An interview with Mike Parr

Mike Parr’s Asylum [Entry by mirror only] was an exhibition and performance that took place during our most recent Dark Mofo festival. Parr took up residence at Willow Court, New Norfolk – a clutch of buildings that once housed Australia’s oldest asylum for the criminally insane. There, he drew continually for 72 hours, in memory of his brother, Tim, who died in 2009 after suffering from mental illness for much of his life. Video, sound, photos, objects, and installation works were dotted throughout the buildings. Visitors were welcome to come and go, on the condition that they brought a mirror to deposit somewhere on the site.

Elizabeth Pearce: How did you prepare for the performance?

Mike Parr: I fasted for about a week. That means you don’t have to interrupt the performance going to the bathroom and things like that. But also, fasting really concentrates your mind, because you’re interrupting the indulgence of your normal pattern of life. It throws you back on yourself and you’ve got to firm up your mind. I also meditated a lot, which complements the fasting and gives you focus and resolution, and helps you anticipate your own anxiety. I think it also entails an ethical dimension. For me it seemed the appropriate way to be in Willow Court.

EP: What mental and emotional state were you in while you were performing?

MP: I was feeling very anxious a lot of time, but I was drawing constantly. Sometimes I could concentrate and draw quite deliberately and other times I started to spill all over the place. I found that place really claustrophobic to be honest.

EP: I don’t blame you!

MP: And the smell. And the realisation that I was occupying a cell that some people would have occupied for years. Some of those people were incarcerated for most of their life. I was continually aware of that.

EP: Were you thinking about your brother?

MP: I did think a lot about Tim. When I tried to sleep, late at night, I found myself thinking about him. I was with him when he died. He was in a sort of coma but he was very calm. I felt he was just floating and going with the whole experience. I thought about that, and it took away some of the threat of that place. It allowed it to become just a series of buildings. I began to realise that the nursing staff and the doctors would have been doing their best. They were trying to manage a very difficult situation.

EP: Willow Court has a contested history. It strikes me as like a microcosm – an emotionally explosive microcosm – of Tasmanian history more broadly. People have very mixed feelings about it. There’s a lot of pain and anguish and suffering, but at the same time they’re always asserting the fact that it’s their history, and they’re owning it and proud of it at the same time. In Willow Court, as you well know, there are accounts of the abuse and suffering of the patients, but also stories of the kindness, care and respect the staff showed towards them as well. Did you want to get involved with that contested history in any way, or let it lie, and just have it there as a backdrop?

MP: I did want to get involved with it. And two very strange things happened. On the Friday night of the performance – and Felizita, my wife of many, many years, she didn’t tell me this at the time – but our next door neighbour, a young man, committed suicide. Then on the Saturday morning, a young man came up to her – he was my father’s sister’s grandson. Our Uncle Oliver was a neurologist who worked at Callan Park [Hospital for the Insane in Lilyfield, Sydney] and Morisset [Asylum for the Insane on Lake Macquarie] and also would have been in attendance at Willow Court. He had family who lived just outside of New Norfolk. I never knew this. So what I’m driving at is that I felt as though the history of Willow Court didn’t exclude me either. I mean, obviously this terrible business of our young neighbour committing suicide isn’t directly related to Willow Court – but it is related at the level of mental illness, and my brother’s death. What I’m saying is that Willow Court has become magnified for me, in the same way that perhaps the performance magnified memories and experiences for a lot of Tasmanians at the same time. The performance is very significant to me in that way. I haven’t just filed it away as just another performance.

EP: The idea of asking the audience to bring a mirror seemed to me like a gesture of communal implication.

MP: Yes, I think that’s right. You’ve blatantly got your own image there. To even furtively see yourself is to realise that you’re implicated – but not trapped, because everyone was free to deposit that mirror in any way that they felt to be significant. Some people came with a huge mirror with lighting, and some came with all kinds of fragments and little mirrors, and inserted them back into those buildings in the most extraordinary way. So I really felt that this was the bridge to the community. It allowed them in – in a kind of protected way, because they chose their mirror and what to do with it.

EP: Do you think the reaction from the New Norfolk community and from Tasmanians more broadly has been positive?

MP: I think it has been. On the Monday after the performance we returned to the site. I didn’t want to go into the installation spaces but I went to that little cafe on site – it’s very low-key – and I lined up for a coffee. The waitress came up to me and said ‘Mike Parr’ and I realised that I’d been sprung. Then a number of people came up to me. One man said that his grandfather had spent most of his life at Willow Court. He sort of thanked me, because – and this was repeated by people in New Norfolk and beyond – he said the performance had enabled him to go back to Willow Court. I think what they were saying was that it enabled them to confront something that they hadn’t previously wanted to confront. This was the individual response, but I think it created a kind of solidarity too. After my coffee I walked through New Norfolk, towards the church. In the garden of the church there was this elderly couple – they were really warm, and acknowledged me over the fence. I noticed different sorts of reactions like that as I walked through New Norfolk. Then I ran into [Derwent Valley Mayor] Martyn Evans. I really like Martyn, he’s a sincere guy I think. We spent an hour together. He really wanted to talk to me. He wanted to talk about himself. He wanted to talk about a tragedy in his own life, and then he wanted to talk about the importance of Willow Court and his determination to try to build on the performance, to consolidate it as some sort of memorial site. I said to him that the black-painted drawings and all of those mirrors should be consolidated as an installation. He was very enthusiastic  about that idea. So, my final feeling was that it had been a performance that had brought people together and that allowed people to think through stuff that they hadn’t really wanted to think about.

