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Dark Mofo

Mike Parr Proves We Only Face Our Past With White Narrators

The artist spent the weekend buried below a busy Hobart street to make a statement about totalitarian violence. But now he’s out, we should consider why we needed to bury him in the first place.

by Wendy Syfret
18 June 2018, 5:43am

Image via Dark Mofo

For his third and final outing at Dark Mofo, controversial performance artist Mike Parr went above and beyond. Well, technically below and beyond—below Macquarie Street, one of the busiest roads in central Hobart.

At 9PM on Thursday night, his latest performance piece Underneath The Bitumen The Artist began as the 73-year-old was buried alive in a specially-made 4.5m x 1.7m x 2.2m steel container in front of more than 3,000 onlookers. For three days he would live underground. All he took was a sketchpad, pencils, water, bedding, a chair, a bucket, and a copy of The Fatal Shore, Robert Hughes' classic history of Australia’s violent beginnings. A fan-forced air supply pumped through, but that’s about as far as the luxuries went. He received no food. Although security cameras were monitoring him, and curators stressed that if anything went wrong he could be extracted in minutes.

Parr moments before entering the shipping container.

Assurances of his safety weren’t enough for German curators at the Documenta contemporary art festival. A decade ago Parr planned to perform this feat there, but organisers rejected the project as too risky. MONA and Dark Mofo are confined by different realities, though — ones made possible by financial backing from an eccentric millionaire with a taste for drama and headlines.

So 10 years after the idea came to him, Parr finally entered his tomb. Watching him descend, and the road above be re-sealed with bitumen, ready for the flow of traffic to resume, the feeling was tense and surreal. The same questions echoed down the street as strangers rubbed their hands against the freezing Hobart night air: would it be hot or cold in there? Silent or tortuously loud? Didn’t David Blaine do this already?

He did actually, in 2009. When Blaine went under it was in a plexiglas coffin, surrounded by three tons of water. He made it seven days. If you wanted to be cynical, you could say Parr’s set up seemed pretty comfortable by comparison.

But Parr was out to do more than test his body and mind. Underneath The Bitumen The Artist was a performance to memorialise victims of 20th century totalitarian violence. Specifically, the violence of British Colonialism in Australia and the lives it destroyed. Parr had stressed the work was dually calling attention to the destruction of the Indigenous population, and the 75,000 British and Irish convicts who found themselves abandoned at the edge of the earth.

Hobart’s history of violence is a theme that comes up a lot across all parts of the city’s life, but especially during Dark Mofo. Each year artists, galleries and curators probe it in different ways.

Even beyond the festival and events, it’s impossible to wander the city and not feel its ghosts. Driving in from the airport on the morning of Parr’s burial, small talk with my driver quickly moved from the best places to get a sandwich to the city and the state’s shadows. Even as a local she admitted it wasn’t something you really got used to, this uneasy feeling of trauma. Genocide, colonial violence, the Port Arthur Massacre, Willow Court asylum, Cascades Female Factory — so many painful lives were lived and ended here.

Mike Parr’s work has always toyed with these uneasy feelings. His roll call of previous spectacles is long, strange, and familiar: there was the time he appeared to hack off a blood and meat filled prosthetic arm in a lecture, the time he recorded himself having his lips and face stitched together with threads, the time he lay on the floor of a gallery splattered with his own blood.

The road being resealed above Parr.

Before Underneath The Bitumen The Artist, his two previous Dark Mofo pieces had uncomfortable realities at their heart. Two years ago he performed Asylum [Entry By Mirror Only] at the Willow Court asylum in New Norfolk, Australia’s oldest asylum for the criminally insane. For 72 hours he stayed there, drawing constantly, not sleeping and barely consuming food or water. It was a memorial piece for his brother who passed away in 2009 after dealing with mental illness for most of his life.

Attendees were asked to bring a mirror, and leave it somewhere on the property that spoke to them. By the end of the 72 hours the site was dotted with thousands of small pieces of glass, each representing a single person’s point of connection to this painful place. It was a small and simple way to force audience engagement with the people who lived there, before it became a setting for local ghost stories.

Last year he returned to Dark Mofo with Empty Ocean. Spectators were ferried to Bruny Island at 2AM to witness 72 elderly people clap stones together in unison in the freezing dark. It was described as a meditation on time, ageing, and isolation. Speaking to the Guardian, Parr reflected that the performers were about his age, “That was important. It’s an age when the end is near.” Standing on the island, feeling cold, vulnerable, and confused, it was a relatable position.

