Mike Parr and the Efficacy of Shock

Mike Parr

In the early 1910s, the Italian Futurists sought to ‘shock’ viewers out of slumber and into the revolution of consciousness. They saw shock as the only viable tool against the public’s apathy, and violence as the only accurate portrayal of the war-ripe, cataclysmic society. Their desire to “exalt the […] feverish insomnia”[1] became a motto for many subsequent performance artists, including the Australian Mike Parr whose works are infamous for their squeamish, unsettling effect. Does Parr’s overtly violent and distressing performance run the risk of pushing the ideological crises too far, too soon, causing aversion or traumatic numbness? Is shock, when used excessively, counter-productive to performance’s efficacy? Can profound visceral reaction lead to ideological, psychological, and ethical reflection (that could, in turn, facilitate a wider socio-political action)?

Confrontational and disruptive, shock forces us to see things anew and is tightly connected to Baz Kershaw’s concept of ideological crisis[2] – a pivotal moment in the performance when the viewer is placed “betwixt and between”[3] two social selves and when the effects of the performance are determined, either “as a confirmation or a radical alternation”[4] of ones ideology. According to Kershaw, in order for the performance to be efficacious, the moment of crisis should be carefully and gradually plotted so that the viewer feels relatively comfortable before placed in a distressing and potentially life-changing ideological dilemma.[5] What is more, the performance should leave the viewer with a choice “to treat the performance as of no consequence to her or his life.”[6]

None of the above prescriptions are followed by Parr in his 2003 performance, Aussie Aussie Aussie Oi Oi Oi, a long durational piece devised in reaction to Australia’s involvement in the Iraq War and the government’s inhumane treatment of asylum seekers. In it, Parr sets the ideological crisis out immediately; shocking the viewer from the very start, his performance is an instantaneous and fierce punch in the face. What is more, the performance is transparently connected to reality and leaves the viewer with little (if any) choice to dismiss it as purely fictitious and irrelevant. As such, it might feel more like a violent terrorist attack than a democratic “ideological transaction,”[7] which is, according to Kershaw, necessary for the performance’s lasting socio-political efficacy.

Aussie Aussie Aussie Oi Oi Oi is a thirty-hours long physical ordeal in which Parr’s face is stitched in a monstrous bind and exhibited in the main room of the Artspace gallery. Dressed in a dark, formal suit and holding a small Australian flag in his left stump, blood stains spattered over his white shirt, Parr sits unflinchingly in the centre of the space, directly facing the entrance where the viewer encounters the piece. On the wall behind him, red capital letters declare extracts from the media coverage of Australia’s involvement in the Iraq War authenticating (together with the flag and the satirical title) the connection between the performance and Australia’s nationalistic fervor against which the performance reacts. The chilling visual experience is paired with a loud, guttural, excruciating sound that fills the space. At first, the sound is unidentifiable and functions as a sort of an abstract soundtrack to the viewing experience. Eventually, we locate the source of the sound – a small, enclosed, darkened room in which a black and white video of Parr’s sewing ritual is projected. The sound, as it turns out, is an amplified, exaggerated version of Parr’s shrieks as he inserts a sewing needle into the skin above his mouth, stitching his lips together; it is the a sound of actual pain and agony. The gory imagery of cutting and stitching, paired with the sounds of the accompanying pain, further authenticate the realness and violence of the originally encountered scene. The confirmation that Parr’s body is indeed scarred and damaged makes the subsequent viewing of the stitched face even more gruelling, perhaps intolerable.

Even though the bind on Parr’s face represents and draws attention to the ordeal of others (i.e. detention centre detainees who were at the time sewing their lips in protest over Australia’s asylum policy), Parr’s body does not signify the pain but is in pain. The action is a “ritual gesture,” explains Parr, that is neither “a genuinely or personally felt trauma, nor a purely characterised or represented one […], but one which is carried into the present moment with a genuine force.”[8] The stitched face, the amputated arm, the blood on the shirt, and the sound of pain are simultaneously a representation of an ordeal, and the ordeal itself. In other words, the performance is not pointing to reality but is reality; it puts the reality “on display […in an] articulate way,”[9] providing a structure to frame it and a platform to expose it. This realisation that the world of the performance is not a fictional or a “possible world,”[10] but the actual one is “uncomfortable,”[11]shocking, and potentially traumatising. Normally, the authenticating conventions help the viewer recognise the relevance of the performance to his/her life and encourage his/her investment in the work;[12] here, they entirely erase the distinction between the world ‘on the stage’ and the one of the viewer, forcing rather than encouraging the investment. The work leaves no space for escapism and freedom of choice and becomes a sort of torture.[13]

