Mike Parr has a thirty year career of extreme body performance. Most, if not all, accounts of this work have been attempts to locate it within the framework of artistic values and institutional and individual career interests of the current Australia art establishment. They fail in two important respects. They do not grasp the relationship of these performances to the rest of his artistic project. Given Parr’s dominance in the recent history of Australian art, a literal, narrative account of one performance its context and my repsonses may be of value.
Parr gave his account of his motives in an interview in his early movie Rules and Displacement Activities Part 2 – 1974/5.
Well - it’s obvious why I’m doing it. I’m doing it because I want to!
Mike Parr at Midnight
Wednesday 3rd May
Mike Parr missed me at Sydney airport. My plane landed at one end of the Qantas terminal, the luggage carousel was at the other. He had found chaos, hell on wheels and wings, turned round and headed home. We were two days out from the performance at Artspace. He was already well into the routine of fasting and meditation, the focussed refinement of consciousness that he undertakes ahead of every major body performance. Arbitrary chaos was the last thing he needed.
We discussed the details on the phone. Mike wanted to enact a paradoxical performance instruction that he conceived in 1972 as Nail Your Hand to a Tree he has published hundreds of these short pieces in photocopied collections and performed many of them
Nail Your Hand to a Tree, however, is impossible for a one handed man, that is an important part of its meaning. Beyond that, like many other early pieces, it now appears not so much as a definitive statement of the human – possibilities of being and acting, the relation of the human and natural – but an amplifier, the means to an epiphany, to a resonant crystalline moment in which revelation can be given a presence that must be addressed.
Mike’s decision to perform a version of the instruction, was not a nostalgic effort to recover a past moment, a lost opportunity. It was an attempt to enact the epiphanic potential of the piece for the first time, to engage its revelatory possibilities in the present moment, in relation to the current state of his printmaking, sculpture and environmental works, their political and social possibilities. It became, almost by default, part of his sustained critique of the limitations, the lack of high ambition and integrity in the current Australian art scene. It appeared to him as the next step in three decades of investigating the relationship of the body (his body) art and politics.
We did not discuss any of this over the phone. I wanted to know whether he had considered the obvious – the likely loss of function in his one arm, the anatomical details, the possibility of fainting. Mike researched it all, advised by Sydney’s best transplant surgeons. He commissioned two specially forged surgical steel nails. He can always co-opt the most unlikely assistants. By the time I arrived things had changed. The nail was to pass through the flesh in the upper part of his lower arm where there were no nerves or blood vessels. The arm was to be supported.
The event was integrated
into a 72 hour installation, Malevich A Political Arm.
Lighting Test for Mike
Thursday 4th May
About 11.00 am I walk through the city to Mike’s studio in Alexandria. On the way I buy a compact digital flash card big enough to hold 200 high resolution images. Mike’s body performances are structured with the precision of a Hitchcock movie. They spin off iconic moments far too fast to anticipate. Sometimes they provoke my art historical memory into instant replays – Caravaggio, Poussin, David Ingres, Degas, Cezanne, the great European canon of bodily energies and anxiety, the grand psychic architecture of desire made flesh - made paint, overlays the body before one. I want to record as many moments as possible, blindly.
Mike is busy writing instructions for everyone involved in the piece. They are precise, mechanical, timed to the second, an attempt to eliminate any and every element of ambiguity or expression from the action. He wants a clean, clear process no slack sequences.
He tells me that I must time next morning’s rehearsal so that the nailing action will fit precisely within the three ten minute rolls of 16mm colour film he has bought to record it. He has already framed the shot with Michael the cameraman and explains that he wants a continuous pull back away from the point of the action. I may also have to pull focus and use the clapper board.
Meanwhile he concentrates on detail and more detail. For the simplest performance, he complains, the details ramify to infinity. I point out that the generation of this receding perspective of instruments, objects and tasks might be essential to the performance, a psychic requirement as much as a practical necessity, a means of framing, purifying the event with acts of cancellation.
Mike is always been able to collect a group of supporters for his work. In this case the central figure is the sculptor Gary Manson, an old friend and model, who is to drive the nail and remove it when the time comes. Tess Parr is to manage the surgical steel nails, betadyne, swabs tongs, bandages and other medical equipment and maintain continuity. She is also to take 35mm slides. There are the cinephotographer and the still photographer both have been given detailed instructions. There is also the webmaster who will have to be instructed as to how frame the image of Mike nailed to the wall for the live webcast. Mike hopes he will remain in position for 36 hours – worldwide. Nick Tsoutas director of Artspace and his assistant Sophie O’Brien, are responsible for the gallery lighting and the installation as a whole and for maintaining a VHS tape of the entire performance which is to be played on the gallery wall, life size, once Mike has left the scene. Then there are attendants – one always to be present throughout the performance. In practice they turn out to be Tess Parr, Nick Tsoutas and myself.
