“Watch out, you might get what you’re after. Three hundred, sixty-five degrees. Burning Down the House.” The unmistakable 80s drawl of David Byrne ricochets across the Carriageworks forecourt, as Mike Parr douses $750,000 worth of his own artwork in petrol and sets it alight.
Like an electrifying alarm clock, Mike Parr’s installation BDH (named after the Talking Heads song Burning Down the House) aims to jolt us out of our collective inertia and lift the veil on the desperate situation we face in addressing climate change. As the flames lick and tease the exterior of hundreds of sacrificial prints, Mike hands out leaflets vilifying the effectiveness of the agreement made at the 2015 Paris Climate Summit (COP21) and expressing the imperative for action. “My view is once you compromise the future, the past becomes unbearable.” Mike says.
One of Australia’s pre-eminent artists with a practice spanning performance, film, painting, sculpture and printmaking, Mike’s work grapples with issues including climate change and the refugee crisis, and often involves elements of self-mutilation and sacrifice. He is represented by Anna Schwartz Gallery and has exhibited both in Australia and internationally including Brazil, Cuba, France, Germany, Hungary, Japan, Korea, Taiwan and the United States.
Your BDH installation at the opening of the 2016 Biennale came almost a year after COP21 – which held huge hopes for climate change but to date only 37% of countries who signed the agreement have ratified. With this as the context, what was the imperative behind the performance and what are you hoping people took away from it?
Yes, only 37% of countries who signed have ratified and the US under Trump may withdraw, but the agreement itself is a deeply flawed public relations exercise rather than being the response required by the scientific consensus. “The Paris Agreement promises to keep temperature rises below 2c. However, the actual promises made will do almost nothing to achieve that.. To say that Paris will hold us to 2c. is cynical posturing at best”. This is Bjorn Lomborg in the Australian on December 14,2015, previously an ambiguous figure in this debate now an anxious advocate for crisis action.
“At 2c. of warming, the climate scientists warn, we will be at the threshold of climate disruption so severe that it may threaten global civilization” Tim Flannery, The Guardian Weekly, 27 November-3 December 2015.
I’m extending your introduction and I apologize for my sententiousness. These quotes are taken from more extensive excerpts which are a concluding statement for the film of BDH. Yes, I’m preaching to the converted but we the converted remain a petrified background to the whole enormous problem of climate change. I burned several hundred thousand dollars of my work because I begin to despair that art has no real meaning or effectiveness… that my passion for art and the aesthetic experience as such is no more than a displacement activity. In a situation where our collective inertness threatens species extinction and the destruction of the natural world we can’t defend art as a universal value. We are back on the mountain with Abraham & Isaac and an archetype of absent authority. Our moral position has become agonized, indefensible and it seems that the only future for art is as the raw material of sacrifice. And yet I invoked the instinct for the sublime as the basis for the BDH performance because we need the whirlpool of complex & confusing emotions/ thoughts as the reciprocity of our collectivity in the face of this problem.
Talking Heads happens to be one of our favourite bands, so I was immediately drawn to your installation. Beyond the obvious ‘Burning Down the House’ lyric, what was the significance of using their song? Are you a fan?
Well, like you I think a lot of people are old and new fans of Talking Heads and in the context of my performance we needed something obvious, jaunty and ironical. In a good-natured and slightly contemptuous way I wanted to bring us together. Nostalgia is a big part of the contemporary art world so why not begin in the place where a lot of collective emotion is parked in absentia. Why not set the scene in the most accessible way? Bring the petrified background into the foreground and waste its condescension.
Sacrificing your artwork seems to be a running theme in your work. Why does this interest you? Am I correct in saying there is a hint of defiance to the art establishment?
It’s clear that I’m displaying antagonism and that defiance revivifies me. The tabula rasa is cathartic and performance art at its most extreme is always a tabula rasa. When I’m asked why my performances are so extreme I invariably reply that “performance art enables me to think”, so I don’t separate myself from my audience. This is not representational in the way theatre seems to be. The extremity of my performance art is actually my way of joining with my audience… identifying with my audience, so my negative emotions are also complex reversals.
Do you think that perhaps your audience are generally already sympathetic to climate change concerns and therefore in some respects your art is preaching to the converted? How can art be democratised to reach a wider audience?
BDH was preaching to the converted. I took that conversion as the first premise of its structure but conversion as we all know is designed to make the problem go away without thinking. My violence is a powerful critical dissonance in this context. People are disturbed by the realism of my outcome. I think that cathartic realism is the best way of democratizing art, the best way of dispensing with art as a commodity [though I have no hesitation at all in continuing to sell my products it’s just that my products come with deliberately equivocal labelling]. It’s interesting now that in Australia I am finally recognised as a “progenitor of performance art”. This recognition adds to my isolation becomes performance art now is really a product of institutionality.
You have cut, pierced and burnt your body, hammered your arm to the wall of a gallery and had your face stitched up in protest against the treatment of asylum seekers. Can you tell me what the most physically gruelling performance you’ve carried out and why?
I think I’ve probably answered this question. At one level I’m confronting the eyes of the audience in the most atavistic way because blindness has always been the deep, unstaunchable imperative of all my work. What is in plain sight but can’t be seen or assimilated. The incapacitation of daylight, of conspicuousness, so at one level these acts of self-mutilation are a choiceless repetition, but at another level they’re also a fierce self-assertion because only repetition can produce the difference that is truly political. It’s where we find the political now but it’s an equivocal place, because the “micro-political” is also a wilderness of dissociation. We are at the edge of the petrified forest. The intangibility of Manus Island is clear evidence for that. We are all “mimic men” now.
Your work has explored climate change and the refugee crisis. Are there any other themes you are interesting in exploring? How will the Trump era influence your work?
I don’t explore themes, I expose myself to necessities. Trump is our mirror image. I’ve spent a great part of my life trying to decipher the meaning of mirror images.