Mike Parr in Venice 2015

The background

In late October 2014 I received a phone call out of the blue while I sat at my desk looking out over Kanimbla valley towards the distant blue of Kanangara walls.  It was Rene Reitmeir who is the instigator and manager of GAA or Global Art Affairs in Venice.  GAA runs four Palazzos between Rialto and Canareggio in Venice as part of the Biennale programme.

Rene came straight to the point he wanted me to curate something, whatever I wanted in Palazzo Mora.  I have waited decades for this call and as a recently retired museum curator living in the bush it was a godsend.  There was no budget for big freight and production costs but all the on the ground support to make the installation would be covered in Venice by GAA.  GAA creates a programme called ‘Personal Structures’.  They also make space available to poorer nations to place their national pavilions in the palazzos at minimal cost In addition they charge well funded agencies to place their projects during the biennale.  It is funds generated in this way that allowed Rene to call me and offer me the opportunity to make a project at their expense.

The space he suggested was an attic at Palazzo Mora that had not yet been renovated.  I responded that I would need to come out and see it as soon as possible and hoped that we could work with the space as it was with minimal structural work.  The Australia Council was not able to help at that late stage with a fare but Anna Schwartz generously contributed and GAA covered all my costs in Venice.  Once we had made personal contact GAA covered all my expenses.

The 300 year old, 8 room, 500 sq meter space was highly atmospheric and the idea of making a performance installation by Mike Parr seemed the obvious choice.   Mike and I had previously installed a raw historic site in the old Bond-store in Hobart in collaboration with Detached projects and TMAG.  Mike had plenty of videos from performances including some that had not previously been mastered or exhibited, Mike and I also had a professional history dating back to the early 1980s and I knew that if Mike agreed to do this we could make something extraordinary with a minimum of freight given the technical support GAA could provide.

Mike and I work-shopped the possible selection of works and different ways to show the work across the 8 rooms.  In the end we came up with something that I believe constituted a coherent body of work that provides an intensive experience of Mike’s core project that has always been performance or body actions.  I wrote a short introduction for the Personal Structures Catalogue that I include here.

The Ghost Who Talks. Mike Parr

Mike Parr - Venice

Mike Parr’s Performances and by extension his self-portrait projects are visceral and disturbing but it is essential to distinguish them from expressionism.  The performances make the artist’s body the medium rather than the subject of the expression.  Disrupting the margins of the body, opening wounds or distorting the face with sutures agitates that boundary between self and other, interior and the world beyond.  It is impossible not to react to the images he presents us with.  At some point our wincing as the needle penetrates his skin is an expression of empathy.  If we go to the next step with him we will find a coherent and desperate struggle being waged against the barbarity of institutional and personal ideologies that permit violence against others.

Everything Parr does is intensely political, specifically striking out at all brands of ideology and the distortions its representations engender.  When Parr reads an ideological tract whether of the right or of the left he reads it backwards.  In this way the narrative becomes incomprehensible but certain words and phrases stand out starkly against the background nonsense.  These words that may otherwise lie hidden in the text are invariably the Pavlovian triggers that incite anti social behavior.  Parr’s project is to tear apart the representations of ideology to reveal these triggers.

The representations of ideology both visual and verbal have always employed such triggers although it seems to have become more and more prevalent in recent decades as the truths they seek to occlude become more extreme.  This is as true of state acts of barbarism such as the use of Manus island, Cluster bombs and drones sent into civilian populations as it is for the deranged individual who transforms himself into a walking bomb.  Each is delusional but tragically the tricks of the Third Reich still seem to be able to turn normal people into barbaric zombies.   When language is used in this way the age of reason is disrupted to admit the iron in the soul.  Parr rages against this deception perhaps our only defense against it is to try and see the beam in our eye before being persuaded to hate the mote in the eye of the other.

Parr has a conflicted relationship to modernism that is a language or set of languages that are equally vulnerable to manipulation and deception.  When Parr uses a scalpel to reproduce a Malevich monochrome in red on his thigh or when he has his face sewn into a distorted vision of analytic cubism he is both identifying with the modernist project and violently abusing it.  Like other languages Modernism is subject to abuse by ideologues and has been used to support National Socialism and Stalinism in different contexts.  Making this visible through scathing attacks using the body of the artist as a virulent site may just be one way of reclaiming the ground.

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