Mike Parr: Blind Obedience

Last December, artist Mike Parr’s thirty-six year working relationship with the gallerist Anna Schwartz ended in a two-sentence email. It came the morning after the artist inscribed, among other things, the words “Israel,” “Nazi,” “Palestine,” and “Apartheid” on the walls of her gallery during a performance. He also included a description of Hamas’ actions on October 7; this deference to naming atrocities on both sides did not prevent the severance of their relationship.

The inscription could not have come as a surprise: Parr has long worked with language in a way that is pointed and political. An editioned print from the 1990s, titled Blind Obedience, was made by opening the thesaurus and looking up the word “Synonymous,” which yielded the word “Equivalent,” which in turn yielded the word “Identical,” and then “Alike,” and so on, until at the bottom of the page, he arrived at the word “Dead.” As one word leads to another word, meaning is dragged and transmitted by contact. And what is language if not contact and transmission? This is a kind of contact print that, with each synonym, moves us towards that final word. Blind Obedience foregrounds the way that language drags and charges itself up in contact, starting fires everywhere. If each word is an ember of meaning, in this new performance, the proper noun “Israel” is a gale-force wind that blows meaning into a devouring fire. By the time Parr finished painting over the words with red paint, the room had caught alight.

It is the equivalence, by proximity, of “Israel” and “Nazi” that was decisive for Anna Schwartz. To her finely calculated credit, she didn’t censor the work, leaving the exhibition on display for its allotted time. Although the word-embers were obscured during the performance by that layer of paint, they remain briefly visible in the documentation of the event.

Each word that Parr inscribed is a link in a chain of meaning. “Apartheid,” for example, is charged because it connects the Israeli state to the brutal white South African regime from which the term originated. Deriving from Afrikaans, lit. ‘separateness,’ from Dutch apart APART + heid -HOOD. The suffix “hood” functions here like it does in “brotherhood.” The “brotherhood” of the nation state is formed in its apartness from the other, from those stripped of any semblance of civic and political rights. Significantly, it has legal consequences under the UN Apartheid Convention (Amnesty International published a damning report on Israel’s policies in this respect in 2022). And it’s no accident that South Africa, a country familiar with systemically violent governance, has brought a case against Israel in the International Court of Justice. Their charge of genocide rests in part on linguistic analysis: lawyer Tembeka Ngcukaitobi noted that “[g]enocidal utterances are therefore not out in the fringes. They are embodied in state policy.” The crime has its roots in the rhetoric that flared up so immediately after Hamas’ attack, which painted Palestinians as inhuman and authorised collective punishment.

It’s here that language intertwines with architecture, with human bodies blown apart or crushed under collapsed buildings. Israel’s apartheid is not just the epic concrete structure of the wall, but an exploded, polysemous infrastructure that is everywhere all the time (see Israeli scholar Eyal Weissman’s lecture The Politics of Verticality at the AA School of Architecture for a breakdown of this). It wends its way into every aspect of people’s lives, from checkpoints to policies defining nutritional humanitarian minimums, to imprisoning teenagers who throw rocks at one of the most powerful and sophisticated militaries in the world.

Schwartz has been described as a kingmaker in the Australian art world. The artist, too, is a powerful figure; he is successful, controversial, and widely collected by institutions. I have, at various times, struggled with his eagerness to put himself in the frame, to absorb and reconstitute the suffering of others as a political gesture, because sometimes this ends up displacing, rather than centring, those others whose suffering we really must apprehend. Saying nothing, however, can also be a weapon. The mental thesaurus is alert, always, to what is not being said, and fills in the gaps. A silence might stand in for “Excuse,” “Prevaricate,” “Downplay,” “Permit,” “Condone [violence],” “Endorse [genocide].”

According to Schwartz, it is the drawing of an equivalence between Israel and the Nazi regime that severed her relationship with the artist. Parr has drawn an equivalence with the Nazi regime to make a political point before. A work titled variously Close the Concentration Camps, performed in 2002, and Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, oi, oi, oi [Democratic torture], 2003, indicted Australia’s refugee detention policies by drawing one such equivalence. Back then, Schwartz did not oppose the analogy, at least not in public, and any misgivings she held did not prevent her gallery from selling documentation of the work and presumably taking their customary cut of the profits. What was different this time?

A military infrastructure shaped by the trauma that preceded its founding, Israel relies upon the activation of that trauma to rationalise its radically militarised mode of existence. That trauma, which bodies forth a wound that is handed down through generations, nurses a hypervigilance that makes words into weapons. Schwartz herself described Parr’s words as a kind of violence wielded against her. In an interview on Radio National she said “I can’t work with an artist who’s prepared to hurt me to that degree,” as though she were the victim.

I do not want to disavow or diminish the history that rests behind this response. This isn’t the trauma Olympics. But we often assume that being the victim of historical atrocities inoculates one against also being a perpetrator, or at least the perpetuator of another. We like to think that someone who has been hurt will naturally recoil from inflicting such suffering upon someone else. This is not always the case. For evidence of this, we need look no further than Schwartz’s interview, where she conflated Israel’s right to “protect” itself with a right to “inflict” violence.

At the time I began writing this, 17,700 Palestinians had been killed by Israel. By the time I finished the first draft, that number had risen to 18,200. It is now over 25,000 people. Who knows how many lives will be lost by the
time you read this. Al Jazeera estimates that a Palestinian child is killed every ten minutes. Will Israel be a safer place for all this?

Words can hurt. Words have real power; they move money and bulldozers, tanks and missiles. We begin with a word—maybe it’s as seemingly innocuous as “Context” or as loaded with historical associations as “Nazi” or “Apartheid.” Maybe it’s the chilling phrase “human animals,” a harbinger of mass slaughter. With blind obedience, it doesn’t take us long to end up with “Dead.”

This essay was originally published in issue 66 of Artist Profile

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