Australia has long been under-recognized internationally as a seedbed of radical culture. Australians such as Sidney Nolan and Germaine Greer had to move abroad to garner significant attention. The continent’s brutality, on the other hand, is famous. In 1966, Woody Allen boxed with a kangaroo on the British television show Hippodrome, enshrining violence as the métier even of the national emblem. And no other country has lost a prime minister: PM Harold Holt disappeared while swimming at Portsea Beach in 1967.
What of the Australian artists who never moved abroad? One such example is Mike Parr, whose work has been overlooked internationally until now. ‘Edelweiss’, which surveys more than 40 years of Parr’s work, is the artist’s first major solo exhibition in Europe – at the age of 67 after a 20-year reign at home as one of the most critically acclaimed and ‘senior’ Australian artists. Cleverly, as ‘Edelweiss’ attests, Parr has developed a twinned practice of performance/documentation and printmaking: one half supported institutionally; and the other by the market. Parr freely admits that the latter pays for the former, and that he deserves some comforts between performances. No wonder: the majority of them involve extreme pain via self-harm or privation. This tendency attracted the Kunsthalle’s curators, who saw an affinity between Parr’s performances and those of the Viennese Actionists.
Most explicit is Parr’s connection to the Wiener Gruppe and the practices of Friedrich Achleitner, H.C. Artmann, Konrad Bayer and Gerhard Rühm during the mid-1950s through to the mid-60s. These artists had literary attachments and explored linguistic dialectics in their performances and texts. The parallel with Parr’s practice is illustrated by the inclusion of the numerous artist books and manifestos he has published since 1970. In that year, Parr, with a group of Sydney friends, founded an artist-run space called Inhibodress as a haven for experimental language and performance art. Some of Parr’s 150 ‘instructions’, which he made between 1970 and ’72, are reminiscent of concrete poetry, and his language experiments echo those of artists such as John Baldessari and Sol LeWitt. Parr’s best known such experiment, made for Inhibodress in 1972, is Let a friend bite into your shoulder until blood appears. The instruction was performed on Parr by Peter Kennedy, who took him at his word, and in so doing revealed what makes Parr a sui generis post-object artist. Parr, as appears in numerous ways throughout the exhibition, is an amputee whose left arm is little more than a stump. Kennedy bit into the shoulder of Parr’s good arm.
At the beginning of his career, Parr’s performances – documented in 11 videos and six suites of photos within the exhibition – were conceptual and ironic. But, over time, they became more publicly attuned and politicized. The signal work of the early period, recorded in photographs, is The Emetics (Primary Vomit); I Am Sick of Art (Red, Yellow and Blue) (1977), in which he ingested acrylic paint in Piet Mondrian’s signature palette and, naturally enough, puked them back up again onto a canvas. The photograph Emetics, Red shows the canvas set on the floor in front of a blue chair and a painter’s drop cloth, recalling Joseph Kosuth’s One and Three Chairs (1965). Meanwhile, Parr’s engagement with his amputation is engendered in his ‘Rules and Displacements Series’ (1977–83): in one performance from the series, recorded on video, he seems to chop off his left arm with an axe – Australian brutality brought to the fore. As an antidote, beginning in the 1980s, Parr started an ongoing series of ‘Bride’ performances, in which he dresses in full white regalia and make-up (two portraits from 2006 are included in ‘Edelweiss’) to feminize or de-brutalize his overall performative self, while punning on Marcel Duchamp.
In recent years, Australian immigration and asylum laws have become draconian, and populist culture and politics have turned rancorous towards Muslims and refugees. Parr has responded to this development in extreme performances that are truly mediatized (that is, regularly reported on national evening news). In the videos UnAustralian and Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, Oi, Oi, Oi (Democratic Torture) (both 2003), Parr has his lips sewn shut and his face sewn into a fearful grimace, respectively, by an attending doctor. Each performance takes longer than the average person can bear to watch or listen to: Parr’s guttural grunts are especially visceral and emblematic of the suppression of protest by the asylum seekers and the deafening silence of Australian voices raised on their behalf. As the political climate in Austria is making one of its cyclical swings to the right (and immigration and asylum policy along with it) Parr’s work possesses empathetic force in this country, too.