Mike’s instructions are all intolerably precise
4. Every two hours exactly, an attendant must offer me a glass of water with one teaspoon of glucose powder dissolved in the water. I am supplying the glucose powder and a drinking straw will need to be held to my mouth. The glass with its straw will need to be held to my mouth. Every 6 hours the water will need to be offered with a multivitamin tablet [I will supply] and at that time 2 Panadol tablets will also need to be offered Two fingers can be pressed to my cheek to indicate Panadol I will either nod “yes” or shake my head. Every 12 hours I should be given one magnesium tablet in addition to the multi-vitamin.
5. My arm will be attached at two points to the wall with transparent plastic strips. These will be wound firm at the front of my wrist and elbow it will be necessary to undo them every two hours if I need to stand. They must be refastened when I sit.
6. Every two hours when the water is offered the attendant must clearly count aloud as follows. First two hour contact time [2pm clock time] the attendant must say “two’. The attendant must wait for me to repeat “two”. Second two hour contact time the attendant should say “four” I repeat “four”. . . my repetitions are necessary because my hearing is bad and knowing where I am in time will have everything to do with my ability to continue as long as possible.
Mike titled his early performances Rules and Displacement Activities. Rules remain important in Malevich – so that their oppressive dynamics can be exposed, displaced against or on the body. I reflect that Mike’s performed resistance to rules is epiphanic, in that it shows that they are always an overvalorised aspect of the structure of desire. Rules must always emerge through the enacting of desire. The error as with Malevich is to assume that we can reverse the process so that the correct rules will produce an irreproachable, ‘clean’ art work. The rules for this performance inevitably break down as it develops.
I volunteer for the midnight shift, 11.00pm Friday to 5.00am Saturday. In practice this turns out to be 11.00pm Friday to 7.00pm Saturday, with short breaks for sleep and gallery visits. This is not unexpected, Mike always raises the stakes as the work develops.
Right now I am
the odd job man/consultant. A table in his studio is needed to display the blacked
out copy of the Australian National Dictionary he has been working with for
ten years. I oil it super shiny but, on Mike’s instructions, leave the stains
of white paint in its grain – marks from a previous performance. The studio
is full of art/performance reliquaries a blue colour field painting from 1970,
headed back to Queensland, and bin after bin of performance records, photos
We discover that since Mike intends to piss in situ at will – just let it happen - his chair will need a waterproof plastic cover. We make a brief trip to a hardware store for some plastic sheet. I worry about hygiene. More bits and pieces will be required as time goes by.
Nicks Tsoutas is due in a couple of hours to collect the table and ergonomic chair so as to place and light them. Meantime I persuade Mike to go through the instructions for the attendants, to set limits to the performance, so that we can be sure of our actions in various circumstances. It becomes clear that he has not considered the possibility that he may pass out and rip the nail through his flesh nor has he provided instructions as to when the performance should be terminated in that event or any other unlikely extremity.
Mike is always meticulous, so this striking omission speaks again of the liberating, open ended experience for which he hopes. Even so he fixes up the instructions, he is to be taken directly to St Vincent’s casualty. I make a mental note to be certain there are pliers immediately on hand if this becomes necessary. He arranges with Gary Manson to provide plastic loops like police hand cuffs that can be nailed to the wall to hold his arm in place.
Nick Tsoutas phones. He was in a State government meeting all afternoon and wants to collect the furniture in the morning. Mike is concerned about progress in lighting and placing work in the gallery – we are now on a schedule that has more to do with his certainty of control over the work, his ability to change it at will to maximise its effect as art than it does with practicality. His conception of the work has also begun to change.
We set out for the gallery to check the lighting Halfway there Mike realises that he is on “too many tracks at once” – he needs to see the furniture placed that afternoon so as to free up the morning before the action for rehearsal. We proceed to the gallery. Nick arrives while Mike prowls the space worrying about the lighting and installation.
