Friday, September 05, 2008

Open Mike

If you had any doubts that the White Cube was about worn out as a context for contemporary art, a trip to Cockatoo Island will send them packing. The island is the venue for 34 of the artists exhibiting in the current Sydney Biennale. They have colonized the abandoned buildings that once housed a prison and then shipyards on an island reachable only by ferry and, thanks to sponsorship, a free ferry. The industrial and social tailings on the site are a gift for many of the artists offering emotional punctuation that is missing from so many public art venues. Vernon Ah Kee found it enough simply to point to the racist and sexually violent graffiti in one of the many abandoned toilet blocks. The most memorable installation has been created by Mike Parr. This artist is reasonably well-known in New Zealand but a major figure in Australian contemporary art. Parr offers a partial retrospective of 17 of his more challenging performances in the abandoned buildings of a naval academy. The result is both courageous and generous. From early works where he holds his breath for an excruciatingly length of time to a gut-churning work involving vomiting and dry retching, Parr uses the rooms, corridors and utilities of his location as a kind of organizational ghost with which to organise his ideas. The result is remarkably disturbing. His audio work The Sitting Member has particular resonance to current political antics in New Zealand. It stages the self-serving bad behavior of an Australian parliamentary question time in a lavatory block with grimy walls and floors so saturated with the stench of ancient drains as to make you gag - a word that surely passed through Parr’s mind when he created the piece. It is a savage and telling way to take the piss. Not pleasant art, but unforgettable.