There’s a per­sonal rea­son be­hind Mike Parr’s in­trigu­ing Dark Mofo in­stal­la­tion, writes Si­mone Fox Koob

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature - Dark Mofo

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.


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