Artspace, in Wooloomooloo, is a former gunnery warehouse supported on huge timber beams that both articulate its spaces and suggest danger, the possibity of collapse under immense pressure. Mike wants to use the whole gallery to cause his action and presence to flow into each space to establish a flow, a sequence of presences and tensions that lock the action into the work as whole. Indeed one might consider the installation as a means to capture and channel the resonant, revelatory energy, left by the action as a trace, in the quiet presence of the artist nailed to the wall, for a specific socio-political epiphany.
The main axis of the installation is between the site where Mike is to be nailed to the wall and a recent A1 silkscreen print, Malevich – the word in capitals repeated, broken to fit each line, so as to form a block of text, to be hung slightly above eye level. Mike is unhappy that this axis is cut by a wall, but Nick, carefully and calmly, explains that the wall can be rolled aside. We do this and the relation is established. The print has to be raised and decentred so as to lock into a linear axis with the chair. Mike debates the lighting with Nick. It is clear that he is changing his mind as he views the gallery.
We leave Nick to complete the lighting and return to Alexandria to collect the table and chair. This is an unecessary journey from a practical point of view but absolutely necessary given Mike’s need to comprehend the presence of the piece as a whole. The chair fits neatly under Mike’s two red heads - photo lights, one with an umbrella, on the far wall. The table with the blacked out dictionary appears isolated under a ceiling spotlight in the empty third gallery close to the far wall. On the opposite wall, behind the Malevich print, there will be a statement in large black lettering Close the Concentration Camps. Sophie O’Brien is preparing this.
The strategy, the creative logic of Malevich - A Political Arm now becomes clear. The nailing of the arm to the bright white gallery wall is an attempt to juxtapose the potential diversity of the body, as a source of revelation, action and being, with the abstract sterility of late modernism and its primary avatar, the pristine gallery space, a tabula rasa that can tolerate anything but life and its messy consequences. Beyond this lay a critique, through action, of the cleanliness of theory and its primary avatar, an abstract sanitary art which seeks to crowd the necessary wounds of being and desire from existence via a reductive, a priori position in which art flows not from the paradoxes of existence but from its deadly doppelganger, the longing for absolute order. The work of Malevich, as constructed by his minimalist and postmodern apologists, is the epitome of an art which, like a neutron bomb or nerve gas, will clear the gallery of all living tissue but leave the pristine art space and its works untouched.
Once established Mike’s primary performative relationship is open to infinite social and political extension. In the third room, he sought to retrace, to reverse Malevich’s Soviet decline, from an artist working with life to an abstract undertaker, a pallbearer for humanistic culture. Mike’s blacked out Australian dictionary is, after all, a book filled with black paintings à la Malevich. These have replaced the Australian language, another anti-human straightjacket riddled with the cancer of administrative order and the tubercular shadows of crimes yet to be acknowledged. He left the headings of each page visible. On this occasion the black paintings left open and visible were headed Pom and Poofter.
The final stage in the sequence, the slogan Close the Concentration Camps, struck me as risky at first, like some return to the old comintern alliances of artists and workers in which a political slogan was simply attached, disingenuously, to an artist’s ouevre – Picasso and the dove of peace came to mind. This was not to be the case. Mike had worked carefully through the various levels of Malevich, A Political Arm so that the slogan appeared not as a post hoc protest but as a consequence or corollary of the action and the installation as a whole.
There is an absolute congruence between the inherently cruel, bloody minded tyranny of the Australian language and its use as a political bludgeon by Howard, Ruddock and co. – The obscenity lies in their bad faith, their replacement of the honored name refugee – a desperate person in need of help - with a dishonest adjective, illegal. As if a mere administrative qualification could replace the full humanity of those to which it refers. Those in our camps are now without humanity, entitled only to one administrative dimension of being. They can exist solely as illegals, which, in actual fact, they are not. It is unsurprising that as non persons they are no longer treated as human beings by our compatriots who guard them. The camps reduce living people to an arbitrary administrative order, just as Malevich’s practice and the late modernist gallery dehumanise art so that it becomes merely instrumental, an incoherent disarticulate block, incapable of critical resistance or revelation.
These two moments are facets of the same cultural, perhaps even spiritual condition, a repressive state of willed, absolute limitations, oppression by silent consensus. Mike’s action is intended to challenge this fatal condition, figuratively, by returning to the body and its humane presence as the only available a priori condition for art and life. Neither logic nor capitalism alone can displace our desire and our mortality. In that sense the nailing of his arm to the wall will be an immediate revelatory scandal.
From the time of Schiller art has always been assumed to reveal the centre of all value in politics and ethics. It has been the site, the instrument, in which the relations of our humanity to our actions have been worked through, tested against the absolute tenets of desire and happiness. It was in this sense that all art was held to be political throughout modernity.
