Mike Parr

View of Towards a Black Square, 2019.

For five decades, Australian artist Mike Parr has wrestled with and displayed his own subjectivity through printmaking, sculpture, drawing, and, most notably, performance. Over the last four years, he has built a primed audience for his work at Dark Mofo in Hobart, Tasmania, a festival that grew out of David Walsh’s Museum of Old and New Art and celebrates reconceptualizing darkness, death, and other themes that surround the winter solstice. For his June 2018 performance Underneath the Bitumen, Parr buried himself without food in a converted shipping container beneath the well-trafficked street opposite Hobart’s town hall. He returned on June 7 for another performance—inspired by Kazimir Malevich’s iconoclastic Black Square, 1915—in which he moved around a large, empty gallery for seven and a half hours with his eyes closed, approximating black squares with his brush as best he could.

YOU CAN THINK OF MALEVICH’S BLACK SQUARES as patches over the vanishing point. He said he wanted to confront middle-class taste, to bring something to an end. Like a guillotine, he cuts the head of the classical tradition clean off. He severs the relationship between painting and viewer and, in its place, substitutes this occlusive black square. It’s interesting the way these wonderful, ideal constructions are painted—with their kind of crushed surfaces—as he tries to lock the surface in relation to the ground. Look at his Red Cavalry, as well, with its reiterations of the horizon line and painted bands pressed together in this color lock. On the centerline, the cavalry is sort of dashed off like Chinese calligraphy. These horsemen are the ghosts of pictoriality and ideology. 

Towards a Black Square emerged out of recent work that hovers between painting and performance. By the end of the 1960s, I was a painter, and by the 1970s, I had a major show. Everyone thought this was who I was and what I was going to be, and then I rejected all that because I thought painting was covering something up, that I had to get behind it and dismantle that certainty. So I started performing—but painting is always there.

Towards a Black Square is site-specific. Because of its history, Tasmania is continually in a half-frozen state. It’s like a cleft palate. On the one hand, you have the most brutal incarceration and transportation systems, with an abject, abused proletariat and people being flogged into mincemeat. Someone could have ended up there after stealing a loaf of bread because they couldn’t feed their family. Then sprinkled on top of this great mass is the landowning class who lost half their family fortune gambling back in the UK before voluntarily arriving in the colonies and being handed parcels of land. It was a slave society really, and the biggest problem there today is still land reform. And it was the convicts who really debased and murdered the local inhabitants. So we have two violently schismatic social tiers, each parodying their origins in the nineteenth-century English class structure, transported to the other side of the world. This creates a vibrating anxiety for the audience, and blindness is a metaphor, obviously, because we’re all somnambulists in the context of this problem. 

We can’t simply cut off the modernist trajectory or repress it, as I saw in Europe recently. At the Hamburg Kunsthalle, they’ve rehung the collection with mid-nineteenth-century Orientalism—no Matisse or Cézanne. Pre-Raphaelitism is doing the rounds. It’s completely Secessionism at Belgium’s Musée des Beaux-Arts. This heavily crafted stuff looks very interesting, but it also represents a rejection of the twentieth century. I want to come out of modernism and into the twenty-first century in another way. Towards a Black Square is the portal to the twenty-first century. What’s interesting though is that we’re never going to arrive. Malevich’s Black Square has become an imaginary—an after-Euclid. And arrival has been infinitely deferred.

After letting the public view the work for a week, I directed a tradesman painter to paint out the exhibition. Gotaro Uematsu, my cinematographer of long-standing, filmed the process. I told the painter to simply proceed in his normal way. We’d decided that we needed to go from black to gray to white. I watched as the black “squares” receded into ghost images. 

—As told to Charles Shafaieh