamas, shuffled around the asylum making drawings and had a room with a urine bucket. These performative works take a step away from his early acts of self-aggression and severe body actions. Parr’s own role as an artist in Empty Ocean has him standing in the background, warm and safe, observing. Perhaps as he heads further into his seventies the ocean feels closer, the environment more precious, and his vulnerability present and real. I found Empty Ocean to be quite a profound work, and it has continued to speak to me well after the event. This is what I want art to do; hang around in my mind and body, remind me of what I experienced at random intervals, and encourage me to think about the world I live in and my place in it.

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Breast image

inside she is complex

and beautiful

like the surface of the moon

from afar

she may however leave me for dead

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sick and tired

 

“It was Krishnamurti, the great Indian philosopher, who said “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”

I submit to you, if you’re willing to take your hand off the throttle of your life, that there is intelligence in anxiety. This intelligence, so familiar to teenagers, yet misinterpreted by adults, is knowing that things aren’t supposed to be this way.

Work isn’t supposed to suck.  Styrofoam isn’t supposed to last hundreds of years after minutes of use. The Gulf of Mexico isn’t supposed to be drowning in spilled oil. And we aren’t supposed to accept how many species have gone extinct since the sun rose this morning.

If you really let these proclamations hit you, if you stop, it can take your breath away. In fact, it’s supposed to break your heart.

Take care of your inner self, yes, but know this: there’s nothing fucking wrong with you.”

Text from Adbusters – September 20, 2013

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8x2 reallyeye

i don’t love you 

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Democracy

Direct Democracy
Monash University Museum of Art | MUMA 26 April – 6 July 2013

I always find it refreshing to see art so clearly and unashamedly articulated as political. Direct Democracy an exhibition at MUMA was full of politically potent works calling our attention to both the necessity of, and the inherent problematic nature of a notion we cherish in the west – democracy. I was taken in by many of the works no holds barred politics.  Natalie Bookchin’s 18 channel video installation Now he’s out in public and everyone can see (2012) was one example. Here one stands amidst multiple screens of video bloggers simultaneously discussing a prominent ‘black male’ who I never worked out the identity of. The chat room? The democracy of social commentary? Bookchin created an engaging and effectively confusing audio/visual assault of identity based chatter which held me for some time.

Whilst many of the works on display engaged me for much longer than my sometimes short attention span allows, MP Blog 3my personal joy lay in the video of the previously live performance art of Mike Parr.  Video footage of the sewing of Mike Parr’s face and the branding of his leg in an earlier live work, which took place at MUMA in 2002, had me riveted. Close the Concentration Camps was originally performed live by Parr to bring attention to the cruel treatment of asylum seekers in detention in the early 2000s. I find it incredibly depressing that today, over ten years later this work’s potency lies in its relevance to contemporary policies surrounding asylum seekers. Still holed up in indefinite detention by our governments, asylum seekers exist in camps that become places where acts of self-harm and daily suffering are something we may vaguely hear about, but rarely if ever see evidence of. Parr’s original live work sought to bring our attention to such notions of suffering and injustice, which were and still are, occurring in Australia. Our detention centres are truly ‘locked down’ when it comes to the media, with government legislation censoring any images or stories from the inside that people attempt to release. An act such as Parr’s public lip sewing in 2002 attempted to scream attention for those who are made invisible to us by the state.

Twelve years later what was on exhibition was not a reenactment of the original live work, but screened video footage. It was well placed alongside a selection of letters written by Parr to a colleague whilst planning the work. Also sections of text chosen from a report written in 2000 on the conditions of detention centres entitled Not the Hilton played on another screen. Essentially we were viewing an edited and recontextualised documentation of the original work, framed by the curators as such.  The Performance Art genre of which Parr has been a key part of, can be considered limited in its live audience reach. It is not unusual for a live work such as those presented by Parr, to be viewed by a small and specific audience. Close the Concentration Camps as part of Direct Democracy illuminates how the resulting documentation of live art becomes an important part of the bigger picture with its capacity to act as an important historical, cultural and political reference to a time and place. In the absence of images of the aslyum seekers he was showing support for, Parr created within the institution of art, images providing a direct reference to a series of controversial political events. Years later his work gives a visual reference to the time and place of thesse political events. He creates ‘stand ins’ for visual images which were not part of the media coverage or the public discourse of the time.

NTH Blog 2

This documentation of his work remains as an artistic and political artefact with the artefact bound to the historical event it refers to. John Berger muses in his famous essay ‘Uses of Photography’ that the use of photography must be to create a memory that is socially and politically alive.  As documentation, the recontextualised and exhibited moving images resulting from Parr’s original work, have the capacity to encourage an engagement with the social and political memory of the early 2000s.

I had a flutter of great excitement when I realised the footage from Mike Parr’s original live work was on display at MUMA. Having missed the original live piece, this video work had its own intensity and capacity to ‘move’. Close up images of Parr’s face being sewn and the clarity of the audio of his utterings of pain and discomfort were unsettling. I wonder if such proximity would’ve been possible at the original live event?  Having been allowed a new site and a new format, the installation of the video encouraged a recalling of the political and historical period of the original work.  It held form as an important artefact pointing to the past, but also cried out about the politics of today. The situation for asylum seekers in Australia remains unchanged. The concern of our governments seems to not be in maintaining human rights and dignity, but about who can best keep those seeking asylum out of Australia. Sadly it seems Parr’s incredibly moving work is one whose political potency is stuck in time.

