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.