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, my 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.
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.