EP: What about you? This performance was an opportunity to think about and remember your brother. Were you looking for atonement for yourself?

MP: Yes, I was in a way, because I seem to have felt in the end… I suppose this is the inevitable guilt of any situation like this. Tim went into a final decline, and it was driving me mad. I had been looking after him for years, and it was obvious that his final decline was tied up with going back into alcoholism again, pill popping, and all the other stuff that goes with a collapse. I couldn’t get him out of it. I can remember the last coherent thing he said to me was, ‘I don’t want you to help me anymore. It’s my life.’ That was the last coherent thing he said to me.

EP: I’m so sorry for your loss.

MP: I think this performance helped enormously.

EP: What about the exhibition component – the works you installed throughout the buildings to accompany the performance. Were you trying to create a particular narrative?

MP: I had this realisation when I first visited the site that the whole place was so monumental and disturbing that it really wasn’t a place for an artist to do an ‘exhibition’ as such. I felt that it wasn’t about that kind of self-assertion or ego. I was interested in the state of the rooms, as they were. I was also very interested in the kind of order that had been brought to some of the rooms. In the barracks, the order was the result of people there trying to sort of excavate and tabulate. So it was a kind of academic order, in which people try to impose a taxonomy on the detritus. It was the sort of imposition that you often see in installations by artists. So I felt that all I needed to do in many instances was just interpolate a work by myself, one that somehow magnified or twisted your immediate perception of the room or the space. I felt as though I was working at the edge of the history and the disturbance of that architecture. I was magnifying what was there and drawing people’s attention to it, but at the same time the obverse of this was the idea of people depositing their mirrors. It occurred to me that maybe it should be just that – just the space, and the mirrors. But then I thought that people might be experiencing anxiety, remembering family members and so forth, and that there needed to be a reciprocity there – I needed to make my own contribution to those spaces too, otherwise it might be too overwhelming. I felt I needed to expose my own anxieties as an artist, to create a kind of solidarity. But I did want to keep the whole thing very episodic and inconclusive.

EP: It would be easy to emphasise the political aspect – just the word ‘asylum’ has a loaded meaning in this country, and obviously some of your own works that you chose to exhibit at Willow Court revolve around your response to Australia’s foreign policies and treatment of asylum seekers. Is that something that you really wanted to draw out?

MP: I was aware that using the word ‘asylum’ would resonate in that context. This is a culture that perennially reverts to the same pattern of anxiety – the yellow peril, the White Australia Policy. It’s got to do with the size of the place, the smallness of the population, our persistent call for identification with Britain and Europe, and our European origin – even though that origin is increasingly less significant. But it still produces the same sort of collapse. So I did realise that. Willow Court goes so far back. They’ve been locking up people there for a very long while, with ‘madness’ as a catch-all category. It would have included convicts, and remnants of the Aboriginal population I imagine.

EP: Promiscuous women?

MP: Probably, yep. Any deviation from the norm. These days we disperse [people who deviate from the norm] and they arrive at the end of their life sleeping rough in bus shelters or vacant lots. Or else they’re on Manus Island or Nauru. We’re too sophisticated to bring everyone together in one complex. If you keep them moving as it were, if you disperse the problem, it actually becomes much more manageable at the level of government policy. You can’t make the linkages between the zones of oppression, and you can treat each problem in an unrelated way, as specifics – when really they should be thought about collectively, because they speak to a kind of zeitgeist, an anxiety, and a kind of eternal return.

EP: When I spoke to you a few years ago you told me that in your early performance pieces, you were keen not to define your role in relation to the audience in any particular way. The way to do that was to not show any distress. I’m thinking in particular of the performance where you asked your friend Peter Kennedy to bite your arm repeatedly. You wanted to avoid any kind of emotional reaction because then it would define you as a patient or a victim, and the audience as your rescuers or saviours.

MP: Yes, exactly.

EP: What kind of relationship did you want to create between yourself and the audience at Willow Court?

MP: I wanted the same sort of separation. In the final stages of that performance I left the cell to take drawings to put in what I called the ‘drawing room’ and the people all followed me. But I became aware of the fact that they were also recoiling from me. I suppose I was starting to look a bit like a patient. I was dishevelled. I imagine I was becoming very dirty because of the drawing process just for a start, and I was becoming sort of wilder. I’d been in my own head by that point for quite a long while, in the lead-up to the performance and during it. So I must have seemed odd. But I felt that however they perceived me, it was important not to allow the space between us to be breached.

I’ve got these rules for performance that are very fundamental and that distinguish performance from theatre. Theatre is trying to construct a mimesis and catharsis – that Aristotelian notion. Within traditional theatre that’s a well-managed procedure and people might pull out their lace hankies and pat their eyes, but it’s not the kind of realism that I am interested in. Performance art for me is extreme realism. I think I’m a realist, essentially, as an artist. It’s really important to maintain this separation, because it builds a tension and imposes a complicity, where I’m not just a performer. I’m a kind of ‘other’. I’m the person that is not just a performer in a lunatic asylum – I come to be the person that was detained in that asylum. If you sustain this separation, this radical gap between the idea of performance and the audience, and you tension the gap to a real degree, they’re no longer an audience and you’re no longer a performer.

EP: Do you think that you struck that right balance?

