Published July 4 2018
The crowds are out at Dark Mofo, to see Mike Parr buried for three days beneath Macquarie Street in front of Hobart Town Hall. The performance will last for 72 hours, the same period Jesus supposedly spent in a cave between crucifixion and resurrection. It is 8.40pm and many like me have come from theatres nearby, where acts such as Tanya Tagaq, Inuk throat singer, have just performed. A pit has been dug and inside it a 1.7 x 2.2m cell placed furnished with a waste bucket, water, two video cameras and bedding. In twenty minutes Parr will descend into the cell then the road will be sealed over him. Under the Bitumen the Artist is a gesture to twentieth century genocides and Tasmania’s prior history of the notorious Black Line, and the transportation of tens of thousands of convicts to one of the most brutal penal colonies on earth.
We are allowed to file past the cell, lined with barricades, manned by at least thirty roadworkers and traffic controllers. As a Sydneysider, I have become accustomed to barricades and security in public places as methods of gratuitous control and I’m struck by the conviviality of the personnel and their enthusiasm for the work. You can’t see much due to the angle but I notice a screen and am surprised. ‘Looks pretty cosy in there,’ someone remarks. We see a heater lifted down. Apparently it is 12 degrees inside. Mike emerges from the Mercury building looking pretty relaxed and walks down a ladder into the cell to cheers from the crowd.
Why did the media beat up the response of the Indigenous community? Delegates from the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre are right behind me, including Palawa elder Michael Mansell, robust as ever, carrying on his shoulders a young woman holding the Aboriginal flag. I go over for a chat. ‘For two hundred years the truth has been buried,’ says Mansell, ‘and this guy’s only going to be buried for three days. 99% of the population were wiped out in thirty years: how many people can you say this about? You see it in Myanmar today. But it happened here and nobody wants to talk about it.’ Mansell approves of Mike’s gesture but it isn’t enough. ‘We need a truth and justice commission.’ The girl comes down off his shoulders and security usher them forward so they can drape their flags on the barricades.
At 9.36pm, the slab of bitumen is moved by a crane over the cell.
I came down to Dark Mofo spontaneously, having paid no attention to the festival program when it was launched. I hadn’t been that impressed by Dark Mofo 2015, which I attended to cover Marina Abramovic’s exhibition Private Architecture. Admittedly, overwhelmed as I was by the brouhaha of media junketry, I didn’t get to see much else but compared to this year there wasn’t that much to see. It was only when I heard Mike Parr was performing that I packed my blacks with a dash of red, curious to see what would happen if I wrote about a performance I couldn’t see, knowing I’d reveal more of what’s in my head – filter, dyehouse, interpreter. What’s in yours, once you learn about the genocide in Australia? Can you banish the bloodshed and suffering, the lives lost, the lies told?
Still, I’m filled with joy heading south, by the change in light past the mainland, ethereal as a painting, by the gloomy intimacy of Hobart’s low-rise, by the line-up of artists far less likely to get a puff piece in Spectrum, redundant baby-boomer rag that it has become, because they are mostly too far-flung and obscure, their by-lines on the website so spare you’re going to have to do some research or take a chance but you’re willing to because so many tickets are only $40 making it a more accessible festival than most, by the shops whether selling homewares or books whose window displays in black and red express the affection so many locals have for Dark Mofo, by the red lighting everywhere, even in car parks, by the red crosses mounted throughout the town which glow like cenotaphs in the mist, even though the inverted crucifixes are milked for sensation because personally I don’t mind a bit of anti-Christianity and many of the crosses like the Mona logo are equidistant, signs more than anything of medical succour, and having just come from Vivid, the simplicity of the lighting here combined with the freedom in the streets is, really, joyous.
I hear the usual censures: ‘What’s the point?’ ‘It’s so gratuitous.’ And, most cruelly: ‘I hope he dies down there, he’s the most overrated Australian artist.’ Yet Parr is one of Australian art’s deepest thinkers, willing to go as far out on the limb as possible, a solo pursuit but potentially the antithesis of the rapacious individuality capitalism has induced in art everywhere in that there is no commercial gain. Indeed the logistics of this work and the huge amount of crew suggest it would have cost David Walsh a bomb, and it struck me on Day One of Mike’s interment which I bookended with concerts, that this quality of madness, hysteria, delirium, the relinquishment of the rational, is not just a western egotistical mode, it’s common to many cultures, the person chosen or choosing to walk the plank, stick their neck out, to go beyond for something special and remote, bringing it back to the rest of us tethered to the everyday. It’s a quality we saw in Tanya Tadaq, groaning and grunting, twisting and stomping, bringing forth sounds uncannily unhuman, barefoot in a translucent dress with white designs that resembled snowflakes as did the patterned spotlights on her keyboardist and violinist, a local choir providing a wall of sound, a knockout performance with grit in the oyster due to her lack of acknowledgement of country suggested one friend, but do we, another countered, expect more from an Indigenous performer in this regard? We don’t expect it from Blixa Bargeld the following night, suave in his glittery black three piece suit but being German still a bit of a dag, building beats and harmonies with only his voice and an effects pedal, interspersing them with charming repartee, oh yes I’m on a high, the sound and lighting, mostly red, excellent again, like the security, who in the concerts do not parade the sidelines scanning the crowd for trouble as they do in fucken Sydney but instead watch the shows – even enjoy them – the performers extolling the same yet it feels more genuine than the usual, ‘Oh yeah Hi Australia so great to be here you’re all so friendly.’
