Not much left after Mike Parr set fire to $500k worth of his own art works.



Anyone at Sydney’s Carriageworks at 6pm on Thursday March 17, 2016, would have witnessed an extraordinary event at the centre of which was the well-known experimental artist Mike Parr.

In the performance, Parr and several assistants doused petrol on $500,000 worth of Parr’s beautiful etchings. Parr, without flinching, then tossed a flame on to the etchings which were all destroyed in a short-lived but spectacular ball of flame that left the audience gasping.

I joined a crowd that assembled just before 6pm. We were handed a sheet of paper which quoted various scientists on the topic of global warming. At this stage, the 120 etchings were carefully laid out in a grid, each one weighted down with its corresponding etching plate. We had no idea what Parr had in mind.

The crowd grew, as we had been told the performance would be at 6pm sharp and would be over in minutes.

Right on 6pm, Parr and about four helpers walked quietly and resolutely out of Carriageworks and began ceremonially pouring the petrol all over the artworks. The fire burned for several minutes, creating a cloud of dark smoke, then quickly died down. Soon it was reduced to a few random embers. Bits of paper were picked up in the brisk wind and blown into the gutter. Mike remained impassive, watching, as all this happened.

After perhaps five or 10 minutes, Mike simply turned, said “thank you”, and walked back into Carriageworks. I learned later he then went home, rather than staying around for the Biennale drinks party. (The performance was part of the Biennale of Sydney, 2016).

Next day, deeply moved by Parr’s performance and intrigued to talk to him about it, I recorded this conversation with the artist.


I told Mike I went to the performance the night before and that my reading of it was about global warming. That the future is so grim, why worry about the past?


Yes, it is sort of that. But I’ll just expand a little bit on that. My thinking was, in putting it together, initially I thought I’d write a spiel that kind of extended  what you just said synoptically. But  I thought, no, I’ll just go straight through to the authoritative voices that I respect and I’ll just quote to make a clear picture of where we are scientifically with climate change in the post-Paris Agreement situation. So that little hand bill I handed out would help.


So my thinking was that this really is drastic. I’ve been following the science of climate change ever more intently for probably 20 years I think. I read (James) Lovelock’s books in the 90s and that sort of alerted me to the issue and then I got into the hard science and I’ve tried to keep up with that as the picture’s emerged.

IMG_9648 (Click here for short video of the performance.)

Parr said scientists he has talked to believe we are in the middle of the sixth great extinction.

So that means that anything much bigger than a cockroach, certainly large mammals, we have no capability of being able to evolve a tolerance to climate change in the time frame that is now imposed on us. So the sixth extinction is going to be catastrophic. By the end of this century not only will we be in terrible stress but we’ll be unaccompanied by all that animal life. What’s really interesting is in Paris, the 1.5 degrees of warming, I mean that is just total nonsense. We would have had to have stopped our emissions yesterday. Flannery makes that very clear. India has now declared it will mine and consume a billion tonnes of coal per year. Australia exports half that amount, Indonesia is now the largest coal exporter in the world. My reading of all this is we’re heading into a situation. You begin to think that this might be the limit of our human capacity. The general human population in democracies, the ever increasing population of the world. It may be just the simple fact of human psychology, we can’t accept this kind of situation. We can’t assimilate it. The reality of it can’t be absorbed. It can by scientists because they’re constantly working with the data, they’re doing the research and they have to face the implications of their own findings. But for the general public this is something that doesn’t seem able to be absorbed. And so it’s a sort of tragedy. My feeling is we can’t make the sacrifices. None of us can make the sacrifices that are really required. Lovelock talks about putting the democracies onto a kind of wartime footing, the kind of controls and rationing we saw to fight the Second World War. But in a democracy now no politician is going to go there, there’s never going to be a mandate to do that sort of thing. So we’re trapped by a sort of inertia. I feel as dramatic and melancholy about it as that. I think our children and grandchildren are all going to turn to us in the coming 50 years and say ‘why couldn’t you act grandpa? Why couldn’t you make the sacrifices, why are we in this situation?’ And then it’s my feeling that as it becomes evident that we don’t have a future, I think the past becomes unbearable. Dante becomes unbearable, Rembrandt becomes unbearable, Shakespeare becomes unbearable. Because really great art is actually proposing a kind of way into the future. If there’s no future, that essential humanism of really significant culture becomes somehow or other unbearable. Because it’s creating a path into a future that’s no longer worth inhabiting. So I began to feel, I’m just a minor figure in the scheme of things, but I’m dedicated to what I do and I just feel that at this point in time, my ambition was to push the idea of subjectivity to an extreme, to investigate it as a kind of limit space. That’s where all that performance work’s coming from, that’s where the self portrait project comes from. I treat the self portrait in the most, well you know the fashionable word is deconstructive. But I treat it in the most critical and sceptical way I suppose. I treat that whole idea of subjectivity, self, ego I subject it to ….. I’ve got this interest in psychoanalysis and have so for 50 years I suppose ever since my university  days I became enthralled and there may be obvious reasons why I would have done that. But anyway I’ve subjected the whole idea of subjectivity to a sort of scathing, analytical scepticism but collided it with our political world, because that’s the only way in which you can really engage with human problems  in any depth is if you do it from the standpoint of your own extremities as a social being. So what I feel now is it’s got to the point where my feeling now is I’m using my art as a kind of medium and I’m using it to make a final statement. I’ve accumulated all this work, I’ve been very prolific over the period of the last 45 years,  I’ve produced an enormous amount of work really, and I think it’s available now to be used to make this kind of statement. It was clearly in my mind it was a sacrifice worth making.