MP: Yeah. I could feel people recoiling from me. I think we were in the zone of the real. It goes way beyond theatre. It’s a kind of moral barrier, because to collapse that barrier is to be back into a situation where everyone plays a familiar role. You’ve got the people that go into sort of nurse mode, and worry conspicuously, then you’ve got the artist who’s the victim and the agent of the failed provocation. Then you’re back into sort of something that is the worst sort of art – therapy. Therapy for the performer and therapy for the audience.

EP: Therapy is the antithesis of what you’re trying to do?

MP: That’s right. I get terribly upset talking about Tim but I don’t want any therapy. I don’t want to be put back into that situation where you’ve got this ‘expert’ intervention. The expert intervention in our culture is a big part of the problem, like when it comes to refugees. The government’s project is basically to manage this problem into a kind of oblivion, make it unreachable by normal human responses. It’s exactly this situation that the structure of performance art should confront.

EP: Ultimately it’s a challenging of roles on all levels.

MP: Yes. It’s the fact that we’re always invited as a solution to a problem. We’re always given a role in relation to that problem. [Refusing this] has determined my position as an artist.

EP: You’re trying to reach a point that’s prior to roles?

MP: Yes. Performance art always puts you in a kind of limit state. You’re deposited at the edge of the present tense with the ‘audience’ – in inverted commas, because they’re not the audience, by virtue of also being deposited at the edge of the present tense. It’s a formative situation without any real                 precedence.

EP: Your drawings that you did at Willow Court, were they all self-portraits?

MP: They were, but they all entailed a kind of reaction to the image. At one point I got into a rhythm and I produced some really interesting drawings. But I didn’t want to retain any of them, certainly not just because they were interesting. The self-portrait for me is sort of like a zone, a performative zone. It starts as an image but it produces a reaction, and I’m prepared to be completely uncompromising or totalising about that reaction. I was reacting to those drawings while I was producing them. It was inevitable that I would paint them out I suppose. I thought of it on Saturday night and I said to Felizita, ‘I want you to get me a can of black paint and a brush,’ and she said, ‘You don’t have to do that.’ She knew immediately what I was thinking. But by Sunday morning I was determined to do it. I thought ‘I’ve got to get rid of these. This is no place for self-expression. I’ve got to block them completely.’

EP: Is that the ethical dimension you spoke about earlier?

MP: Yes. I thought, ‘No one here had an opportunity for self-expression.’ That’s why they were in there. They were self-expression. Like how you said – the promiscuous women. What was being blocked was the possibility of difference, and self-expression is the assertion of difference. I thought, ‘No, I’m not going to assert difference in this place. I’m going to just black them all out. Bugger it.’ So I felt that the real tension with the blacked out drawings was the mirrors that everyone had deposited because they’d all blatantly deposited their own self-portraits. It was the fragments of mirror that reflected everyone else and everything else.

Asylum [Entry by mirror only] Mike Parr Photo Credit: Mona/Rémi Chauvin

Asylum [Entry by mirror only]
Mike Parr
Photo Credit: Mona/Rémi Chauvin

Asylum [Entry by mirror only] Mike Parr Photo Credit: Mona/Rémi Chauvin

Asylum [Entry by mirror only]
Mike Parr
Photo Credit: Mona/Rémi Chauvin

Asylum [Entry by mirror only] Mike Parr Photo Credit: Mona/Rémi Chauvin

Asylum [Entry by mirror only]
Mike Parr
Photo Credit: Mona/Rémi Chauvin

Asylum [Entry by mirror only] Mike Parr Photo Credit: Mona/Rémi Chauvin

Asylum [Entry by mirror only]
Mike Parr
Photo Credit: Mona/Rémi Chauvin

Going out with a bang

By Luke Hortle

And, behold, I come quickly.
– Revelation, 22:12

So reads the back of this year’s Dark Mofo staff hoody. It’s from Revelation, the last book in the New Testament, which speaks, among other things, of the imminent apocalypse (literal or metaphorical—the jury’s still out) that will be unleashed with the Second Coming (Jesus: SURPRISE! Me again!). Revelation continues: ‘I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last. Blessed are they that do his commandments, that they may have right to the tree of life, and may enter in through the gates into the city.’ The grandeur of such proclamations has always stunned me; it’s like something out of a Michael Bay film. But we’re accustomed to this kind of thing, wallow as we do in pop culture’s hot mess of apocalyptic imaginings. No one’s exempt; the metaphors will always out, despite the pretensions of high culture and militant snobbery.

Dark Mofo Staff Hoody 2014

This revelatory snippet on the staff hoody—it has me thinking. It heralds the end of the world, instantly recognisable as a story of persistent human curiosity, but one that is endlessly open to interpretation. It proclaims the apocalypse, yes, but also confesses a propensity for premature ejaculation—a perhaps ‘world-ending’ event for some people and of a different variety. In perhaps not an entirely unpredictable manner, our interpretations of death—both big and little, planetary and personal—echo and warp as we mobilise them. Our photographer suggested the phrase for the hoody design, having seen the slogan adorning a painting of a lion and a lamb at the Odeon Theatre, before Dark Mofo took up residence there, when the theatre was home to a born-again Christian church. (Food for thought, perhaps, when you’re mid-debauchery at the Odeon for Dark Faux Mo. Remember, God’s always watching #catholicguilt.) The slogan has an irony in this churchy context, but I’m not going there. Self-deprecation is the order of the day, and it’s certainly not the first time MONA has co-opted a belief system for its own purposes (and I doubt it’ll be the last). In the painting, the mature-looking lion gazes fondly at the fluffy young lamb (would it be wrong to describe the lamb as nubile?), as ‘Behold, I come quickly’ intimates his intent (apocalyptic, carnal or otherwise). Poor little beast. Coincidentally, a Dark Mofo sign at the waterfront flashed, ‘WATCH FOR PEDS’, for the duration of the festival. Bright lights, creep city.

