Book Review

Graham Coulter-Smith, Mike Parr: The Self-Portrait Project

This is an impressive book. Beautifully produced, lavishly illustrated and clearly written, it is a suitable companion to the other available monograph on Parr, David Bromfield's Identities: A Critical Study of the Work of Mike Par r 1970-1990. But while Bromfield covers the entirety of Parr's oeuvre-although concentrating on the work prior to the self-portraits-Coulter-Smith focuses on Parr's self-portraits and the works (such as the early Wall Definition) leading up to them. Coulter-Smith's book differs from Bromfield's too in that, whereas Bromfield is biographical and documentary in approach, Coulter-Smith plays down any authorial presence behind the work and, indeed, argues that Parr's work is itself an attack upon the very

notion of a stable and originary identity: In Parr's self-portraits, the process of (self) definition is never ending, and his use of laser copies confirms the fact that his ambition is not 'self-expression'-the expression of his unique self-presence in the mode of traditional expressionism-but rather a declaration of the total impossibility of self-expression. Instead of the essential Parr-the 'real' Parr-there is a multiplicity of simulacra which at once suggests the dissolution of conscious presence into its 'other', while simultaneously barring the presence of this 'other' (p. 51).

What kind of a reading, then, does Coulter-Smith offer of Parr's work? In its most general terms, it is "deconstructive". 11 wants to argue that the aim of Parr's work is to undermine from within various systems of western rationality (identity, language, perspective). it joins with it in the critical task of exposing those paradoxes or aporiae which make these systems at once possible and impossible. For example, Parr's Wall Definition "deconstructs the pragmatic use of language to define and rationally delimit the world by pushing linguistic definition to the point of absurdity" (p. 21 ). Or, in his Atrophy (Self-Portrait at the Age of 37), the "allegory of patriarchal repression which perspective lends itself to" is "used against itself" (p. 33). Or, finally, in the photocopy series from 1986 onwards, "proliferation acts as an intimation that there is an 'other' to the symbolic order, but that this 'other' is evident only via disruptions within that order" (p. 46).

If we have a quibble with all of this, it is that in a sense it is too generic, too quick to transpose terms and themes developed from the study of literary texts to the field of art. Theory is used to explain the work: it comes from outside of it as something that holds the key to it and which the work itself can only repeat. For an artist so concerned with the irreducibility of the body, with materiality, with the struggles of the creator with his medium, the writing here is strangely bloodless, anemic. If the paradoxes of personal identity are spoken of, they are not enacted by the text itself, they do not seem to affect the position of Coulter-Smith himself as author.

In other words, the theory here does not create that specific effect of difference, of newness, it is supposed to. We get the feeling that-to use the Lacanian terms often drawn upon by Coulter-Smith-something of the "real" of Parr's practice is not accounted for, that the specific trauma out of which it proceeds (his missing arm) is overlooked or !roped only as that lack out of which all human subjectivity comes.

This is, however, not to advocate some return to the object, to the specifics of seeing not reading. Rather, if we can say this, the "mistake" Coulter-Smith makes is that his text is not theoretical enough, that the deconstructive and Lacanian theory which he applies to Parr's work is not sufficiently detailed or nuanced. Why just the general outlines of such things as deconstructive aporiae and the Lacanian theory of the gaze without the particulars of Derrida's recent arguments concerning the blindness implicit in drawing or of Lacan's object petit at?

It is, paradoxically, an excess of theory that produces the real, the object as real in art history: the attempt to go to the very end of theory in describing the object, in attributing every knowledge possible to the artist. Parr, then, might become not an artist whose ideas need to be "interpreted" or "explained" by theory, rendering them thus always generic, less than their counterparts in other fields, but on the contrary an "artist who knows too much", about whom enough could never be said. Certainly, one of the most promising recent attempts to apply the concepts of high theory to cultural

objects is that of the Slovenian philosopher and psychoanalyst Slavoj Zizek. Writing of Alfred Hitchcock in the Introduction to his Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Lacan (But Were Afraid to Ask Hitchcock), he suggests:

Yet from what we have already said, it should be clear how one should answer those who reproach Hitchcockian aficionados with the 'divinisation' of their interpretive object-with the elevation of Hitchcock into a God-like demiurge who masters even the smallest details of his work: such an attitude is simply a sign of that transferential

relationship where Hitchcock functions as the 'subject supposed to know'-and is it necessary to add that there is more truth in it, that it is theoretically far more productive, than the attitude of those who lay stress on Hitchcock's fallibility, inconsistencies, etcetera? In short, here more than ever, the Lacanian motto les non-dupes errant is in force: the only way to produce something real in theory is to pursue the transferential fiction to the end.
 

Put another way, Parr is a better artist than even CoulterSmith gives him credit for in this excellent short study of him. There is still room for another study of his work, for Parr, like all truly good artists, is a "man about whom one can never say too much".