In the last two decades, a determined effort has been made to disenfranchise art as an instrument of cultural praxis, to relocate it as merely one consumer good amongst others, a higher order of fashion statement. Jameson and others have pointed out how closely post modern art theory resembles advertising copy – the gospel of willing slavery, anaesthesia of the soul. Its effect has been disastrous for Australian art, mediocrity thrives, institutions lack direction, art schools are an unethical sham.
From one perspective, Mike’s action will attempt to provoke an ethical ground ‘in extremis’ for art practice. It will figure the irreducible aspects of humanity through physical and critical resistances. Naked, wounded flesh will resist the pristine white wall to which it is attached. The stain of their conflict, their ‘folies a deux’ , will forever corrupt the spaces around them. This is important. Malevich, A Political Arm is not the equivalent of some aging painter glancing through his youthful sketch books for a new idea. Nor is it an attempt to turn the clock back to some putative avant garde moment. There is no clock, only a constantly renewed figure of liberated desire and its negation, its sublation by the arbitrary power of language.
Only in the act of performance itself can this ground for being be revealed. Only performance itself will cut the Gordian knot of fashionable utterance and contradiction. This not a matter of fashion or style. Mike is right or he is wrong. He stakes everything on the outcome. We will soon know.
Before we leave for the night Mike changes his mind again about the performance lighting, the red heads alone are sufficient. Overall gallery lighting is unnecessary.
Friday May 5th daytime
I return to Artspace by taxi at 9.00 am Friday morning. it is raining hard. Work was supposed to start at 10.00 a.m. but it has been pushed forward by the slow set up. Nick and Sophie arrive and unlock the glass doors. Michael the cinematographer backs in his van. I help him unload the usual filming paraphernalia including a balanced swivel arm on a tripod for the long back out shot that Mike wants. I help him run cables over the roof beams and set the lighting. As we work the still photographer and his assistant arrive with another battery of lights. I help Michael balance his fancy swinging boom with weightlifting weights. It is unbelievably stable for such an odd structure. The webmaster follows on, carefully framing the action by balancing his tiny camera on the floor in front of an I mac that shows the images and various panels of stats about transmission and downloads. A cable leads to the side of the gallery where green lights flash in sequence on a tiny modem. It is decided that the webcast will begin 15 minutes before the nailing action. Finally Nick Tsoutas sets up a domestic video camera linked to a VHS deck set to record all 36 hours of the performance.
This slow accumulation of this complex apparatus is a subsidiary performance in itself. Its relation to the actual intended performance is highly complex. It certainly exceeds its ostensible purpose of recording the event. The cameras are all part of the artwork. Mike exercises absolute control over the quality of their imagery, its framing and timing. Camera work transforms the event of the moment into an infinite archive of future possibilities. The cameras and their operators are also witnesses, avatars of the sadistic eye, blinded by what it longs to see.
Gary Manson arrives
with his tool kit, drills and hammer. He asks me if I am right to hold the flesh
on Mike’s upper arm in a pair of surgical tongs while he hammers the nail. I
agree. There is not much loose skin available so he will first place a block
of wood between the arm and the wall to stabilise the nail.
Fixing The Supports.
At 10.00 Mike arrives
with Tess and begins to pull the piece together. He talks at length to every
participant, opening and closing his arm in the air, fixing them with his gaze
so that every detail, every move of the nailing will be in synch, everyone will
be engaged in a shared purpose. This long, detailed process takes nearly an
hour. I model for Mike, seated in the chair, right arm outstretched against
the wall. He frames and reframes the shot with different lenses. In between
takes Tess Parr covers the chair with polythene. Michael works from a b/w video
screen behind the boom – there is a video camera built into his 16mm camera.
Mike chooses a simple lens that gives an evenly scaled image as the camera pans
back. There will no need for me to pull focus or to work the clapper board
or to time the rehearsal. Mike moves through the gallery with Michael explaining
how the camera is to move out through the whole installation once the wound
has been made.
Garry and Mike
begin work on the supports for Mike’s arm. Mike is convinced that his arm can
be held at 90 degrees to his torso with no problems. He cites his habit of resting
his arm on the car window when driving. We are concerned about the build up
of tensions in his shoulder muscles and reactions to these. Nonetheless, after
negotiation, the two metal pegs are set just about horizontal. While this is
happening Mike instructs the still photographer about the framing of his large
scale transparencies of the nailing which will produce at least one more work.
