Mike Parr: ‘Foreign Looking’ at the NGA


(Parr’s  Exhibition opening performance in Canberra, titled Jackson Pollock the Female (2016) Photo Courtesy of ArtsHub)

Mike Parr is undoubtedly one of Australia’s most distinguished practicing performance artists with his cultural significance recognised in both Australian and international contexts. Establishing himself as a provocative, and somewhat controversial figure from the 1970’s and onwards, he has played an integral role in the formation and development of the conceptual art scene in Australia. Over the last number of decades Parr has explored various mediums in his artwork, including painting, sculpture, printmaking and performance ( the medium favoured in his most confronting, but also most revered works).

He is the artist most recognised by the Australian art establishment, representing Australia at the Venice Biennale (1980); included in numerous Sydney biennales; showered with surveys and retrospectives in state galleries, including the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney (2006) and now, from the 12th of August the National Gallery of Australia (NGA) in Canberra is displaying a retrospective exhibition titled Mike Parr: Foreign Looking  that covers a curated selection of the bold and often divisive body of work of his fifty year oeuvre.

This is the first exhibition to bring together Parr’s work in all its various mediums from 1970 to the present. The exhibition spans nine galleries consisting of a series of projection rooms and with a  theatrical focus on Parr’s performance artist and filmmaking practice, while a dedicated reading room and performance space hosts talks, workshops and new performance commissions. Additionally, the exhibition presents works never previously seen, including distorted self-portrait photographs.

Parr remains a challenging and inventive artistic character within the art world,  with an endless ability to surprise and confront the viewer. Above all, he is a thinking artist, constantly examining, exploring and challenging himself and his audiences. Since the 1970s, one of his favourite strategies has been to use self-inflicted pain and self-mutilation in his performative pieces to confront the beholder.  Throughout his career Parr has cut, stitched and burned his own body in the name of art, regularly defaced his own work, and once vomited primary-coloured paint onto a blank canvas.

But Mike Parr says shock is a vital part of all modern art, and makes no apologies for revealing all sides of his personality in his experimental work.He said he was well aware that his work was considered polarizing by most audiences, but that he had deliberately distributed the more confronting aspects of his work throughout the exhibition:”The shock is necessary because I think it’s important to as an artist not to self-censor, so I think you’ve got to take the risk and reveal all sides of your personality and not apologise for it. I think that’s also the essence of contemporary art.”

As Gina Farley comments in her review of the show, Co-curators Roger Butler and Elspeth Pitt have done an excellent job, “delivering a well punctuated and well paced exhibition”

“The viewer moves from constructed viewing spaces for video, to plywood rooms that have seemingly been backed into the gallery – their structure offering a formal element and controlling sound bleeds.

As you would expect, viewing this Mike Parr exhibition is a shared physical experience. This is perhaps the subtle star of this survey – the way it takes you as a viewer – all laden up with perceptions of the Parr brand and disorientates those expectations, delivering you to a new understanding.

The foyer area to the temporary exhibition area at the NGA is a difficult space with curved walls and floor to ceiling windows. It looks the best it has looked for a long time, with a pop-up kiosk / reading room of archival material and early experimental text works and a sweeping vitrine of Parr’s diaries from 1975 – 2014.

(Parr’s diaries provide a rare and insightful addition to this exhibition. Photo courtesy of ArtsHub)

Entering the main gallery the visitor is faced with two doorways obscured with black theatrical curtains – from the beginning Parr is directing our responses.The first gallery presents a rolling collection of performed works, The Montage in Space and Time (1972-2016), which then navigates you through a corridor of recent prints and double-sided drawings from the last two years, before punching into a gallery of Parr’s signature works – his Bride Series, AMERIKA, The End of Nature video.

Without listing out three decades of works on display, this entry passage described sets the tone – a kind of push and pull, a micro, a macro, past and present. It is almost as though you are invited to do a slow dance through a career – its high points, starlight moments and its deep dark torments. Surprisingly, you don’t feel burdened by video in this show, the punctuation and conversations between the works across time has been well edited.”

(Installation view Mike Parr survey, Foreign Looking at NGA; Photo courtesy of ArtsHub)

Survey exhibitions can be difficult to pull off, some can be too exhaustive or too inclusive, with audiences quickly feeling overwhelmed. Foreign Looking manages to avoid these issues. There is a breathing space and a relatable quality to this exhibition that makes Mike Parr relatively comfortable and approachable – perfect for individuals who may be experiencing his work for the first time.

As the NGA’s senior curator Robert Butler explains their planning process, there have been some major Mike Parr exhibitions in the last decade or so both nationally and internationally, but they have had a tendency to focus on a much more narrow section of his wider practice. The NGA show manages to bring all of the various threads of Parr’s practice together into a comprehensive but synchronistic whole. “The exhibition is like a singular work in its own way…It shows the inter-relationship between all of these things, and the early work and late work” he reiterates. For Butler, these juxtapositions and dialectics encourage new insights into Parr’s complex practice commenting “I think people will get a surprise.”

The exhibition at the National Gallery is definitely a provocative experience that will undoubtedly leave you emotionally stimulated and intellectually challenged. Although many may leave the exhibition convinced that the art of Mike Parr may not really their preferred aesthetic, Parr has become an artist that no one who appreciates Australian art can afford to ignore.

‘Mike Parr: Foreign Looking’ is showing from August 12- November 6, 2016 at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra. Entry is free.


Farley, Gina., Blood on the floor literally as Parr takes on Pollock, August 2016, http://visual.artshub.com.au/news-article/features/visual-arts/gina-fairley/blood-on-the-floor-literally-as-parr-takes-on-pollock-251947

Grishin, Sasha., Mike Parr: Foreign Looking at the National Gallery, August 2016, http://www.canberratimes.com.au/act-news/canberra-life/mike-parr-foreign-looking-at-the-national-gallery-of-australia-20160814-gqsg22.html

The National Gallery of Australia, Mike Parr: Foreign Looking, August 2016 http://nga.gov.au/Parr/Default.cfm

2 comments on “Mike Parr: ‘Foreign Looking’ at the NGAAdd yours →

  1. If I was an individual who was very very into art and other cultural events in Australia and had an above average knowledge of art or was somewhat uninformed and wanted to know more about Australia’s own significant creative individuals and collectives I would found this article very informative. Firstly, the bottom of the article if I was just an average reader and quickly wanted to scroll the page, it highlights the fact that this exhibition is upcoming and FREE which is great news, so I would probably end up reading the whole thing. This would also be great if I was from the Asia Pacific and wanted to know about some cultural things I could do while visiting Australia. I would also as a member of this audience appreciate the fact there is some images but not too many so that it doesn’t spoil my interest but showing me all of it, but just enough to get me interested to actually go and see it. If I didn’t know about Parr or wanted to know more I would found this article insightful as it provides me information about his style as a performer as well as his physical art works and his significance to modern art which is somewhat characterised by his use of ‘shock’ which is very interesting and different. I would probably remember this article.

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