However, just because Parr’s performance is shockingly real, it does not necessarily follow that it leaves no space for the viewer to deliberate its meaning and choose its effect. There are several strategies that Parr employs to mitigate the work’s potentially overpowering forcefulness. Firstly, by placing the work in a conventional gallery, Parr encourages a particular kind of engagement, a particular frame of mind. Within the gallery, Aussie Aussie Aussie Oi Oi Oi draws on “rhetorical conventions”[14] associated with such a space as a place of dedicated, reflective, and invested viewing. In this place, the viewer is encouraged to spend time with the work (in privacy and silence) and contemplate its significance. In addition, the rhetorical conventions associated with performance art as a genre further alerts the viewer to the conceptual, rather then purely aesthetic (or visceral) nature of the work, thus encouraging an intense analytical and ideological inquiry. The text on the wall also draws on the tradition of conceptual, text-based art suggesting that we are dealing with a performance that is interested in ideas and ideological efficacy, rather than aesthetic pleasure (or in this instance, pain). These rhetorical conventions frame the type of ideological transaction and make the viewer receptive in a particular way.[15] They, in fact, lessen the otherwise disruptive impact of the shock allowing the viewer to contextualise and clarify its meaning (or justify its purpose).

The shift from profound shock to composed ideological reflection is also aided by the performance’s long durational format. The extended time frame allows for the initial, overpowering emotion to settle, for the “wound”[16] to heal and to germinate into potentially transformative ideological, psychological, and ethical reflection. Parr’s work, as pointed out by Edward Scheer, is not only durational for the performer but also for the spectator.[17] Because there are no changes in the performance itself, our focus is fixed on one single, extracted moment in life (i.e. the scene of stitched lips) while our thoughts and emotions navigate through the work and assume different relationships towards it over time. Ultimately, it is we who perform the piece to ourselves.[18] During the performance, Parr sits still with his eyes lowered, ignoring any physical reaction to the pain. This lack of reaction, explains Parr, “holds the encounter;”[19] it keeps the viewer intrigued and interested, willing to stay and engage. “[I]f I react the performance will come to an end, and it will come to an end in the most abject way,”[20] says Parr.

The above analysis suggests that excessive shock and a tight interrelation between the performance and reality is not necessarily detrimental to a performance’s efficacy. The question, however, remains how (if at all) socio-politically efficacious Parr’s work indeed is. In other words, what is the reach of this efficacy? Staging the performance in a gallery, Parr has defined and limited his audience to a relatively small number of performance art aficionados, likely the left-wing public that is anyway sympathetic to his anti-nationalistic ideology. Again, it is useful to consider the impact of shock in connection to the reach of Parr’s work. Unnerving as it is, shock is also extremely attractive and attention grabbing; in words of journalist Reena Jana, “shock art looks awfully camera-ready.” [21] The statistic, in fact, show that “shock art has become among the most valuable and visible work.”[22] As it draws controversy and media attention, shock promotes the work to the wider audience and it is this popularity, as noted by Kershaw, that is necessary for the work’s wider socio-political efficacy.[23] However, the popularity will bring in an audience that is otherwise unfamiliar with the rhetorical conventions of performance art, which means that the above-mentioned alienation mitigating strategies will not have an impact on this type of audience. For instance, this audience will not understand that shock in performance art has a specific function and might swiftly reject the performance as mad and deranged. Shock in this case might indeed alienate which is a paradox given that it was shock that also brought this audience in.

