Auckland Art Gallery News, July–October 2004.
Active since the early 197os, Mike Parr is one of the key Australian artists of his generation. Principally a performance artist, his works have tested his physical and psychological limits. They have addressed his relation to himself and his body; his relations with others, his immediate family, the audience; and relations within the wider world. Parr’s work has long provided Australia with a means to gauge its psychic health—a recent performance concerned the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers in Australian detention camps. At once grotesque and tender, Parr’s 1996 photograph Portrait of M and F has an ambiguous status, fudging the distinction between secondary performance document and primary photographic work. It records a ‘closed performance’, a performance staged not for an audience but for the camera, accessible only through this photograph. Styled for the camera, the image recalls Diane Arbus’s work, cueing us to read the image as predatory and voyeuristic. In fact, the subjects are completely complicit. Portrait shows the artist and his wife Felizitas stripped to the waist, sitting on a bed, in a Sydney hotel room. It’s both a formal portrait, yet intimate, conflating public and private. Parr’s vestigial stump arm, a birth defect—a recurrent subject in his work—is pressed against his wife’s mastectomy scar, making stump-and-scar suggestive of sex organs. Parr scrambles his metaphors. Freud may have cast the penis as presence in relation to the vagina as absence, but here it is the absence of Parr’s forearm that makes us think of his upper arm as a penis. The vagina is routinely coded as a wound by feminists and misogynists alike, but here we have the reversal of vagina-as-wound into wound-as-vagina, and this wound comes from the amputation of a female secondary sexual characteristic. Also, because of his defective arm, Parr’s chest has developed in an asymmetric manner, making his right breast fuller than his left. In the photograph this suggests some strange empathetic compensation for his wife’s missing right breast. Finally Parr’s title exploits the contingency of his subjects’ Christian names to suggest that this is not simply a portrait of a man and a woman but of male and female, promoting these particular wounded examples of humanity as exemplary. Portrait featured in the 1998 exhibition Wounds: Between Democracy and Redemption in Contemporary Art at Stockholm’s Moderna Museet, as well as in our show Pressing Flesh: Skin, Touch, Intimacy, which closed earlier this year.
[IMAGE: Mike Parr Portrait of M and F 1996]