Behold I come quickly picture

But recently the apocalypse, and its related scenario of a threatened and vulnerable world, has taken on a different texture. Politically, environmentally and geologically, the planet is being reframed, as humans rethink how they read the globe’s skin and viscera. ‘Welcome to the Anthropocene,’ proclaims The Economist, reporting on the early twenty-first century uptake of the term originally suggested by atmospheric scientists Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer in the early 2000s. Basically (and I’m cheating—it’s not basic at all; it’s vast and complicated), the Anthropocene describes how Earth has entered a new geological epoch. Following on from the Holocene, the Anthropocene recognises the human species as an influential force of nature. Imagine a future where humans are extinct, goes the anecdote frequently used to describe the Anthropocene; if there was a geologist present in such a future, they would be able to trace the lasting human impact on the planet. Our marks, as they are, are here to stay. How do you like that for your vanity?

This is not to suggest that the Anthropocene explicitly envisages apocalypse (although, it is interesting to consider how that anecdotal extinction might eventuate). Rather, it frames a whole swag of political agendas1 and cultural fantasies2. But why imagine the end of the world as we know it? As a species, maybe we’re just plain freaking morbid, intent on sharing the love with an hysterical death drive. Freud might agree, which is alarming in itself.

The pay off, surely, is some sort of projected collective solace. Getting in early, before one hell of a punch line. On the opening night of Dark Mofo Films, I went to see David Michôd’s post-apocalyptic road movie, The Rover. Guy Pearce, with that hypnotic gravelly voice of his, posed a question to Anthony Hayes’ character:

‘Feeling the air when you wake up in the morning, when your feet touch the floor, or before that, when you’re lying there, thinking about your feet hitting the floor—the feeling you have. What does that feel like for you?’

Maybe it was just Guy’s voice. Or maybe—forgive me—it tapped into something incisively and embarrassingly human. The desire to apprehend, and be apprehended by, another person. To escape your personal neuroticism and self-obsession, to imagine (if only for a moment) what it is like to be alive as somebody else and in their particular version of a material human body. It’s darker than empathy, somehow. And far more interesting.

Deep. Apologies. Is there anything more awkward than the expression of sincere sentiment?

I’m in the museum and I’m standing in front of Patrick Hall’s artwork, When My Heart Stops Beating, and it seems appropriate3. It’s my favourite work in David’s collection. Visitors to the museum have gotten engaged in front of this artwork, which I cannot for the life of me comprehend—do they see a hopeful sense of romance here?—because When My Heart Stops Beating seems to be more interested in the past than in an anticipated future. For me, it’s irreconcilably creepy and sad, and touching in a darkly bittersweet way. But it’s more than any ambivalent mess of feelings I might experience in front of these gleaming cabinets. It’s about what is no longer around and coming to terms with that; it’s an attempt, if you will, to rectify such a predicament. Absent speakers intone their disconcerting chorus of ‘I love you’, just as absent writers reveal their intimate stories on the cabinet drawers (drawers that open like those of a morgue). The sense of loneliness is shocking, and it really hits me given the sheer constructed-ness of the artwork itself—those intricately built drawers and the façade of the cabinet fixed upon the wall. I’m embarrassed, now, to admit it’s my favourite. I sound like a total emo.

When My Heart Stops Beating, 2008 to 2010, ©Patrick Hall Photo credit: MONA/ Rémi Chauvin

When My Heart Stops Beating, 2008 to 2010, ©Patrick Hall
Photo credit: MONA/ Rémi Chauvin

It’s like bearing witness to something, absent now whether through death, apocalypse or otherwise. I indulge myself even further, and imagine I’m that future hypothetical geologist, witnessing the earthly marks of the Anthropocene with its indelible remainders of previous lives. Marking time is a peculiar thing, whether romantic and sexual, or geological and planetary. A flippant, throwaway remark comes to mind, and it’s not so flippant anymore; it’s a genuine question, posed to the possibilities of a quickly coming future: ‘Who gives a fuck?’

1Here’s lookin’ at you, Tony.

2For example: cli-fi, or climate fiction, is an actual thing. What an unfortunate abbreviation.

3The other week, I went to MONA’s new community centre, and saw that When My Heart Stops Beating is no longer on display. Go home, Southdale, you’re drunk and you’ve ruined my blog.

An odd little tale

By David Walsh

Last night, after Diamanda Galás entertained, confused and mesmerised me in turn, I spoke to Dark Mofo revellers from Melbourne, Adelaide and Brisbane (and the latter complained that the Hobart weather was not nearly cold enough to justify the hype). One of them thanked me for the festival. Everybody does, even though I had very little to do with it. While Dark Mofo boss Leigh Carmichael and his mates put it together, I was on my honeymoon. And then she said, ‘Thank God it’s not like the Big Day Out. Dark Mofo would be completely ruined if someone like Coldplay played’.

So I told them this:

A few months ago Leigh visited me, excited because he had been contacted by Coldplay’s management. They wanted to play a surprise, free gig at Dark Mofo. I was excited too. It looked like quite a coup. Apparently they wanted me to show them around when they came down for the gig, a problem because I was planning to be at a party in Austria at the time. I quickly reorganised my schedule, leaving my friends in Europe in the lurch to get the gig. It was signed and sealed, but obviously not delivered, because a minor logistics issue arose. Coldplay transport their gear on a 767, and 767s can’t land at Hobart airport.

