On the world stage: Mike Parr - Art Collector

Issue 67, January - March 2014

This profile appeared in the On the World Stage feature, part of the annual special issue 50 Things Collectors Need to Know 2014.

Mike Parr. Photo: Zan Wimberley

A man sits grim-faced in front of a backdrop of yellow drapery. He wears bright orange coveralls, one arm of which is rolled and pinned up, empty. On his head is a loosely painted papier-mâché hat made in the shape of a bowl of fruit and painted a garish purple. Green and yellow paint marks his face. His gaze is matter-of-fact; unwavering, it challenges the viewer to find humor in the odd tableau that he occupies.

The image is a still from Mike Parr’s recent work,
fresh skin like a baby, a 16mm film that documents four performances the artist carried out in his Alexandria studio over a full day in early April 2010. Presented alongside a series of new large-scale graphic works, fresh skin like a baby forms the arresting centerpiece of Parr’s exhibition at ARNDT Berlin. Titled Blind Self Portraits, this is Parr’s first major solo project with the gallery.

Certain things have become iconic within Parr’s long oeuvre. One is the grueling pathos that marks this image and the film more broadly: the dark humor that ultimately both underscores and unsettles the seriousness of his practice. At the works beginning, Parr’s face – stitched together in a manner audiences will readily recall from
close the concentration camps, the infamous six-hour endurance piece that he performed in 2002 – provides the canvas for a roughly painted approximation of a cubist painting. It forms a kind of psychosomatic ground: a series of mental fissures that, made tangible, echo the largely self-inflicted, premeditated trauma that plays out over the film. Parr’s face, stitched and un-stitched, painted, wiped clean and painted again, both deflects and records this highly theatrical assault. His associates mill around, part torturers, part accomplices. Looking in turn both concerned and detached, they appear deeply focused on the grim task at hand.

In Parr’s work the personal and the political coexist. The body of the individual stands in as the body of the collective. Although these might superficially appear to be strange bedfellows, their contingency forms the ground from which both personal and national identity springs. There has never been a clear divide between these notions for Parr – to inflict damage on one is to critique the other. As he puts it in relation to this new work, his overall intent is to “assault the concept of identity”.

Coming hot on the heels of Parr’s first major monographic exhibition in Europe –
Edelweiß, held at the Kunsthalle Wein in Vienna from late 2012 to early 2013 – Blind Self Portraits, marks the continuation of a significant critical reception for the artist in Europe. It seems a fitting development for one who has reached such iconic status back home and whose driving concerns, while deeply Australian, speak of a much wider humanity.

Quentin Sprague

Share this page: