Book review

David Bromfield, Identities: A critical study of the work of Mike Parr, 1970–1990

During a recent lecture in Sydney, Mike Parr sat down by a table and picked up a hand painted box tile containing, one presumed, his personal papers. With his one arm outstretched, he held the box at shoulder level. As the minutes passed his arm began to quiver with the strain of supporting this black object. Parr's gesture was silent but potent, leaving this viewer with an image of the artist in tension with the accumulating weight of his own history.

The box turned out to be an archive of the artist's identity, tor it contained one hundred self-portraits on paper. One by one, Parr removed these works and lifted them to his face. He hyperventilated through each sheet, as if he wanted to suck the substance of the image into himself. After each full intake of breath, the portraits would fall away limply. Absorption then decay. Parr repeated the action until the whole tile of images was exhausted.

The performance was simple but rich in metaphor. The black box was like an index of the self. The body inhaled its own taxonomy. Given the primary role of the file of images, the performance supported the view that Parr's long investigation into issues of subjectivity and representation always comes back to the notion of the self-portrait. Such a view is put forward in David Bromfield 's recent monograph, Identities: A Critical Study of the Work of Mike Parr 1970- 1990, published by the University of Western Australia Press.

Bromfield 's book is a detailed account of one of the most compulsive and idiosyncratic practices in Australian art. It traces the labyrinthine paths along which Parr has driven his work over the past twenty or more years and it examines the metamorphoses which have occurred along the way. Bromfield elucidates the working principles of Parr's art and he studies the dominant motifs which circulate throughout his imagery.

Of fundamental importance to Parr's project is the way that the body is socially constituted through language. Aware of his own physical incompleteness, Parr explores the real and allegorical dimensions of his body. This pursuit is coupled with a fascination tor the mutable, unfixed nature of language. Whichever way Parr tries to seize his own image, summoning up a lexicon of marks, signs and reproductive processes, the task of representation remains prone to an almost biological pattern of fluctuation and change. In his blackened objects, drawings and prints, one is left with traces and impressions.

Bromfield, as the art historian encountering this work, compares it to a palimpsest, a "preexisting text of enormous density ... that is constantly erased and reworked." The cultural production of books, ledgers and archives is a useful analogy tor Parr's continuing art project. The body is both a social site and a textual space, an arena which is inscribed and imprinted in order to be read. It is branded with the word "artist", it is framed, gridded, doubled, anamorphically distorted, transformed into the image of Artaud and pushed to the point where it fragments into those patches and particles which are its constituent elements.

These concerns are given their historical context in Bromfield 's study. A critical interest in the systems and structures of art and language informs the type of work developed around 1970 by Parr and by the other conceptually-oriented artists who emerged at that time. The documentary notion of the work of art as a decommodified archival record, which can be accumulated, shuffled and re-ordered, remains with him. It influences his approach to traditional processes of image-making, including his current research into the inscriptive and serial aspects of printmaking.

Bromfield 's book separates Parr's development into tour chronological phases, with the first three based on specific, extended projects: the Idea Demonstrations and other early work up to 1972, Rules and Displacement Activities of 1973-77 and the Theatre of Self-Correction of 1977-83. In the final section, Bromfield links the drawings, installations and printmaking over the past decade into a single theme, The Divided Self, recapitulating the psychological aspect which has always been present with Parr's work.

When establishing the wider reference points for Parr's work, Bromfield refers extensively to the artist's journals and notes. Parr's writings tell of his responses to Europeans such as Nitsch and Rainer and even Matisse, whose Stations of the Cross at Vence he found intensely autobiographical. The book discusses thoroughly the many theoretical models Parr has worked through, from Wittgenstein, Reich and Marcuse, to Levi-Strauss, Bataille and Artaud, Barthes, Lacan and others. Bromfield is nevertheless cautious about the role of theory in his work. Though Parr has an agile and forthright critical mind, and though his incorporation of different methods of analysis is consistent with the accumulative, embracing nature of his work, Bromfield argues that his use of theory is circumspect, secondary to his practice. At the same time Bromfield is less than gracious about the way other Australians have consumed theory, especially if it is French. Such comparisons tend towards easy or dismissive generalisations about the Australian context, at odds with the overall tone of the book. Bromfield is at his best when he excavates the specific history of each project in Parr's work, its conceptual development and its immediate critical reception.

Positioning Parr's work as an art of critical resistance, Bromfield distances it from other theory and practice in recent Australian art. But the account of Parr's early career offers interesting insights into the instrumental role that local art criticism played at one crucial stage in his development. A number of the critics writing in Sydney around 1970-72 were active mediators and participants in the new art practices of which Parr's was part. Particular credit is given to writers such as Donald Brook and Terry Smith, who engaged directly in the difficult work Parr was doing, especially when he began to carry out his Idea Demonstrations in 1972: "Let a friend bite into your shoulder. Until blood appears". "Hold your breath for as long as possible."

Through the pages of the Sydney Morning Herald, Donald Brook championed experimental initiatives such as lnhibodress, the artists' cooperative where Parr presented his early text and performance based works. Quizzical in his approach to all propositions about art, Brook provoked the ire of many in the art world, but his analytical style set a powerful example for younger artists and writers. His work nurtured a resistant attitude that was also utopian. In 1972, following Brook's dismissal from the Herald, artist and critic walked together in Parr's Art March through the city, chanting "Art is People Art is You."

The marginal position and collective faith of those art actions of the early 1970s stand in contrast to the weighty professionalism of contemporary art practice of the late 1970s and the 1980s. The public support structures for contemporary art changed substantially during this later period. Parr was active as an advocate, influencing the way Australian art was represented internationally. He participated in many contemporary surveys, taking the opportunity to develop major installations in museum venues. By 1988, when questions of curatorial authorship led to accusations of a new academicism in Australian art, Parr found himself in gladiatorial debates over critical practice. As Bromfield writes, 'towards the close of the 1980s Parr was almost as isolated as he had been 20 years before and over the same issue, the need for a critical programme."

Increasingly in recent years Parr has found his audience outside Sydney. His printmaking has taken him to Melbourne and he has been active in other parts of Australia. What was perhaps the most beautiful and ambitious of his recent works was never seen in this country – the wooden labyrinth in the Edge to Edge show which toured Japan in 1988-'89. It was an immaculately constructed minimalist maze, binary in its structure and its symbolism. (It is well described but unfortunately not illustrated in Identities).

Bromfield's Identities is like a meta-discourse constructed around the multiple narratives of Parr's work, providing it with an overlay of historical analysis and critical comment. Parr is an artist who has exhaustively documented his own practice, almost as a precaution against the precariousness of memory, and his efforts have no doubt contributed to the scrupulous detail of this monograph. The artist is credited as the book's designer, but his presence is perhaps more pervasive through the way he has made archival duty a function of the artist.

Given the complexity of Parr's practice, the abundant social and artistic documentation and the discursive nature of Bromfield 's writing, it is not surprising that Identities developed into a vast, 342 page publishing project. With serious monographs on "difficult" local artists still a rarity in Australia, a book of this depth and magnitude is a benchmark.

notes: 

1. Mike Parr, "Indexing the Self", Sydney College of the Arts, 22 May 1992.