Leigh, typically a circumspect communicator, sent me an SMS expressing his thoughts on the Coldplay no-show just before the Galas gig. It said, ‘Didn’t need those Coldplay cunts after all’.

I think the festival went rather well. Leigh seems to agree. Perhaps next year our inability to get an Elton John or Mariah Carey gig over the line will save the festival. In the meantime thanks for coming. Even if you didn’t.

Your Blog Mistress here – a big act means big equipment travelling in 12 x LD7 positions from Tokyo. Hobart airport does not have the machinery to unload these pallets, and despite our events team trying every trick they could, we were unable to borrow any from the mainland.

The wrong order

By David Walsh

Tim, my brother, died over twenty years ago. Some of my earliest memories are of him writing poetry. Before he died he had a plan to get some of his poems together for publication. But he didn’t have time. Between diagnosis and death he had only a few months. And morphine and suffering kept him busy.

Tim Walsh Tim Passes, Dark Mofo 2014

Tim Walsh
Tim Passes, Dark Mofo 2014

After he died I set about locating all the worthwhile material I could. But, to my continuing shame, I managed to lose a folder which contained a number of bleak, beautiful poetic capitulations to his condition. His cancer didn’t come out of the blue. He had a congenital condition, choledocal cysts, which had been operated on when he was just six months old. The result was arguably positive, death was deferred thirty-three years, but through those years Tim endured severe, chronic pain. The site of this type of surgery, it turns out, often becomes inflamed, and that led to his symptoms, and that led to his cancer. For some reason nobody told him that might happen. He, nevertheless, often speculated that he would die young. He didn’t think his body could sustain the repeated insults.

I know where I left the folder. On the stereo cabinet. And I know what was playing when I put it down. It was Paul Simon’s ‘Most Peculiar Man’.

And all people said, what a shame that he is dead.
But wasn’t he a most peculiar man?

I went to get the folder the next day, or the day after that, and it wasn’t there. It hasn’t been there, or anywhere else as far as I can determine, for those twenty years. So, just like Tim, that time has passed. There won’t be a book of Tim’s poetry. I only have a few poems left.

Forty years ago.

Tim was a little older than me. He read widely, mainly poetry: Shelley, Shakespeare, Betjeman, Byron, Tennyson, Masefield, Hopkins, Wordsworth, Whitman. And because I didn’t know any better I read them too. He taught me stuff I didn’t want to know then, but am very grateful for now. He showed me how to write amusing little ditties. This one he wrote when we were still children.

I wrote a simple poem.
A simple poem but mine.
And the words on every second line
Always seemed to rhyme.

And it parted in the middle.
Two verses my poem had,
But it finished on the eighth line,
And that kind of makes me sad.

He taught me about iambs, the stresses on every second syllable that Shakespeare used to astonishing effect. And he taught me about enjambment, running a sentence over the end of a poetic line, used to best effect with rhymes at the line breaks. Thus I wrote:

Playing with some stressful iambs
The line ran out before I could
Finish. I asked myself what would
Shakespeare do? And then I knew.
A ploy poets call enjamb-
Ment. When I write myself into
A corner. I escape just like Ham-
Let. That’s as tricky as Harry Hou-
Dini.

Two years ago.

As a surprise for my fiftieth birthday, some friends commissioned Dean Stevenson to set a couple of Tim’s poems to music, and to play them at the party. It went well. One poem he chose Tim had written for my twenty-first birthday. He had been in hospital having another round of surgery, and was mindful of his mortality. Thus it began:

Time passes, and we being mortal, think of death.

The songs went so well, in fact, that Dean asked for more poems. But there are no more, he had already been given the eight that I know of. Those eight were, apparently, enough. Enough for this concert, at least.

Twelve years ago.

Mum died in 2001. Every night between Tim’s demise and hers she read a poem before she went to sleep. James, Tim’s son, wrote in the note he sent to Dean when they colluded on my birthday present, that ‘Dad… composed this for my grandmother Myra, to help her feel some joy in his memory’.

When thine eyes have lost their soft dream shine
At pass of years and loss of time
And you are old and grey and full of sleep
When your heart is sad and your soul is deep
Stop. Reflect. Wipe away your tears
And think of the joys of bygone years
Think happiness. Friends and laughing lovers
Think of good times, come, think of others
But should no joy come from your past time
Take down this poem and read its rhyme
Hold it tender, close, and near to thee
Think of one friend. Think of me.

Twenty-two years ago.

When Tim went into hospital he was already dying, but we didn’t know. They opened him up, confident they could fix him. When a mooted four-hour operation took fifteen minutes we knew something was wrong.

So all the interventions became palliative. A nurse was assigned to show Tim how to use oral morphine. Tim said, ‘I know all about that, I had to administer it to my son, Billy’. Billy was born with disabilities, and dead at eight months. Dad said, ‘We die in the wrong order in this family’. Dad was already seventy-five, but destined to live another eighteen years. They sent Tim home.

At home Tim played his girlfriend and me a song, ‘Stuff and Nonsense’ by Split Enz. The chorus goes:

And you know that I love you
Here and now, not forever.
I can give you the present
I don’t know about the future
That’s all stuff and nonsense.