Across those projects, we saw what Parr is best at. Not gore and horror, but coaxing out feelings usually too complex and amorphous to even articulate. And while the past two years drew out threads of age, desolation, madness, and abandonment, in his final Dark Mofo act it makes sense he would face the past.

Macquarie Street after traffic has resumed.

The morning after he was buried, I went to check out the sandwich shop my driver suggested. Walking back to my hotel I found myself on Macquarie Street, now choked with traffic. Gazing across the road, I tried to make out the lines where they’d carved up the bitumen. The scar was barely visible. There was no real hint of what went on there the night before or what lay below. I felt anxious and sick; was he okay in there? What was he doing? Glancing at passersby, it seemed crazy that life was continuing with a man beneath us.

But this is of course the whole intention. For the three days he was in there, re-reading Fatal Shore, pissing in a bucket, we were preoccupied with him. We felt his presence. It was the personification of the sense of unease that hangs over the state as a whole.

Not everyone has been so taken with this large, complex, and very public performance. Last month, Hobart Mayor Ron Christie told ABC Radio he was worried over the impact the project would have on traffic during the busiest period in the year. Locals were equally perplexed, taking to social media to ask if there weren’t better ways to spend all this money and effort?

Dark Mofo curator Jarrod Rawlins did note to the ABC that the work is “funded by MONA which is owned by David Walsh, and the artist is liable for his own actions and we are liable for ours." So disruption aside, the state isn’t paying for it.

But the most poignant response has been the mixed feelings of the local Indigenous community, whose history the project is supposed to speak to. Last month, The Mercury reported that Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre chief executive Heather Sculthorpe found the performance insulting. When it came to “telling the Aboriginal story”, she stressed that “some old fella under a road is not the way to do it”.

The centre’s spokesman Michael Mansell followed up the comments with statement expressing support of Parr: “The Aboriginal people of Tasmania are right behind [Parr] for making the point that Tasmania's historical treatment of Aboriginal people has been hidden — buried, as it were — for far too long.”

Mansell continued that while the artist’s approach was unusual, it “might raise Tasmania’s awareness of the mass killings of Aboriginals ...This is the real history of white settlement.” “Instead of Tasmania putting its head in the sand,” he added, “it needs to openly talk about the past and how it affects people today. Mr Parr is making his contribution.”

Sculthorpe later agreed with her colleague’s comments, but still pressed that while the intention is good, a white man doesn’t need to be at the centre of the dialogue. “We agree on the bottom line, which is that it’s vital that Tasmanians and people in Hobart know more about the Aboriginal history of this place.” Finally pointing out that “Aboriginal people can tell their stories better than somebody under a road … and I think Michael proved that through his letter.”

On Thursday night, the question of who should be the gatekeeper of these stories was still very present. The Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre stood at the front of the crowd, holding up Indigenous flags and draping them over the barriers. Their spokesman, Michael Mansell, reflected to the ABC that, “Our history has been buried like he's being buried."

Over the weekend I returned to Macquarie Street several times, always looking around to try to get a sense if any other passersby were also drawn to the covered hole. Parr is undeniably very good at making people seek out the unseen. And his dramatic, often violent acts, draw attention and reflection. But we are still coming for the spectacle first and the rumination second.

Sculthorpe’s question of why do we need “some old fella under a road” to engage with an Indigenous narrative sat above all the chatter across the weekend. Our past isn’t hidden. It can be accessed, engaged with, spoken about at any time, but it’s not. We literally needed to rip up a major street to talk about it on mass.

By roughly 9.30PM on Sunday night, Underneath The Bitumen The Artist concluded as a crane lifted away the slab of road above Parr’s weekend home. While the crowd — smaller than Thursday’s offering thanks to a constant drizzle — cheered on, David Walsh reached in and helped the unsteady artist out.

Mike Parr looked worn out but well, as he quickly moved away and out of view, allowing the whoops and excited calls of congratulations to fall behind him. For most of the crowd, the sight of him was enough. He had survived the strange experiment. But as the mass dispersed a clutch of Indigenous flags could still be made out above the damp heads, waving steadily, the only visible reminder of what this whole project was apparently about.

With Parr out, the container will be filled in with concrete and again covered by the road. "Who knows — one day a future generation might end up digging it up and finding out what went on in there," Rawlins told the ABC last week. Walking away, finding my way home, I wonder what they’ll make of it. We always wish the future will look back on us with pride. But if this is ever exhumed, hopefully it appears as a strange folly, a weird unnecessary experiment, to a new generation who don’t need tricks to face their own history.

Dark Mofo runs until 24 June. For a full program of events, head over to their website.