Then Mike reframes the web cam.
Close the camps.
I help Tess set
up the table with the instrument and chemicals out of shot on the wall to the
left. We leave the water, glucose and mineral tablets on the entrance desk at
the other end of the gallery. I check with Sophie O’Brien that the pincers
are there close at hand. Tess covers the arms supports with cotton wool and
bandages. Mike tries them out for comfort. Garry, Mike, Nick, Tess and I rehearse
the nailing with the cameramen. Garry is concerned about his shiny skull blocking
the camera but it seems ok.
Set up sound/vision
It is just on 12.00
noon. A fair crowd has built up in anticipation, many with cameras. Nick reminds
Mike to go for a piss. When he returns, Tess fits his blindfolds, two large
pieces of gaffer tape with cotton wool attached on the inside. They at once
take on the appearance, simultaneously, of Malevich black paintings and of the
rectangular black eye patches used to disguise faces in old fashioned obscene
photos. The connection between the two is suddenly inescapable. I wonder if
desire is blind because the subject always longs to be the object, perhaps the
unique, universal object. Mike is coming perilously close to victimhood and
we, involuntarily, seem to assume the peculiarly, purposive state of grace of
all sadists and torturers.
It is about 12.15
Nick Tsoutas announces to the very varied crowd that we are rehearsing. Could
they please be quiet? But its the real thing – we need silence for the take.
I stand behind Mike’s shoulder Garry hands me the tongs, already attached I
pull them up to stretch the flesh. He slips wooden block behind it and hammers
the nail through the flesh. Mike jerks back rigid with shock. Then, as we agreed,
he calls “release”. I release the tongs but they stay in place. Garry has the
hammered the nail through the loops at their end. They have jammed against the
nail. Gary deftly prizes the tongs apart, unhooks them from the nail, at each
side, removes the wooden block and hammers the nail home hard. Mike begins to
recover mumbles and settles in his seat. Tess moves in with the first betadyne
swab in another pair of tongs and swabs the wound.
Nailed to the wall blind
I am surprised
that this has taken nearly ten minutes, almost the first 16mm reel. Michael
continues to pan back with the second reel for another ten . Then he removes
the camera from the boom and moves through the entire installation as Mike instructed.
The crowd is dispersing but I notice that not many of them drift through the
whole show. I begin taking photos of the work and the audience fascinated by
the relationships that it is creating. Tess asks me to type the final schedule
of instructions for the attendants on the gallery’s I mac - its changed again.
By about 3.30 the space quietens down. Mike the chairs, the lighting rig and
the video images appear more like a tableau – an element in the installation,
than a mere trace of a violent event.
Because Mike is
not struggling, but enduring, he endows his presence in the installation with
monumentality the equal of Sisyphus rolling his stone or perhaps better of Prometheus,
thief of fire from the gods, chained to a rock his liver perpetually gnawed
by an eagle. Both these stories have acted as powerful figures for the modern
condition, freedom and desire chained and suffering, as a condition of their
very existence. I reflect on the extraordinary number of legends and stories,
which came to figure modernity, not as a state of perpetual change, but of endless
bodily endurance. Performance linking the body to politics and art has a far
wider far more central lineage than one usually realises.
Malevich – A Political Arm is being presented by Artspace as one of series of time based works, as if this is its primary categorisation as an action. This is nonsense, brave nonsense given what other galleries are offering, but nonsense nonetheless. Mike has been using time as a major factor in his work for over thirty years, in direct performance for at least two decades. I reflect that the implication or assumption that this new work fits first into a genre or species of concern currently on everyone’s agenda is disastrous for a naive audience and also for the work itself. It is an Australian characteristic to seek reassurance and security in common categories – that is why Australians always tolerate and support comfortable mediocre art in preference to serious risky business. Mike has developed ways of proofing his work against their most devious appropriations The nail is the key. He could have simply sat for thirty six hours as have other artists. The nail invokes the difference, the absolute inescapable chronology of flesh, beyond any fashion.
It is after 3.00pm Garry bids me good day and stresses to everyone that he is to be called immediately it is decided to release Mike. I head off for town to do so some shopping and then back to my hotel to attempt to sleep for four or five hours until ten p.m. in preparation for my midnight shift. I am not very successful. ABC TV is showing part two of Sirens a made for yuppies TV movie, about an obsessive rapist/murderer and two sexy sisters a doctor and a police person, with bad feminist hangovers. I call to tell my wife I know who the murderer is but she guesses right away, before it even starts in Perth. Strange that violence retailed in clean scenarios and conversation and framed by the silliest of bourgeois plots can hold one’s interest for so long.
