Mike Parr: The Eternal Opening

Performance art is considered an ephemeral medium; lost in a phenomenon that disappears as quickly as it is made. It adopts a linear concept of temporality – a beginning, middle and end – and, if not mediatised, cannot be relived. To obtain a permanent form, it relies on the audience; observing, reacting, and remembering.

Enter, Mike Parr. Through retrospection, Parr draws on the past in making sense of the present and vice versa. A restaging of his recent works, The Eternal Opening (2019), LEFT FIELD (for Robert Hunter) (2017) and BDH (Burning Down the House) (2016), alongside new durational performances, Towards an Amazonian Black Square (2019), and Jericho (2019) comprising of five acts (instructions from his 1971/72, ‘150 Programmes and Investigations’ archive project); reopens channels of interrogation and awareness concerning social and geopolitical issues, and presents a new iteration of a career-spanning act of self-portraiture using his body as the principal medium. These ongoing conversations are at the core of this multilayered exhibition – ‘The Eternal Opening’, recently exhibited at Carriageworks in Sydney – which sees a gallery housed within a gallery, and the live reproduction of past work in which audience presence is central to its outcome.

The heart of this body of work bears the same name as its title. The Eternal Opening, is an extended conversation between audiences, past and present. It contains video documentation of Parr’s LEFT FIELD (for Robert Hunter), performed two years earlier at the Anna Schwartz Gallery in Melbourne; now housed in a life-sized replica of the original space. Here, Parr places the audience on the theatre stage in a reenactment of the original play. With entry points on either side of the long, rectangular-shaped diorama, the audience is directed in a pedestrian style manner. The strategic display allows for no distractions, or so it seems. Wall-mounted monitors screen LEFT FIELD, on loop. Parr is seen methodically ascending and descending a ladder, layering the gallery’s white walls with overlapping coats of white paint, transforming the exhibiting space into an art object. A final coat is added to the relay of this event, with audio of the original audience’s experiences and reactions to the performance. Hear the crowd’s ambience reverberate through the inter-gallery space – a soft susurrus of conversation escalates to a loud chatter. A once empty room is now full, and our experience of the work becomes shared.

Parr recalls; ‘As the opening night crowd arrived I began over-painting the white wall… while the audience milled in the space… [They] had become increasingly noisy as people drank, socialised and asserted themselves. I was unconcerned by this. I rather liked this increasing hubbub, but in the aftermath, I’ve thought more about this ‘materialisation’ as an aspect of the event that could be amplified.’

Mike Parr, Towards an Amazonian Black Square, Carriageworks, 2019. Photograph: Mark Pokorny. Courtesy the artist and Carriageworks, Sydney

Towards an Amazonian Black Square was the first of two new live performances as well as the outset of ‘The Eternal Opening’, performed on opening night. The work mirrors the laborious efforts of LEFT FIELD. Here, Parr paints black squares on the walls mimicking Malevich’s quest for a transcendent absolute. His eyes, tightly shut. His brush, firmly held. Parr once again uses the ladder to shift up and down, left to right. Without a blindfold disabling his sight, Parr’s patience and perseverance are noteworthy – eyes wide shut, Parr endures for eight long hours. Tension fills the air as Parr pushes his limits both mentally and physically. The strain on Parr’s face, the attentiveness of his pauses – the audience awaits his next move, gazing in awe with every extension of the brush, every sightless step on the ladder. With the artist unable to see, the audience is the sole witness. Black squares are randomly positioned, both high and low, framed by black fingerprints from Parr’s exploration of perimeters and assessment of paint thickness. A recording of the event broadcasts throughout the remainder of the exhibition, played simultaneously over that of LEFT FIELD; in an eternal echo.

Towards an Amazonian Black Square brings awareness to the ongoing environmental catastrophe of the Amazon rainforest fires, as well as current global concerns about climate change. The presentation complements the video documentation from Parr’s 2016 performance, BDH (Burning Down The House) in which he methodically arranged his self-portrait prints, along with their copper plates, in an 18 x 12-metre grid. Doused with petrol, Parr lights a match and approximately $750,000 worth of art goes up in flames, and in protest: ‘once you compromise the future, the past becomes unbearable,’ argues Parr. Once the smoke clears, we see a black square formed from ash – and we look deep into to constructs of the self. Parr’s socio-political concerns are expressed via active spectatorship. The audience providing him with his intended result; to shock, and inform.