 

Dean Stevenson and the Arco Set Orchestra will perform Tim Passes at Dark Mofo on Thursday June 12, 7pm at the Odeon Theatre.
Buy tickets

Interview with ZEE artist Kurt Hentschläger

Inside ZEE Photo credit: MONA/Rémi Chauvin

Inside ZEE
Photo credit: MONA/Rémi Chauvin

Elizabeth Pearce: Are you surprised by the amount of people having bad reactions to ZEE?*
Kurt Hentschläger: Yes. This is a very high rate. I’m not quite sure what to think of it. Usually, the statistics for photosensitivity – you can’t apply this globally because it must be different for different genetic groupings – in the States is one in four thousand people. That’s just generally, but for ZEE it’s much more, one in five hundred or so. The epileptic seizures are triggered by the flashes. It’s a very intense input, probably the most intense it could possibly be. In the first four days [of exhibiting ZEE in Hobart] we had three cases. That’s extreme. I’ve often contemplated whether I should stop showing it because I always dread that some day something really serious might happen. To have a seizure is very dramatic, but only a temporary event. It doesn’t mean you’ll have epilepsy from this point on or anything like that, it just means you’re allergic to stroboscopic light at that intensity and at certain frequencies. All these things that you do to begin with – sign a waiver and take all the precautions – form one half of the work, and then there’s the other half, the actual piece, which is quite benign. Really it’s a beautiful piece about the experience of the sublime.
EP: So for you, the piece is more about the sublime than about being terrified?
KH: I have no intention to make a terrifying piece, that would be boring. It is an intense piece, there’s no question about that. It demands a lot from you in that you have to overcome the initial moment of – to say the least – trepidation, when you enter this strange world. But once you are in it, it can be quite elevating. I must remember that you haven’t seen it [because you’re pregnant and therefore not permitted entry].
EP: Yes. I only get to see the first half of the piece, the introductory framework. I’m sitting here watching these queues of people snaking out the door – they’re like lemmings going to their death. I have been wondering whether you are affected by the seizures, and obviously you are. So what keeps you going? Why keep showing it?
KH: That’s a good question. There’s a rationalisation of an impetus to keep going because, built deep into our concept of civilisation is an illusion of safety – the idea that we can control our environment and, at least to some extent, have stability. You question that the moment you decide to take a risk in life – to make a leap of faith to experience something unfamiliar. I could compare it to hiking in the mountains. The higher you go, the more tired you get, the less oxygen you have, the higher the risk of sudden weather changes and exposure in a spot where there’s no shelter. The reward for taking the risk is that as you walk up you get this view – beautiful in the true sense. You’re lifting yourself out of everything.
EP: Does that feeling of risk motivate you as an artist more broadly?
KH: Yes, I think so. I grew up in the original punk days, when it was all about exhausting yourself with a visceral, crazy energy. What’s interesting about overwhelming stimuli is not that you are overwhelmed per se, because this feeling you can easily have in any blockbuster movie – you get bombarded and you’re excited, but then when you leave, you’re exhausted and you forget about it. This is an empty ritual of exhilaration, just to feel something. It’s not what interests me. What interests me is an emotional process, and a romantic notion of seeking to instil something that is bigger than life and that makes you see a wider concept or longer trajectory. In ZEE, what interests me the most is the idea of infinity. I often talk about perception, but it’s more about the habits than the mechanics of perception – the way we train ourselves from the beginning. Or maybe it’s better to say we don’t even train – it’s natural. When you’re born you’re this wide-open vessel, and everything is just pouring in. But only those things close to you. You don’t learn to see past a certain distance until you get older.
EP: So it’s about a rerouting, even momentarily, those worn channels of perception?
KH: Exactly. You can only do this so much, though. When you come out you’re back in what you know and what we all agree is the world around us. But we do know there are other things to our existence, like when we dream or like deep meditation or drug experiences. I read this book [Trance: From Magic to Technology by Dennis R. Wier] that said that one way or another we are living in a state of trance throughout our lives. The author made a distinction between productive trances and destructive trances, like addiction. Or think about working on a computer – you forget about time and space and that you are hungry or need to pee or whatever. Eventually you wake up because your urges have become too great and you’re taken from your state of trance. So what I’m saying is that perception is a malleable process. We define it over time throughout our lives to again support our ideas of stability. Everything becomes a habit, a ritual; a loop that we adhere to. One of the things that I do like about ZEE is that it takes you out of that loop, just for a moment.
EP: Some of the ideas that we’ve been looking at in The Red Queen exhibition at Mona relate to that notion of a comforting narrative or illusion of security. You can take it a step further and say that our entire sense of the ‘I’, the self, is a fiction, the function of which is to create an illusion of stability and coherence. What you’re saying is that you’d like to disrupt that illusion, to open a small gap for people to think in another way.
KH: Well, just to point to it. I have no expectation of making people change in big ways. That would be preposterous. But I think the important thing is that a lot of people find a strange joy in ZEE. I feel it still, even after all this time. Often when we’re installing there’s a moment of true, deep joy for me. It must be related to the intensity of the light in a complete void – what feels to me like a space, or rather a sphere, of pure light.
EP: You’ve been exhibiting your work since 1983. Did you know at that time what you wanted to achieve?
KH: No, but I did have clear interests. I did a body of work in those days with absurd machines, like machine sculptures. Then in ’89 I got my first computer and that changed my whole idea about the process of art making. I stopped drawing, for instance. [Visiting The Red Queen exhibition] was very inspiring because I saw a lot of drawings that I really liked. The drawing machine [by Cameron Robbins] is absolutely fantastic, and I think I have to pick up drawing again. Like, a hundred years later, go back to where I started.
EP: Technology is obviously a very important part of your work. Do you feel unfettered celebration about the speed at which technology is evolving? Or do you ever feel a sense of alarm?
KH: Yeah. I’m sick of it. I will not develop software anymore. I’m not going to go into any more serious engineering efforts because they take so much time and I think it often leads to an imbalance, where the technology is only half expressed, and the content itself is also half expressed. A long time ago I thought that what is now called ‘new media art’ was very interesting and exciting. There was a challenging discourse and so many brilliant people, and the scene was very experimental. Everything was wide open. Now, with the process of institutionalisation, there’s much more of it but a lot feels quite empty. Nowadays, if I order a computer or related tool I’m already annoyed because I know when it comes I will spend all this time preparing it, setting it up, checking whether it works and so on. Of course it’s part of the craft and I do think media technology is my particular craft. There’s no question I know a lot about it.
EP: You’ve grown with it, really, from the 80s onwards.
KH: I often say when I teach – and I don’t even mean it as a joke – that I come from before time. I was eight years old when my family got its first television. I’ve seen the whole thing come in ever-faster cycles. You can spend your whole day just trying to keep up. But of course, on the positive side, it is a huge and very powerful toolset and opens aesthetic possibilities that I still find interesting to some extent.
EP: It’s reconfigured, over the space of one generation, our very consciousness, our engagement with reality – language, thought, time and space.
KH: That was a very acute sense of mine in my mid 20s, even before I got the computer – that this would change pretty much everything. I wanted to inundate myself because I thought, ‘This is going to be the world, and I must know about it if I am going to be able to make any sort of informed artistic statement about it’. My early pieces with [audio-visual art collective] Granular-Synthesis – particularly Model 5 – were these single-frame, edited, resynthesised human heads. They were very intense, very aggressive, brutally loud. Model 5 would have been completely impossible without a computer. We used a non-linear editing system that had just come out. The system was a complete game changer, allowing us to do things in a month that would have taken maybe two years. So in that regard, certain technologies really bring about aesthetic progress, or certainly accelerate aesthetic processes. I don’t know whether it’s meaningful progress, but –
EP: The question of progress is a difficult one.
KH: Yes – whatever progress is. But this interest in what these media machines and networks will do to change the world, to change our behaviour, to change everything, has formed into the question: How do we operate and perceive to begin with? As for our immediate future it’s clear what will happen. It’s going to go further, and eventually there really will be cyborgs. Currently, everybody has this blue glow in their face [from the screen of a smart phone]. At the moment this [smart phone] is state-of-the art, but it’s still awkward. You have to carry it still. There will be something that will be smarter and more merged with the person.
EP: I admire what you said before about how when you first started getting into technology you decided to completely immerse yourself in it. I’m not interested in technology. How something like that works doesn’t capture my imagination. It’s a bit disturbing that I’m using things that are fundamentally changing my life, without understanding how. It happens, magically, inside the black box.
KH: Yeah, but on the other hand there are lots of things we use that we don’t understand – I was never interested in knowing how exactly a car works. In the beginning there were these huge boxes, modems, on the telephone that made these funny noises when you connected. It was very slow and there was always something not working, so you had to know a lot in order to be able to fix things quickly. But ultimately, like I said before, it takes too much time. What I want to do now for a while is wilfully slow it down, not change. Dig in, and work on something until it becomes substantial. I think at the end of my life I’m going to be a photographer and musician. I want to learn the accordion. I’d like to do something with my hands – direct, rather than just sitting in chairs, making these minimal, almost disembodied movements with a mouse.