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13 Rooms

Exhibition in Sydney 11-21 April 2013

13 Rooms is an exhibition, “a magic formula of iconic artists who have pioneered the field of performance art” according to the brochure. I headed to Sydney ready to be inspired and amazed by being present at an exhibition of what is one of my favourite forms – performance art.

My first response was a low groan. Entering the space I could’ve been forgiven for expecting to receive an allen-key on entry. There was something oddly ‘Ikea-esk’ about the exhibition. A rustic warehouse on the pier full of evenly sized and well-placed white boxes with silver handled doors just like an Ikea furniture showroom. Open the door, enter the room and view a piece of ‘performance art’. Whilst being dismayed at the somewhat banal mise-en-scene before me, like a well-behaved spectator I opened various doors, entered identical rooms and saw what was on show. Much of the art inside the rooms to me was everyday and kind of bland. Some moments were ‘interesting’ (a term I loathe when describing art) and at times bordering on engaging. Clearly this wasn’t performance art. It was I guess as the curator Klaus Biesenbach said a ‘sculpture gallery’ where one views ‘living sculptures’. The directive was that the works were to be performed by someone other than the original artist, an unusual course for performance art works to take. I reflected on my own thoughts about performance art and its history of attempting to challenge and break boundaries, its history of being cutting edge. There was nothing edgy here.

Performers re-performing works of performance artists such as Marina Abramovic is full of questions and contradictions, given that performance art is known for exploring the ephemeral nature of live art moments. Abramovic however has made this act of re-presenting performance art part of the contemporary art culture. Initially through her Seven Easy Pieces at New York’s Guggenheim Museum, where classic works by the likes of Vito Acconci and Gina Pane were reproduced in 2005.

I spoke with one of the women re-performing Abramovic’s work Luminosity and was interested in what the context was for the performers. Each performer did a 30-minute ‘shift’ per day of the show they were working on. When the ‘change of shift’ happened we spectators were bustled out of the space whilst performers changed over. This blows a hole in the foot of durational work surely? Considering Abramovic’s original work went for about 7 hours. I wondered how such work was a true rendition of the original, and what as a viewer I missing out on. Without the capacity to engage in the endurance aspect of Abramovic’s work, which is so much at the heart of her own rhetoric, I felt a bit robbed.  From the point of view of the performer, surely they weren’t experiencing the different stages of the marathon performance of the original 7 hour work. From the point of view of the audience our desire to engage in a work as an ‘endurance spectator’ was removed. The performer I spoke with expressed that she felt a lack of engagement with the work as she wasn’t its creator. As a trained dancer she felt that she was enacting some extreme choreography. I enjoyed my 30 minutes being a spectator of a woman recreating Abramovic’s work, but as an artist who has engaged in durational performances I had a lot more ‘spectating’ left in me than I was permitted to give. I would have relished a few hours in the room to really feel and meditate on the work.

The question of Australian performance artists also lingered in my mind, due their notable absence. If an exhibition of performance art is to occur in Australia, should three of our most internationally renowned artists of the form be excluded? The likes of Mike Parr, Stelarc and Jill Orr were nowhere in sight. All three were producing cutting edge performance art works both here and in Europe when Abramovic was during the 70’s and beyond – so where were they? I noticed that Kaldor used them to market the exhibition on the program Artscape aired on the ABC, yet excluded them from the exhibition. The only locals were two young artists collectively named Clarke Beaumont who get 10 points for being in their own work for the full duration of the exhibition. Unfortunately though sitting on a plinth in a very ‘everyday’ manner in the middle of the white room didn’t really rock my socks.

What stands out with 13 Rooms is that the art world is ready to commodify performance art. I guess the easiest way to do this is to turn the original works into saleable live sculptures as the curators suggest. But is this in the spirit of performance art? Many scholars would argue not I am sure, and for my part I see it as a slight lack of imagination on behalf of the curators. Perhaps creating exhibitions with current performance artists on display would be more risky. Perhaps the general public and their kids wouldn’t come. But must the space be converted into an Ikea furniture showroom? And must the entire exhibition have an overarching feeling of politeness? Nudity alone is not really challenging when propped on a wall, and the audience interaction I witnessed or was part of just felt repressive and boring. Writing this last paragraph just filled me with a profound sense of how truly pedestrian the event was. I guess marketing and money is key for the Kaldor crew and if they want the school holiday brigade to come to these things, then pedestrian they must be. Or must they?

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Where burlesque meets performance art…

meets “Oh my God! I can’t believe she just did that! ” Yep, that’s right, the Voodoo Trash Dolls hit the stage last week after four years. As one who is not a fan of the current wave of burlesque, which seems more about posing than performing, sporting my performance art style cabaret in a show with the word ‘burlesque’ in the tag line wasn’t lacking in intellectual complexity for my overactive brain. Was it burlesque? – Not sure. Was it performance art? – Certainly a lot of it was. Was it a awesome to perform with a bunch of ladies who leave the tease and sleaze at home and throw their raw bodies onto the stage with equal doses of raunch, ferocity and skill? – Absolutely it was!
All photos by Mark Burban

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