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Australia Artist Is Buried Alive to Symbolize Historic Cover-Up

HOBART, Australia — Australian performance artist Mike Parr walked through a cheering crowd Thursday, climbed down a ladder and disappeared into a hole cut into the street.

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, New York Times

HOBART, Australia — Australian performance artist Mike Parr walked through a cheering crowd Thursday, climbed down a ladder and disappeared into a hole cut into the street.

As he settled into a 25-square-foot steel box, workers sealed it with 3 inches of steaming-hot asphalt. Within hours the road was reopened to traffic.

Parr had been buried alive.

His performance, “Underneath the Bitumen The Artist,” is part of Dark Mofo, an annual arts festival in Hobart, the capital of Tasmania. Parr will remain underground for 72 hours, and if all goes according to plan he will emerge Sunday night.

Parr, 73, is no stranger to extreme acts. He has sewn his lips together to highlight Australia’s treatment of asylum-seekers, nailed his arm to a wall and spent 10 days in a glass cage with only water for sustenance.

This week’s performance also carries a political message, honoring the hardships of the early convicts brought to Tasmania and the Indigenous people slaughtered here. It symbolizes, too, the burying of Aboriginal history, particularly the Black War, a 19th-century conflict fought between British settlers and Indigenous Tasmanians, who were virtually wiped out.

The stunt has stirred debate, but not the expected one. The island’s Aboriginal residents are divided on whether a white artist, like Parr, has the right to co-opt Aboriginal history and tell their stories.

Michael Mansell, 67, a Tasmanian Aboriginal activist, came with his daughter and granddaughter to see Parr being buried and lend his support.

“For 200 years the majority of the population buried the truth,” Mansell said. “This man is only being buried for three days.”

“We support this bloke,” he said of Parr, calling him a “courageous man.”

But others were not as encouraging.

Heather Sculthorpe, chief executive of the Tasmanian Aboriginal Center, called the work an “insult.”

“The idea of our Aboriginal history being hidden from most of Tasmania is a valid point,” she said. “The most effective way of bringing it out is not climbing under the road. It doesn’t do anything to promote understanding of Aboriginal history.”

Furthermore, she said, Parr did not consult with Aboriginal Tasmanians about the performance. “It’s when people feel used as objects and not part of the venture that people get annoyed — as in this case,” she said. “No attempt was made to discuss it.”

Parr said last week in an interview at his studio that he could not be an independent artist if he needed to always ask permission for his work.

“If you’re going to start consulting with people in order to do an artwork, how does that end?” he asked. “That’s not responsible political art. It’s populist. You’re trying to be all things for all people.”

Parr said his vanishing act was designed to tap into our deepest anxieties. Inspired by Kazimir Malevich’s painting “Black Square,” the performance, Parr said, was about “the null of the image.”

On Thursday night, a palpable tension filled the crowd of more than 3,000 people. “I feel sick,” whispered one man as Parr prepared to be entombed. “I wonder what insurance company he’s with,” another joked nervously.

Inside the box, which Leigh Carmichael, Dark Mofo’s creative director, called a “torture pen,” Parr has a bed, waste bucket, sketch pad, pencils and a copy of “The Fatal Shore,” a history of Australia.

Fresh air is being pumped in from the surface, and a microphone in the box allows Parr’s team to track his breathing.

“This is not a magic trick,” said the work’s curator, Jarrod Rawlins. “There is no trap door ready for him to slide out when he’d had enough.”

With next to no marketing and no sign on the site, the road was reopened to traffic within hours of the burial. Many will drive along Macquarie Street past Hobart’s colonial-era Town Hall, oblivious to the fact that Parr is interred alive beneath them.

“Underneath the Bitumen,” an Australian term for asphalt, was primarily funded by David Walsh, the millionaire founder of Hobart’s avant-garde Museum of Old and New Art. The arts organization Detached also contributed.

When Parr is exhumed Sunday evening, his steel prison will be filled with concrete and the road resealed.

“Everyone goes back to driving in oblivion while talking on their iPhones, and underneath the bitumen there’s this block,” Parr said Wednesday, standing on the roadside before his burial.

And if he doesn’t make it out? “I haven’t thought of that,” he said with a laugh. “No, no, no, I’m coming out definitely. I have all sorts of performance plans.”

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