Friday 11.00 p.m. – Saturday 6.00 p.m.
At ten I shower, don clean old clothes, pack my cameras and reach the gallery by taxi just before 11.00pm. Harry’s Cafe de Wheels is still going full belt, a sizeable crowd passes on the pavement. I think about, maybe a pie and peas at 2.00am. Nick and a couple of artists are relaxed on the gallery sofa. All is still. Mike seems half asleep.
Nick lets me in
and instructs me to be very careful about opening the outer iron door for anyone
and not to go outside for whatever reason. My pie fantasy evaporates. I soon
see why it’s no go. Passers by can see Mike sleeping through the gallery windows.
Most are merely curious and make an attempt to engage the work. Nonetheless
a steady stream of idiots bangs on the glass much as they might bang on aquarium
wall to make the fish move. At one point the far end sash window is pushed open
and an attempt is made to throw a firework into the gallery. It explodes just
outside. Nick and I laboriously close the window.
The nail midnight
Mike had requested
that the shutters for the windows be removed knowing that this would happen.
His performance work always has a strong element of social invocation, an attempt
to bring behaviour and attitude to a moment of self consciousness, a revelation.
To use one damaged body to invoke the spiritual incapacity of an entire tribe
is always a risky business especially in Australia.
The arm midnight
In this moment it is impossible to avoid reconfiguring Mike’s image as kind of martyrdom – the howling crowd, the dark stains on the wall behind his arm, the piss on the floor under his chair , his sunken exhausted pose. I was reminded of the universal icon of the modernist anti-martyr J,L David’s Mart Assassin - a gift to a weeping nation as Baudelaire put it. David borrowed the dead arm of Christ in the pieta – the sword arm of the fallen gladiator to figure the politics of the fallen arm of the rabble rouser journalist, still clutching his useless pen.
Through his performances Mike’s arm has gained a whole range of other accumulated associations. If Lacan is to be believed, we each build a human universe from nothing but a sense of lack/indequacy until we come to believe our native emptiness replaced by plenitude. Mike simply used his absent arm to rehearse this process in front of us with all its psychic and social consequences.
David’s memorial icon is often cited as the first modern, godless painting in that it celebrates the terminal absence and emptiness of pure purpose and universal principle – the modernised of fate of Sisyphus and Prometheus. In this sense Mike’s piece is a double negation of Marat, in its recognition of the pointless purpose of the camps as social extension of the psychic project of making everything out of nothing first charted by Lacan. Mike’s pinned down arm certainly invokes the gallery wall as an abyss of meaninglessness on which nothing can be inscribed, no action made good, just as Marat’s arm will never again inscribe political purpose over the void of the social .
I put this possibility
to Mike on Sunday after the performance. He agrees that the negative relation
to the lugubrious, revolutionary icon has possibilities. Marat’s arm was always
political, but in Malevich A Political Arm Mike constructs his one arm
as a short circuit through the paradoxes of art and politics. As always the
body provides shortest route from a to b.
Any enforced vision of our originary emptiness can cause confused, but purposeful, anger, that takes for its instant illusory credo, the notion that destruction of what is to be seen can restore our habitual illusion of sight – psychic blindness. While Nick and I are going through the routines I will need during the night, three men present at the iron gate. Nick recognises one as an artist and the others as the architects who designed Federation Place, a site of trendy controversy in Melbourne. We admit them not noticing that one architect is pure ego in a badly tailored charcoal grey suit. He sees Mike and starts up, first he flings open the window we have closed. Shit starts pouring in from the street. I invite him to close it again at once – seriously.
He does, after a face down, but this precipitates a weird kangaroo dance intended to threaten all our equipment. The condescending bastard knew about cables and lights. I suggest his friends take him outside before I administer a Liverpool kiss. Nick is quicker. Seizing his moment, he grabs the guy by the collar and gives him the bum’s rush through the bars. Once outside the creep starts to tell us he is a human being. Well, maybe, but I wouldn’t let him restyle my dunny, never mind Federation Square. My admiration for Nick rises by the second as he teaches the moron to spell J-E-R-K and explains, slowly, that he has just interrupted someone working very intensively on a major creative project. You can’t fight ego though. The creep’s next ploy is a demand to be allowed back in to apologise to Mike in person. Refused, the jerk races off forces open the window we carefully closed from the outside and shouts to Mike that Nick and I are fascists. We wedge the window shut for good.
