Mike Parr: Talking Back to Power

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Wednesday 15 August 2012
Mike Parr

Performance artist Mike Parr has generously given us permission to reproduce his speech from the opening night of The Walters Prize 2012.

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Young Yvonne

Hers sheathed in black velvet embroidered in gold thread and sequined panthered and ankled  Napoleonic by couches to turbaned tantamount no less, slender more supple even than Antoinette young Yvonne’s body lay ever more African than Arab quite purple-frogged in pink-flowered tumult. Turquoise was caftan enquired at cost as whose black velvet glossed  was/were gold embossed shoes in repeat sequins do distantly recall Bohain’s cross-legged frocks of old for then there of which the plucked from a rich blue ground formed in a plum-red blouse slashed and swagged pants sumptuously oranged before our Arnoud herself arranged front to back onto green-and-creamed Javanese batik sashed silks. She’s boredom she said her open book unread personified on their laps lay the day the long limbed and her quirky for the feature before the cash fabulously shot silk sample books stashed and seemed several shy over sensitive and sensuously damasked bladed upholstered next to their skin. In Henri’s hotel rooms demonstrably magnolia marvellous but threadbare posing arabesque meandering profusion though far from happy Yvonne’s undoubtedly light airs whereas Lissette longs herself on lounges for frivolous yet’s twisted listless in toile de Jouy job lots and stands at open windows flush with fresh onto ocean frilly as actress less Italian than French as angular as Antoinette.
- Wystan Curnow


Very difficult to read. The piece includes three internal full stops, one forward slash a few hyphened words and one isolated comma. That bemused me. And very difficult to type out, because of the line lengths. Even re-setting my margin widths didn’t really do it, so I had to opt for 10point.

I first read this poem in the LRB in December 2011.  To make matters worse, it was preceded by an article entitled, “Are You Part Neanderthal” and immediately followed by another called, “Making Money”, while the poem itself was embedded in a piece called, “Doing it Ourselves: David Patrikarakos writes about Iran’s Nuclear Programme”.

Hard to read and hard to see. So the risk of mangling the work is part of the work. Reminds me of the difficulty of one of my early performance scripts. “Eat what you read. Record the sonic content of the work”.

And then there’s Spurling in paraphrase, because Hilary Spurling’s magisterial biography of Matisse immediately comes to mind. “vase of anemones or carnations, couple of lemons, frilled muslin dressing-table, green umbrella, mauve stockings, dark bows, chunky high heels, vertical strips of beach & sea beyond, Italian straw hat, single white ostrich plume curling + frothing over the brim, blue-black ribbon looped, pink parasol, old-fashioned, high-necked, long-sleeved white frock, turquoise-blue flower pots, blue balustrade. Fur, feathers, fluff, fabric, flowers…you’ll recognize the cadences.

The tremendous horizontality of Curnow’s poem is its essential content and the means to recapitulate something of Matisse’s psychology. The delirium of his sensuous identification and the prohibition on touching. His eye-full. “The splendid face-value of his painting”, as John Golding put it. But also a kind of emptiness. Glossy dilation.

I think it was his friend Signac or was it Henri-Edmond Cross who described Matisse as “anxious, madly anxious”.

The difficulties, like the stimulating difficulties of the works in this year’s Walters, are structural, performative, conceptual…

Young Yvonne is actually Yvonne Landsberg and the encounter between her and Matisse was a one-off closely patrolled by her brother and mother. The resultant painting completed just before the outbreak of WW1 is one of Matisse’s strangest & most haunting works. Monochromatic, blind eyes, the figure & pose of the young woman is repeated by echoing curves and arabesques of gouged paint, but in a disorientating way Curnow’s work conceals this preferring to imagine her as an odalisque.

Spurling refers to her “hopelessly unfashionable looks”, while Pierre Matisse explains, “that it was felt that her defects would be absorbed by the deformations of a modern painter” as though her defects were also the painter’s defects.

And Spurling again talking about the painting… “slight, grave, pale figure within a vortex of whorls and claw marks conveying a poignant sense of human vulnerability and endurance”.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

In Autumn of 1940 Picasso was living in occupied Paris. One day he was visited in his studio by a group of German officers. He handed out photographs of Guernica and one of them asked, “Did you do this?” and Picasso replied, “No you did”.

Talking back to power is what Guernica is about and double-talk is the essential structure of the picture’s address, because Picasso’s sketchbooks of the 1930’s reveal that its iconography of raping bulls, desolated women, violent dismemberment are essentially domestic, what Gustav Jung characterized as Picasso’s schizoid absence of effect…

Punctum, punchline, performance…

From my point of view, from the point of view of performance as art, the photograph of Guernica is enough, or Picasso’s anecdote is enough. Enough Guernica. 

Braque’s remark after the Cubist solidarity says it all. “Picasso use to be a great painter, now he’s merely a genius”, but from our point of view now, Picasso’s balloon like expansion, his painting in public, his irresponsible pastiche, is actually a contemporary stance and in this respect Picasso’s shadow is dragged ahead of him, to announce the end of Modernism and the beginnings of a kind of institutionality, in which the artist is half court jester and half idiot savant; a kind of poised virulence without definite form…

I wonder what Adorno really meant when he said, “That poetry after Auschwitz is impossible”. Did he mean that the ecstasy of transcendence was impossible after Auschwitz, because transcendence was set at the wrong end of time, or did he mean to say that Auschwitz had severed signifier and signified once and for all. That after Auschwitz we are all, ineluctably, deprived of language that truly matters. That language, and with it, our secure sense of our own humanity, have been irrevocably estranged. That after Auschwitz poetry could only be a special kind of gobbledegook.

Gobbledegook then is our new material. The fierce realism of forms that fail.

Mike Parr 3. 8. 2012