MAKING SENSE OF DARKNESS
There’s a personal reason behind Mike Parr’s intriguing Dark Mofo installation, writes Simone Fox Koob
Australia’s oldest mental health institution has sat on the banks of the Derwent River in the quiet Tasmanian township of New Norfolk for almost 200 years. For the past 15, the abandoned wards and empty corridors of Willow Court have lain dormant, disturbed only by the occasional possum or intrepid historian.
But the site is on the brink of its first major shake-up in 15 years. Australia’s best-known performance artist, the provocative Queensland-born Mike Parr, is set to head down south next month to stage an ambitious installation that will rank among one of his biggest yet, created for Dark Mofo, the Museum of Old and New Art’s winter celebration of all things dark and eclectic.
“I think this is a new direction, this one,” the installation’s curator Jarrod Rawlins tells Review from Hobart. “You clearly have these psychological limitations being pushed, as well as the physical ones.”
Pushing artistic boundaries isn’t new for Parr. The artist has challenged audiences since the 1970s with his radical self-mutilating performance art: burning, contorting, sewing and castrating parts of his body. But Rawlins believes the work at Willow Court will be “one of the biggest and most amazing installs of Mike Parr’s career”.
The work, titled Asylum, will feature more than 25 video, sound and object installation works scattered throughout the buildings. Most demanding for Parr will be Entry by Mirror Only, a 72-hour performance art experiment that will see him spend three days in the Allonnah ward (formerly the female maximum security ward for the criminally insane), where he will draw continuously for as long as possible.
Admission to Asylum is free, but Entry by Mirror Only has clear instructions for visitors outlined in the title: participants will each have to bring a mirror, which they will leave behind.
“This site has an extraordinary history … And my response to the site is to put myself through this three-day performance,” says Parr in his artist statement. “And I will be working in the most disturbing parts of this institution, day and night, and I have to cope with that … it’s un- repeatable again.”
Derwent Valley Mayor Martyn Evans, who has helped pioneer the project with Rawlins, remembers accompanying Parr on his first visit to Willow Court. “It was going to be a smaller installation, but then Mike was very emotional about the site itself, it really stuck with him,” he says.
“We walked him behind the gates, which have been locked for 15 years ... We spent three hours on site and Mike was going through all the rooms and talking about what he’d like to see and what he’d like to do. And then he comes back with this proposal.”
Willow Court, formerly the New Norfolk Asylum, Lachlan Park Hospital and Royal Derwent Hospital, was erected by the Tasmanian government in 1827.
Accounts of its early days vary. Some records from the mid-19th century describe violent riots and patients “treated as a menagerie of wild beasts, cuffed and beat about by their keepers … driven to the utmost despair”. But other reports suggest the facility was managed with care and ... I will never want to see that site a progressive understanding of mental health as the years went on.
It was supplied with staff from the township, and many ex-patients and families still have deep-rooted ties to Willow Court.
“Every Tasmanian, every person that I work with or know that’s lived or grown up here, has a connection with that site,” says Rawlins. “Everybody says, ‘Yeah, I know Willow Court, my uncle was in there’ or ‘My mum worked there’. It’s … been part everybody’s lives.”
The local government permitted Asylum with the proviso the work would be “in taste” and respectful of those in the community whose family members were institutionalised. “We’ve worked closely with the Mayor and the Mayor’s office in New Norfolk, and they’ve been really supportive. The community are really behind it,” says Rawlins.
Parr’s personal connection to the show similarly reveals how intimately the artist understands the significance of the site for Tasmania. In his artist statement he tells the story of his brother Tim, who suffered from mental illness throughout his life and who died in 2009. Above and left; a building that once housed a mental health institution in New Norfolk, Tasmania, is the setting for Mike Parr’s
In 2008, Parr’s ambitious installation for the Sydney Biennale, MIRROR/ARSE, surveyed his performance video works since the early 70s within a derelict naval accommodation building on Cockatoo Island. One of the videos showed Parr dressed as a bride, but with cuts and mutilations across his body.
Around the same time, Tim was approached by the local school to help one of the students make a film. When the students turned up to begin filming, Tim was sitting on his bed, dressed as a bride. “Tim wasn’t invited [to MIRROR/ARSE] by me because I felt quite strongly that it was something that would have disturbed him,” Parr says. “He heard about it, and went out there and saw it. How I feel is that in the wake of that experience Tim went into a decline. The outcome of which was a video Tim made with a film student, a video I have [a copy of] but have never watched.
“The piece is my opportunity to think about Tim … I’m memorialising Tim by going to this site and acknowledging this history and the community that sits in relation to it.”
The artist has declined to talk to the media about the installation, but Rawlins says he was pleased he was able to get those notes down for the statement. “Mike was almost crying when he was telling me about that,” he says. “That’s Mike Parr, he puts this stuff out there and puts it on his sleeve and just goes for it.”
Evans, the Mayor of the area, a long-time resident of the Derwent Valley and someone who understands that the memories of the asylum permeate New Norfolk, says Parr’s work is a fitting tribute to those who suffered there: “This is his gift back to the asylum.” opens in Hobart on June 10.