Mike Parr: Foreign Looking. “It’s ART”


“It’s ART” seems to be the answer to most of my carefully prepared questions to Elspeth Pitt, Assistant Curator at the National Gallery of Australia.

Not just art, or even aauurrrt – it’s ART.

For the largest solo exhibition of a living Australian artist – that took around two years to curate specifically for the NGA – it had better be.

The significance of Mike Parr’s exhibition ‘Foreign Looking’ is unprecedented within the bounds of Australian art. It’s the oeuvre of an artist who pushed the boundaries and set new standards in both Australian and international performance art. However, Pitt comments that Parr is unfortunately much better regarded internationally than in Australia. Where’s that quintessential Australian jingoism when it comes to art?

To exemplify his Australian influence, Parr’s performance artwork ‘Jackson Pollock the Female’ draws on the controversy surrounding the 1973 purchase of Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles in order to criticise current Australian arts funding. Blue Poles has increased in value by 35000% (from $1.3 million to $350 million); a worthy investment in hindsight.

Similarly, Parr made a political statement about the Australian government’s lack of action against climate change by burning millions of dollars worth of his art at the Sydney Biennale earlier this year. A video is included in the exhibition as a recent example of Parr’s performance art, and also as a reminder of the artist’s engagement with politics and society – or as a bid to remain relevant.

The comprehensive exhibition flows conceptually in a quasi-chronological order, from Parr’s earliest performance work to his most recent statements. Criticisms that Parr’s work is egocentric, as a self-described ‘self portrait project’, are dismissed by Pitt when we speak. She notes that Parr is really an “everyman” – however, the challenge that this exhibition poses to the audience contradicts that statement.

According to Pitt, “Mike is a HARD artist, he expects a lot from his audience; as much as he expects from himself.” This is a somewhat alienating concept, from an artist who pushes his physical limits to breaking point. Parr forces his audience to dark places within themselves, as that is what he draws out from within himself. His interest in the emotional and psychological is one of the reasons he didn’t want any wall panels next to his works. He didn’t want to explain it. When working with the artist, Elspeth Pitt negotiated for minimal wall panels but an accompanying brochure of collated explanations of the works from Pitt’s intense email correspondence with Parr. Indeed, for the mind craving further insights into Parr’s work, the exhibition of his journals and the reading room filled with books by and on Parr will satisfy that appetite.

The titular piece of the exhibition ‘Foreign Looking’ is a performance combined with painted-over prints. Parr covers a series of prints in black paint – either ‘completing’ his artwork or destroying it, depending which critic you ask. The intrinsic value of his art is immense and draws into question the financial responsibilities and motivations of artists.

Mike Parr: Foreign Looking is a particularly confronting exhibition featuring self-mutilation and garish grotesque prints that shock the audience. Although Pitt argues the shock-factor is an unintentional effect of authentic work, I am not so convinced. In a world where all publicity is good publicity and ‘shock’ is repeatedly used to grab the audience’s attention, it’s hard to tell the authentic from the crowd-pleasing. We, the audience, are both appalled and enthralled.

Decide for yourself. Mike Parr: Foreign Looking at the NGA until November 6th.

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