They say that history eventually repeats itself as farce, but I did not anticipate this comic reversal of the assassination of Marat. The conveniently self ‘assassinated’, but still living, artist was saved by two bother boys from a zombie reincarnation of Charlotte Corday. No business has been more corrupt in its “civilising purpose” than architecture. Architects are the ultimate in armpits. The stench of their greedy arrogance fills the world. Silliness apart, this parallel has point. The jerk architect’s reaction embodied the relationship of a blind constructive force, a desperately rigid psyche, to the supple negative criticality of Mike’s installation. Suddenly it came to me –this guy could be building camps for ‘illegals’, just as his ‘colleagues’ in the Third Reich designed Auschwitz, to be as efficient as possible. This comic excursion demonstrates the way in which Mike’s performance can crystallise the truth from all kinds of social relations, at the same psychic level. It is a remarkable, almost unique achievement.
This was the only incident all night. At midnight I prepare Mike’s water and glucose and gave it to him. Then I watch Nick do the midnight swab of Mike’s arm and release the plastic straps so that he could stand, by swiveling his arm around the nail. I do this every two hours and change the videotapes every three hours until noon Saturday when I am due a break. Nick left. It went very quiet. I settle in for the night with my headphone radio and large mug of orange juice from the fridge. The photographer pays a brief visit about 1.00 am to make another series of large transparencies.
The task is not difficult. The stress is in keeping awake between actions. The swabs relieve Mike’s swelling arm but one had to be careful to avoid the betadyne dripping down on his underarm and the supports, where it causes irritation. After a while we leave one strap off, permanently, because it was causing unpleasant bruising. In the morning Tess Parr rebuilds the supports. For Mike to stand, the chair has to be moved back as one supports his shoulders from behind. I make certain there is no tension on the nail and the wound as his arm swivels. There is surprising little blood but a slowly spreading brown and yellow stain of betadyne radiates downwards across the wall from the wound. Occasionally Mike asks for more water. While he stands Mike urinates. As time goes on his shoulders become like rock When Tess Parr returns just before 6.00 am we begin regular massaging of the tense muscles.
About 3.00 am four young students visit. I realise I have to watch them as they move around the gallery, just in case they tear a page from the blacked out book or commit other atrocities. No worries - they are fans. They spend twenty minutes soaking up the feel of the space and leave quietly.
The phone rings. It is Tess to tell me she is on her way from Alexandria. It rings again. An Internet group in the UK is calling to ask if they can borrow an image from the webcast to publicise the event on their site. I walk over and ask Mike – he agrees. This is not the first of Mike’s pieces to be put out live on the web but this time it goes wild. The webmaster tells us later that he had to upgrade the site continuously to cope with the many thousands of hits, world wide. The net adds a new dimension a global audience to Mike’s performance work I speculate as to whether the resultant loss of face to face intimacy might weaken its real time impact but decide that this is not the case. The contrary may well be true. A real time icon has all sorts of political possibilities. Certainly my friend Gosia in Perth is excited enough by the initial nailing on the web to call my wife to ask how Mike is. The net may prove to be an ideal way of extending the effect and affect of the social presence for which Mike always searches. A lot more thought needs to go into the difference between a performance piece on the web and a webcam in someone’s toilet. What kind of presence does the web permit or produce ? Why does Big Brother abolish intimacy while a Parr performance may be able to restore it?
When Tess arrives I am just about done but keep on swabbing and dosing Mike with water, panadol and vitamins. Tess leaves about 8 30 to deal with the Parr dogs and shopping. John Loane , Mike’s printer arrives about 9.00. We have a constructive discussion about progress on the catalogue raissonnée of Mike’s prints. I express a hope that the Café de Wheels might open soon. Decent fellow that he is John buys me a surprise pie and peas before he leaves for a round of gallery visits. It tastes like the best thing I have ever eaten. New energies surf my veins.