Another problem with the “awfully camera-ready” nature of shock is that the media attention might turn Parr’s performance into a mere spectacle. While shock could draw attention and become the catalyst for a “heightened presence of mind,”[24] it also provides satisfaction for the “general public’s […] morbid curiosities.”[25] The focus of attention could easily become stitching and sewing rather than the performance’s underlying message. According to Kershaw, the fact that we remember the work attests to its efficacy,[26] but the question is whether Parr’s performance became infamous for its gory imagery or its ideology. Is it the image that has become more controversial than the idea that the work hopes to convey?

If one looks at the current political situation and treatment of asylum seekers, it seems fair to suggest that Parr’s performance was not effective. If the efficacy of performance is measured by its ability to “re-fashion society”[27] and alter “the future action of [the] audiences”[28] then Aussie Aussie Aussie Oi Oi Oi spectacularly failed. However, before we dismiss the potential of Parr’s performance (and all other similar performances), we should also consider the wider socio-political context within which, and against which, the performance functioned. As noted by Kershaw, a single performance does not exist in a vacuum but is part of a larger socio-political movement. Although Kershaw’s consideration of the “macro-level of the movement” focuses primarily on other performances that take place simultaneously, I believe we should also add media and political performances to this mix. The fact is that Parr’s intentions clash with aggressive oppositional political interests that constantly bombard the audience. Inspired by Parr’s performance, the audience comes home only to be manipulated by counter-messages that nullify the efficacy of Parr’s work.

As a performance that works within a very complicated and oppressive political system, Parr’s Aussie Aussie Aussie Oi Oi Oi is a valid attempt to alter the society and its values. As it heightens our “capacity to perceive the hidden operations of political power,”[29] Parr’s performance offers a valuable and important counter-balance to the dominant ideology keeping the social body alert and democracy alive, “however minutely.”[30] It is without a doubt that Parr risks pushing ideological crises too far, to soon, but given the urgency of the message and ever-growing apathy of the public, this is the risk worth taking. It is, in fact the reality of the aggressive political system that forces Parr to be equally aggressive and violent. It is the disengagement of the public that obliges him to be extremely and immediately shocking. While Aussie Aussie Aussie Oi Oi Oi does not function in the “possible world” scenario advocated by Kershaw, it nevertheless offers the experience that is similar to experiencing a “possible world” in a sense that it encourages spectators to awaken to a “new reality” that has been obscured by media, or kept “at a distance. “[31]

[TEXT: Ira Ferris]



[1] Filippo Thomaso Marinetti, “The Funding and Manifesto of Futurism (1909),” in 100 Artists’ Manifestos: From the Futurists to the Stuckists, ed. Alex Danchev, (London: Penguin Modern Classics, 2011), Loc 679 (Kindle edition). Marinetti’s manifesto was originally published in French La Figaro on February 20, 1909.

[2] According to Kershaw “a modification of the audience’s ideology (or ideologies) is induced by crisis,” [Kershaw, p28] and this crisis is “essential element in the ideological efficacy of performance,” [Kershaw, p27]. See Baz Kershaw, “Performance, community, culture,” in The Politics of Performance: Radical theatre as cultural intervention, 15-41, (London and New York: Routledge, 1992).

[3] The phrase originally used by the anthropologist Victor Turner and quoted in Kershaw, p24.

[4] Kershaw, p28.

[5] Otherwise, the performance risks “immediate rejection.” See Kershaw, p28.

[6] Kershaw writes: “It should also be noted that audience members always have a choice as to whether or not the performance may be efficacious for them. For the ludic role of spectator permits the participant to treat the performance as of no consequence to her or his life: it’s only a fiction, only a ‘possible world’ with no bearing on the real one.” See Kershaw, p29.

[7] Kershaw describes the ideological transaction as an active deconstruction of meaning. Instead of being passive and inundated, “the spectator is engaged fundamentally in the active construction of meaning as a performance event proceeds. In this sense performance is ‘about’ the transaction of meaning, a continuous negotiation between stage and auditorium to establish the significance of signs…” Kershaw, p16-17.

[8] Edward Scheer,Performance art, life crises ritual,” in RealTime magazine, issue 44 (August/September 2001), p29.

[9] Mike Parr and Edward Scheer,The Resistances of the Body: On Durational Art and Tehching Hsieh,” in Performance Paradigm: A journal of performance and contemporary culture no.10 (2014), p56.

