5 September 2016

Mike Parr exhibition confronting yet compelling

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“It is a bit provocative,” said my friend as she arranged for me to be invited to a performance by Mike Parr at the opening of his exhibition Foreign Looking at the National Gallery of Australia.

“How provocative could it be,” I wondered. I mean, this was an event at a national collecting institution. Could it be more controversial than say Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles?

Picture of Mike Parr during his performance of Jackson Pollock the Female - picture supplied by NGA
Picture of Mike Parr during his performance of Jackson Pollock the Female – picture supplied by NGA

Er, yes. Much more controversial. And the Jackson Pollock the Female performance was themed around Blue Poles, which hung in the background throughout the performance.

I had no idea what to expect. When I arrived I was immediately drawn to the drinks table with its prominent display of Bloody Mary cocktails. “We thought this would go well with the performance,” said the bartender.

Bloody Mary cocktails
Bloody Mary cocktails

“Say what?”

“I heard they are going to use real blood in the performance,” said one of my artistically minded friends, who was clearly in the know.

As I have a propensity to fainting and freaked out earlier in the year when I tried unsuccessfully to donate blood, I was aghast. “Really? An animal’s blood? His own?”

The spotlights shone on the performance space, and people huddled around to clinically observe. I hung back and enjoyed the entrees, feeling apprehensive about what was to happen yet peeking at the live recording on the television screen anyway. Mike Parr was dressed in a white gown, which only later I realized must be a wedding dress. And yes, the performance did involve real blood – his own, which was harvested during the performance and then thrown, blue poles art creation style, over his prostrate body using the white gown as a canvass. The blood splatter pattern was eerily similar to that of Blue Poles, which was hanging directly behind; I will never be able to look at that artwork the same way again.

TV shot of Mike Parr lying on the floor covered in blood
A photo of the live recording of Mike Parr’s performance of Jackson Pollock the Female

Later we wandered through the exhibition. I felt deeply uncomfortable. There was something challenging about it that unsettled me, that somehow tested my inner compass and beliefs. I thought I was open minded, but I was perhaps more conservative than I thought.

Amputations, peep shows that made you want to peep, phallic-like sculptures, tormented self portraits, videos of facial mutilations (complete with ear piercing screams), S & M themes, wedding gowns (including the artist in drag), maternal references and blood – it was all there. And strangely compelling. Just like the sensationalist headline of tabloid, it drew me in yet also repulsed.

Mike Parr’s exhibition is confronting and unsettling. It disturbs the status quo. It challenges what is art. It challenges gender. It challenges sexuality. And it is worth seeing – in fact I would argue it is a must see – because it is just so challenging. I challenge you to go.

What: Mike Parr Looking Foreign
Where: National Gallery of Australia
When: 12 August to 6 November
Cost: Free
Website: http://nga.gov.au/Parr/Default.cfm

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