I’m just as high on Day Two, because in Retro café where I work for four hours two days in a row, the staff make me feel completely welcome even though they’re busy and could use the booth I hog. Outside the window the markets are full of beautiful wares and the streets full of beautiful women but that may just be what’s in my head, or maybe it’s more the writing of dyke sex, how little there still is nor on our screens, for not even in another Dark Mofo work Terror Nullius, that brilliant virtuosic queer feminist romp, revenge fantasy par excellence, do we get so much as a lesbian kiss even though the boys get like a twenty second blow job. Apart from the sex I want for myself, I’ve been thinking a lot about how these past fifteen years I myself am to blame for the burial of queer women’s desire and though I’m back on the job now it’s harder because my novel-in-progress is set in 1930s Sydney, in the slums when love between women was invisible so it’s only my imagination that can exhume my Iris and her lover. You think I’m idealising don’t you, forgetting what I really came here for but we tried to go to three galleries including Detached only to find them closed til 3pm, and Mike is amidst my mind’s minestrone of sex and death, meditating and sleeping, drawing drowsily, experiencing moments of real fear sealed beneath that road that we visit in the afternoon when it is dark with rain, swiped by cars including a friend’s who later laughs, ‘Yeah I drove over him today. The dogs were in the car, barking their fucken heads off.’
I’m bothered by the inclusion of that video screen in the cell. It dilutes the endurance. Why does he need to watch the outside world? And the reference of the work to twentieth century genocides as well as Tasmania’s brutal history is so broad it seems to diminish Parr’s usual conceptual rigour. And reading Henry Reynolds on the bus each morning from Sandy Bay the mansions lining the road may as well be steeped in blood.
Day Three begins with a queue to Night Mass after a blazing spoken word performance in the Odeon Theatre by Lydia Lunch, black-garbed red-lipped, somewhat dissipated but considering forty years have passed since she first stepped on stage and screamed punk murder, who’s counting? I forgive Lydia’s American habit of didacticism as she intones the wars Vietnam Korea El Salvador the Gulf War One Two Three Syria because even the USA’s dissidents are part of the dominant culture so it seems inescapable, but I remain sceptical. Is it arrogance or just plain confidence? What other nationalities speak about ‘the world’ with the assumption ‘the world’ will hear? Probably the British. God, don’t get me started on Eurocentrism, but I do wonder if the reason this cold season festival is so white is that it frames the arcane the weird and transgressive in western terms, booking mostly artists from the northern hemisphere, a curatorial direction that could and hopefully will change.
Watching Blixa and Lydia, whom I haven’t seen for decades, surrounded by so much black hair dye and pale skin, I feel like I’m back in the 1980s when Australia was so tyrannical a monoculture of sunbaked Aryanism that black-haired punkness felt radical whereas now it looks so much smaller, yet I don’t want to diminish Lydia’s importance, she did and still does go against the grain, her fans multi-generational, including young Sydney artist Betty Grumble who calls her approvingly, ‘the original crone’.
Inside the Bang Bang bar with the smell of wet dog rising from our sodden clothes, an all male band dressed like waiters with messy black wigs plays a set of Lynchian lounge music replete with Hammond organ and slide guitar, the perfect opener for Rebekah del Rio who torches songs from Mulholland Drive, topped off by Lydia again, this time with band Retrovirus, who build Trust the Witch to such a scorching climax that even though I was too gutless to smuggle drugs into Hobart, I’m leaping up and down like a speed freak, the whole room in a frenzy. Back outside, we bolt through pouring rain to the Poobah where Betty Grumble is doing cunt prints on a gym bench, Aaron Manhattan one of her acolytes handing them out looking bored as batshit having done this routine so many times, yet they warm the room, Betty and co, and most of the audience judging by their dropped jaws are thrilled. On the mezzanine the floor is carpeted in wood chips which feels incredible but makes me uneasy thinking of all the raped forests on this island, and the DJs here, like everywhere, are bad. Night Mass would have been a money spinner, overselling the night before and possibly overpriced at $60, but the gay club down the road is open until 8am which is amazing for a town of around half a million but I’m from that other penal colony Sydney town so beware what impresses me, I might’ve become naïve through deprivation. I while away Mike’s final hours in a fever dream in Dark Park where the giant flares, uneven ground and fire pits are to a Sydneysider as brothels to a priest.
A crowd has lined Macquarie Street for the disinterment at 9.36pm. The TAC delegates are back on the barricades, waving their flags as the crane clamps the slab of bitumen and removes it from the cell. Bags are passed up then Mike emerges, David Walsh waiting to take his hand and walk him back inside the Mercury building. I am surprised by how moved I feel. At the same time, on learning Mike had a copy of The Fatal Shore with him, the performance feels diluted again. Geez, I think, rather glibly, I wouldn’t mind holing up for three days re-reading The Fatal Shore, it’s such a great book!
In the morning to get a cab I walk to the casino where years ago Walsh perfected his card counting until they banned him, a fact proudly recounted by the driver on the way to the airport. He’s not convinced Under the Bitumen the Artist should have taken place right in the middle of town but when I mention that genocide is in the foundation of our nation, he agrees. I’m not convinced the performance was successful due to its conceptual vagueness and the padding around the endurance. It’s the festival overall that made this journey worthwhile, the enthusiasm of the cab driver for the red lighting on the Tasman Bridge – So simple but so effective! – how much he loves Mona which he visits with his family twice a year. Along with Dark Mofo, it has transformed this town, giving people a curiosity about art and a confidence to engage with it so rare in Australia as to be virtually non-existent. And I only just scratched the surface.
Fiona McGregor has published five books of fiction and non-fiction. Giramondo will publish her photo essay A Novel Idea in 2019. For about fifteen years she also made a lot of performance art.
Under the Bitumen by Mike Parr took place as part of Dark Mofo in Hobart, Tasmania from June 14-17, 2018
The views expressed in this article are the personal views of the author, and have been edited for clarity and tone.
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