*Since opening on June 14, 3185 people have visited ZEE; ten have required medical attention as a result.

Entering Zee Photo credit: MONA/Rémi Chauvin

Entering ZEE
Photo credit: MONA/Rémi Chauvin

Useless as tits on a bull

By Luke Hortle

So the Skywhale has gone viral. (Let’s all say it together now: hashtag Skywhale! Yet again, the Twittersphere has doled out some sort of bastardised and populist cultural legitimacy, in a move that is equally liberating and terrifying. I don’t understand Twitter. For me, it’s in the same category as Sydney, Bob Katter and quinoa.) Gossip about Patricia Piccinini’s government-commissioned work has become contagious; it’s airborne, both figuratively (the goss) and literally (the art). And now this titted behemoth has arrived in Hobart, swinging mammaries and all that delicious confusion (‘I thought they were penises,’ said Mum. Thank you, Mother, for that screaming Freudian subtext). Which is kind of the point, isn’t it? Because it isn’t just chit-chat, this inescapable talk (whether positive, negative or ambivalent); it’s indicative that this artwork has taken that perplexing leap from the tired category of art into the bustling cultural imaginary. And on a national scale too; it was commissioned by the ACT government to commemorate the centenary of the nation’s capital, Canberra. Christ knows what the connection is. Best not to tug on that thread too strongly. (And really, who cares anyway?) Regardless, with all this questioning and bafflement, we’ve all come together to suckle, so to speak, at the teats of the Skywhale, and who can say what her nourishing milk will provide?

Skywhale Cake

Skywhale Cake

For me, it’s this hyperbolic expression of the shock of reference, between my present experience and whatever my brain idiosyncratically connects to that particular moment. The other night I was walking home up the hill, scarf-muffled and icy-fingered, when the breeze changed and something, the shift in scent and temperature perhaps, took me back, immediately and violently, to dusk in London. I was floored by it, inexplicably upset. Bounded by circumstances and shocked to realise so. It was really self-indulgent.

Bear with me.

