Buried Alive Beneath a Road? An Australian Artist Explains.
Posted June 17, 2018 3:10 p.m. EDT
SYDNEY — On Thursday evening, Australian artist Mike Parr buried himself alive under a busy road in Hobart, the capital of the Australian state of Tasmania.
For 72 hours Parr has been entombed in a 25-square-foot steel box just underneath Macquarie Street, in front of the colonial-era Town Hall. He has water and bedding but no food. Cars, most unaware that he is there, drive right over him.
On Sunday night, Parr, 73, emerged to a cheering crowd.
Parr is no stranger to extreme acts, having once sown his lips together to highlight Australia’s treatment of asylum-seekers. But “Underneath the Bitumen The Artist,” his third and final piece for the annual Tasmanian festival Dark Mofo, is his most provocative.
The act of performance art, he says, is meant to honor the hardships of both the convicts whom the British brought to Tasmania, and the Indigenous people whom the British slaughtered there. He said the burial symbolizes 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.
Before his burial, I caught up with him in his Sydney studio and adjoining home. Over a hot pot of tea, Parr, who is genial and grandfatherly, with a big, warm laugh and mischievous sense of humor when talking about his punishing performance work, described what drew him to his voluntary internment.
The following has been lightly edited.
Q: Why are your performances always so extreme?
A:The simple answer is they enable me to think. At one significant level, I’m sort of incurable.
Q: What about the pain?
A:I can manage the pain but I can certainly feel tons of pain — and that is what flows through the work, the immediacy and the intensity.
Q: You’ve said “Underneath the Bitumen” was inspired by Kazimir Malovich’s “Black Square,” a 1915 painting that has been called the starting point of abstract art.
A:I was thinking about abstraction, the null of the image. The roads are a kind of oblivion. We all drive in a kind of oblivion.
Q: You first wanted to do this piece of performance art, which reflects on totalitarianism and the victims of violence, in Nuremberg, Germany.
A:Because of the Nazis. That was the wound I was sticking my finger into.
Q: So why Tasmania?
A:It was a shock to me that half of the convicts transported went to Tasmania.
That’s an aspect of Tasmania, together with the Black War, that is very disturbing and sad — that everybody knows about but doesn’t want to know about.
Q: Roughly 90 percent of Aboriginal Tasmanians were slaughtered in the Black War of the early 19th century; yet some of their descendants have spoken out against “Underneath the Bitumen”, calling it an insult. What are your thoughts?
A: I can’t be responsible for other people’s attitudes. It’s silent, it’s an anti-memorial, therefore it provokes people to work all of these questions but it doesn’t try to control debate.
Q: One issue cited is that you didn’t consult with Aboriginal Tasmanians …
A: If you’re going to start consulting with people in order to do an artwork, how does that end? That’s not responsible political art. It’s populist. You’re trying to be all things for all people. We’re reimposing censorship at all levels now. I think it’s partly political correctness and partly political opportunism too.
Q: Whilst buried, will you be frightened? What about the practicalities?
A:I am always very anxious before performances and I do a lot of meditation. I’ve got a bucket but I will be reducing food intake probably two days out.
I’ll have my toothbrush, and the book, sketch pad, small bottles of ink and steel pens and pencils. I might leave drawings there.
Q: You have tried to do this performance in other cities in Australia, but were denied permission. Why has it worked in Hobart?
A:It’s the Tasmanian ethos. I think there are advantages in being small. We’ve got an extraordinary man in David Walsh but he’s totally idiosyncratic and self-willed. You can’t do this sort of thing in the mainland. Impossible. Q: What do you think of the state of art in Australia?
A: It’s moribund. A lot of snap, crackle and pop but nothing of any real substance.
Q: There has been concern in Australia about the government becoming a “nanny state,” and whether this is leading to artistic and cultural conformity.
A: It can all be dressed up as deep social concern and progressive attitudes but finally it’s a form of censorship — you’re stopped.
The notion of difference is all right as long it’s packaged and wearing designer clothes but as long as it becomes too raw you can stop it like that. It’s like fighting your way through the Sargasso Sea. Everyone has to be managed — all of the challenge and extremity, all of the difficulty goes out of art and culture if that’s the case.
Q: Have you ever failed at doing a performance?
A: I had this funny experience in 1981 where I was invited to do a performance in Adelaide, in a very beautiful old heritage listed building. I announced I was going to smile for 24 hours. But I realized about three minutes into this one, this is impossible — very quickly your facial muscles start to ache. It was this catastrophic performance for me as I kind of tried to force my way through it. It so disorientated me that for quite a few years, I stopped doing performances and obsessively drew.
Q: Are you worried you won’t come out on Sunday?
A: I haven’t thought of that. No, no no I’m coming out definitely! I have all sorts of performance plans!