Sophie O’Brien and couple of volunteers drift in. Tess reappears at 1.00pm. I take an hour off to see Bitter Sweet a show of young artists at the Art Gallery of New South Wales just up the road on the domain. After so many shadows, so much quiet at Artspace, the crowd disturbs me. I expect the worst and I am not disappointed. The coercive corporate ‘we’ is all over the place. ‘We’ it seems, now see our lives in self conscious moments drawn from magazine and TV scenarios that we are suckers and slaves to nothing much in particular. In somebody’s dreams ‘we’ might, its easier than thinking. Darren Sylvester’s lacklustre colour photos – adverts with nothing to sell show how pathetic his idea is – nothing can be done with it. Sylvester has returned to Pre Raphaelite literality – the first dumb visual apologia for high capitalist ‘reality’, as his badly composed photo of a girl listening to her car radio indicates. A passive sentimental art life “ between irony and belief ” is a sad decline from the ambition “to act between art and life“ the leitmotif of modernity. Only David Rosetzky’s video installations, monologues projected onto screens set in wood grain formica wallpanels show some promise but Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads did it much better straight to TV. Bitter Sweet certainly left a bad taste in my mouth Almost every work in it moved in the wrong direction, from idea to art.
Later I find Ben Genocchio has given Bitter Sweet a bad review but not come down the hill to Artspace. That night I pass Bruce James in the back blocks of Darlinghurst, wearing striped track suit pants and carrying a large orange plastic file. I nearly bail him up but why bother. The lack of critical response to Malevich A Political Arm is nothing unusual. Mike’s work constitutes an absolute challenge to art as self expression and delectation, the only rhetoric that these boys know. James can’t see past “time based work”. He’d done two women installation artists that week already.
Back at Artspace by 1.45pm, I expect to go to ‘lunch’ with Tess then home but she has to leave to get food for the weekend, so I ‘volunteer’ to stay for another two hours. I take a nap on the sofa, out like a light. They wake me in half an hour for a phone call from Tess, who offers to buy me a vegie burger. I agree. They’re delicious. I massage Mike’s back a few times. At an unguarded moment I kick over the web cam We spend an anxious ten minutes reframing it and checking the website output on the gallery desk computer. People come and go. When Tess returns Mike announces that he will end the piece at 6.00pm. Tess phones Garry and the camera teams to be ready on time.
I take another trip by taxi to Sherman galleries to collect a print Mike has given me. Richard Dunn has the main gallery, he is entertaining a group of lady collectors in front of his large early seventies looking colour abstracts. Round the back Bill Wright gets out a bottle of chilled white, and, together, we bemoan the state of the art schools. He has a project to create a free art school in a circus tent. He has noticed that all Sydney art schools are set next to parks. A circus art school could set up there and lure the students back to something like art. We finish the bottle and I return to Artspace .
My two excursions
somehow bracket Mike’s performance. It becomes clear how desperate the Sydney
scene has become, how keen they must be to shoot the messenger, to sustain their
hard won amnesia. The indifference of the art world to Malevich - A Political
Arm is inevitable and all their loss. When I return I take a walk with Tess
Parr who is more than a little annoyed. I try to explain why it doesn’t matter.
Removing the nail.
About 5.30pm Garry
and his friend Gareth who will hold Mike’s arm in place, arrive. They prepare
to remove the nail. At six we all line up with our cameras. Garry slackens the
supports and extracts the nail in a single clean movement. By 6,30 we are ready
to go. Nick is setting up the video projector, which will rerun the event from
tape with Mike’s figure at exact size on the wall. It is a great success.
At the hotel I can only watch TV. One channel is reshowing The Chamber. It has reached the preliminaries to the gassing. Gene Hackman is at his verbose best. The obscene state apparatus is fully displayed, ramified to the point of pointlessness. I turn to The Bill in despair. The comparison with Mike’s piece is disturbing enough to require thought. I wonder if I have participated in some kind of public execution. Certainly Mike’s work also has a complex protocol an apparatus designed to strip all affect away from the action. American executions are always political, the ultimate farce of apparent absolute certainty produced by bureaucratic manipulation. This is a major theme of Malevich - A Political Arm. We lock away illegals with the same arbitrary conviction.
There is a humorous postscript. Tess calls me the next day to say that after breakfast Mike has been asked to do an interview by a BBC radio station in London –they have seen the web cast – will I do it for him? We prepare carefully with details of the work, Artspace and so on. The phone rings Richard the producer patches me through to the live broadcast. A man in Rockhampton is describing the perils of feral pigs “They stand right in your path and you know they can run faster than you can. It’s the same with the dingoes.”
This is Radio Five Alive, continuity radio. So they ask “Why does he do it?” I talk for five minutes uninterrupted, explain about the camps and Mike’s performance work. Then “So it’s a political protest?” “No its more about the psychic conditions that lead to politics” “Ok ! Thanks for that and good luck.”
I wonder how many art loving Londoners are awake at 1.15 am Greenwich time.