I’ve written previously on this blog about my reaction to a lecture given by Ellen Dissanayake about the evolutionary origins of art. (Her thesis, in a nutshell: that the behaviour of making art plays a part in better-adapting humans to their environment. Those groups and individuals who practice what Dissanayake calls ‘making special’— of which art is an important element—are better placed to survive and procreate than those who do not.) Overall, it (my argument) wasn’t great; I got a bit ranty and tangential. A few days after it was posted, someone asked me if the main reason I had a problem with the lecture (note: I had many problems with it) was because I may not procreate, that I may not participate, genetically, in the perpetuation of the human species. She was worried about offending me; she didn’t: I’d been wondering the same thing myself, in much less obvious terms—the ‘X because of Y’ phrasing made it sound petty and hard line. As a gay guy1, I keep revisiting this angst-y existential dilemma of not wanting to be, or end up as2, a genetic cul-de-sac.3 Sexuality is relevant to this discussion, although I’m not sure to what degree of relevance it can or should lay claim. In the context of popular reproductive politics, it certainly goes some way to explaining the increased use of the derogatory term ‘breeder’, where reproductive propensity is mobilised primarily against a heterosexual middle class. Note the term’s mocking gesture to animal husbandry (thanks, Urban Dictionary).

I get confused, though, wondering if my angst has a genetic undercurrent. In other words, apart from wanting kids for the conventional reasons, both immediate and distant (family, warm fuzzies, minions obliged to take care of you in your dotage), I’m unsure if this angst is also indicative of a subconscious burning need to pass on my genetic material. Currently, I don’t care about the means by which I could potentially have children (two of my nearest and dearest have offered me rental of their wombs—what do you do, pay by mileage?—it’s all so sci-fi). There are obviously innumerable reasons why people choose to have children in the ways that they do, and I would rail against any kind of artificially imposed hierarchy of the best ways to do so. ‘Naturally’ always seems to come up trumps, with its attendant cultural value offering a swift kick to the teeth of many.

And this is another reason why my particular anxiety (re: becoming a genetic cul-de-sac) makes me uncomfortable: it doesn’t match the position I’ve reached logically and politically. This kind of genetically based anxiety is frequently dismissed, arguably because socially constructed experience has become far more culturally and politically trendy following the identity politics boom of the 70s, 80s and 90s; it seems like we might only just be emerging from that particular hangover now. Many of my friends have begun to talk, winsomely and often, of marriage and babies.4 Discussing my worries with friends, I’m often met with a general response of, ‘Don’t worry; you’ll have kids somehow.’ I’d like that ‘somehow’ qualified, thanks5. Is that too much to ask? I’m aware, too, that if my sisters have children, then some of the genetic material I share with them will be passed on to their offspring. (Game of Thrones obsessives take note: I make this point not in the manner of that blonde twit, Viserys Targaryen; ain’t nobody gonna mess with Daenerys, am I right?) Richard Dawkins writes about this in his book, River Out of Eden. He describes how

Worker ants, bees, wasps and termites are sterile. They labor not to become ancestors but so that their fertile relatives, usually sisters and brothers, will become ancestors. […] To summarize, genes can buy their way through the sieve, not only by assisting their own body to become an ancestor but by assisting the body of a relation to become an ancestor.

No pressure, sisters dearest, but you could be my genetic Get Out of Jail Free card. How else am I to deal with such doleful condemnation from a figurative deck of Chance or Community Chest? ‘Go to Jail. Do not pass Go. Do not collect two hundred babies.’

For better or worse, these worries have been taking up a lot of my time. I’m still wrangling with them, and I will for a while yet, trying to reconcile where and how to put this particular brand of anxiety to bed. A necessary and timely thought process, or just self-indulgent, emotional and intellectual hot air? It’s easy, sometimes, to feel like the only Skywhale in the village. Inflatable and vulnerable to puncture. An effectively empty sack, already delimited within its predetermined arc. Where is the grace in that?

So there you go. Fuck you, Canberra. Fuck you, Patricia. Fuck you, Dark Mofo. Thanks for all the existential angst.


1 For the record, I don’t want to become one of those people who begin every sentence with prefacing fragments such as, ‘Speaking as a gay man … ‘ or ‘Given my raging and all-consuming homosexual identity …’ It’s a behaviour too resonant with that of feminists. And mature-age students. But you need it as context. So let’s all cringe together, and move on.
2 Oh the oblique rhetoric of that foul thought experiment, where you imagine yourself hurtling irrevocably towards your own culminating point of being a productive, aspiring human being. ie. Must have this job, that salary, that partner and those kids before this particular date, or I will be, effectively, doomed. NO PRESSURE, OK. It’s the bildungsroman gone unashamedly and hysterically histrionic.
3 I’m paraphrasing Bernard from Black Books here. Side note and name drop: Dylan Moran really loves Sidney Nolan. He told me so.
A clarification: I’m not entering this discussion within the terms of infertility, which obviously poses its own particular issues to those it concerns. Or not; it would be a gross generalisation to assume a uniform response to any of these experiences. It’s the particularity that matters.
4 Yes, yes, I’m aware I’m entering familiar territory of the single twenty-something, but I’m curious: when do discussions of these kinds of topics become normal and to be expected? It’s a different kind of thought experiment and a perplexing one, because I’m often unsure how to participate.
5 By whom, I’m not actually sure. The stork? By me? Christ I hate being an adult sometimes. Perhaps those wonderful people who wrote Where Did I Come From and What’s Happening to Me? could pen a follow up, So You’re Worried About Ending Up as a Genetic Dead End?