[10] Kershaw, p29.

[11] Edward Scheer explains that Parr’s performances, instead of providing something “radically cut off” from life, are “a continuation of the very daily experience of watching the brutality meted out to asylum seekers.” In other words, they make “very uncomfortable connections” to life and it is precisely these connections that make Parr’s performances, according to Scheer, meaningful and profoundly effective as they provoke the viewer to see the reality anew and reflect upon it. Parr and Scheer, “The Resistances of the Body,” p57.

[12] Authenticating and Rhetorical Conventions is a terminology used by sociologist Elizabeth Burns and mentioned in Kershaw, “Performance, community, culture,” 25-26. Authenticating conventions “enable the audience to perceive the specific ideological meaning of the show.” [Kershaw, p26] The establishment of the connection between the performance and “audience’s ideology or ideologies,” is crucial for the performance’s efficacy. [Kershaw, p21]

[13] It is true, of course, that the viewer has an option to physically leave the gallery space, but the performance also has a power to imprint itself onto ones consciousness and psychologically hunt the viewer.

[14] Kershaw, p25-26.

[15] Kershaw writes about “… the ‘horizon of expectation’ which performative conventions create for the audience.” [Kershaw, 24] Rhetorical conventions encourage “a particular frame of mind” and provide “the framework within which a piece of theatre will be understood as one type of performance event rather than another…” Kershaw, p24.

[16] “The piece (…) left those present with a mark, a tiny wound,” writes Edward Scheer in Edward Scheer,For bodies at risk,” in RealTime magazine, issue 120 (April/May 2014), p5.

[17] Edward Scheer notes that Mike Parr’s performances that limited duration “tends to shut things down in the manner of a theatre piece rather than open things up, which [Parr’s] durational works do, in allowing a wound its own time to develop and the viewers their own time to experience and to work through.“ Edward Scheer,For bodies at risk,” p5.

In another article he reiterates this idea and writes that the performance that “occurred over a longer duration, […] allowed for a different sense of my own relationship to the questions you were raising to evolve. It allowed a duration for me as well to get to grips with what you were doing.” Parr and Scheer,The Resistances of the Body,” p58.

[18] In conversation with Edward Scheer, Mike Parr comments: “It’s your changing relationship to the performance that is actually your content.. […] The piece itself declared no meanings at all.” Parr and Scheer,The Resistances of the Body,” p58-59.

[19] Parr and Scheer,The Resistances of the Body,” p60.

[20] Reflecting on one of his earlier works, Parr comments: “I felt this sort of bulge, this surge in the audience, and I thought, if I react the performance will come to an end and it will come to an end in the most abject way. I realised that I couldn’t react, that I had to meet this surge in the audience which was medical, psychoanalytical,… […] I kept it at bay by not reacting, […] they couldn’t get to me because I was a wall of resistance in relation to a disturbance.” Parr and Scheer,The Resistances of the Body,” p61.

[21] Jana, “Shock Value,” p88.

[22] Reena Jana, “Shock Value: The Collector as Provocateur?,” in ARTicles magazine, no. 6 (Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, May/June: 2002), p83.

[23] As one of the conditions for efficacy, Kershaw mentions “populist appeal” – a need to spread a message, to make your self (or your performance) known. Kershaw writes: “… alternative theatre was expansionist. It sought to intervene in a widening range of communities and constituencies, to make a popular appeal to an ever-expanding audience.” Kershaw, p7.

[24] Walter Benjamin quoted in Grant H. Kester, Conversation Pieces: Community + Communication in Modern Art, (Berkley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2004), 84

[25] Jana, “Shock Value,” p91.

[26] Kershaw, p27.

[27] Kershaw, p16.

[28] Kershaw, p1.

[29] Grant H. Kester, Conversation Pieces, 84.

[30] Kershaw, p1.

[31] Edward Scheer notes that Mike Parr’s performances allow for reality to be “perceived very directly and at close range rather than experienced as an abstraction or at a distance,” i.e. via television or other mass media. Edward Scheer, “Australia’s Post-Olympic Apocalypse?,” in PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art, PAJ 88 vol. 30, no.1 (MIT Press: January 2008), 53.


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