Parr said making prints is now unbearable for him. He said categorically that he will no longer make any more prints.


it’s sort of become unbearable for me. Churning out these sort of bank notes, you know? We need to make a living but I’ve now reached the point where the only way I can establish any sort of meaning is to use this stuff as a sort of  medium. That was the idea behind the performance. I just felt as though this was the moment  where I sacrificed a sort of specious concept of value. The values associated with our consumption-driven culture. I sacrificed a commodity for the sake of an idea, and that’s the point of the performance.


The prints you burned last night were recent ones?


No, they span the 28 years of my work. Some of them are unique state, some come out of editions but they’re very small editions. (Parr decided two or three years ago to tell his printmaker to close the editions off, he didn’t want to produce editioned prints any more.)


There’s probably well over half a million dollars’ worth of prints there (that were destroyed by fire in the performance). They span the period from 1987 through to the present. But I’ve stopped making prints now. I declared that last year when I kind of had this kind of crisis and painted out a whole exhibition of prints at Anna Schwartz’s (gallery). These were all prints I’d worked on for two years, they were all unique state, huge things. I said it’s like the arrival of the Spanish Armada. You put them up and there was all this interest and everyone seemed to think they were a sort of final state of the level of printmaking and I started to become very uneasy and at the end of the show I decided to paint them all out as a performance. So I think that set me on the trajectory. So it’s sort of very interesting because the crisis has emerged in the context of the whole notion of expression, what does that mean, and then in the context of this much bigger problem, that kind of submerges all of us and certainly individually it becomes our measure as it were, and I put that work forward on that basis.


The ones you burned yesterday belonged to you?


Yes, they belonged to me.


Parr spoke about how his relationship with his master printmaker, John Loane, was initially strained by Parr’s idea to set fire to the works.


He has now understood why I’ve done this. And because (of that), I then said, ‘John I’m going to go further. I’ve got to take all this work, I’ve got to use it to make new art that’s very political, that’s about these issues that obsess me – this is this problem of climate change and what it’s going to do to humanity’. I said ‘we’re going to have to use the prints as a medium now, now just preserve them as a work, but use them as a medium to make new critical art’. And he understands that, to his credit, he understands that.


Was he there last night?


He was at last night’s performance. He came a little late, and still very anxious, but he said to me at the end of the evening that it was marvellous, he understood and he was there to pick up the charred copper plates and scraps of burned prints. He felt that they should be picked up and he should take them back to the print workshop and that we should look at the bits and pieces together and we should put them in a box of some sort. Well I don’t know about that, but it was just very moving that he was prepared to be there and collect the remnants.


I noticed audience members doing that.


Well they can do that and it doesn’t worry me in the least. I think it’s lovely that people want to do that.


When I put a video of the fire on Facebook, lots of people commented that’s it was strange to protest against global warming while at the same time putting more toxins into the air. 


Well I’m certainly putting toxins into the air, but actually that’s what they need to see. So if they see that and say ‘that’s terrible, that’s exactly the problem of global warming’, well it is. But it’s on a very small scale, it’s almost homeopathic. That’s exactly the problem. No disrespect to anyone because I understand exactly the impulse. It’s like our impulse to manage the garbage. It’s got to a point where governments can have cleanup programs, they’ll announce we’ll have a little army of people out there picking up bottles and papers as though that was a sufficient response to global warming. It’s actually a displacement activity. It’s very moving, it’s very important that people are concerned. But it’s concern that doesn’t address the problem. It’s like someone’s got cancer and you put all the emphasis on giving them orange juice to drink. Vitamin C can have some efficacy but in a cancer emergency it’s not much of a response. And it may well be just an avoidance ritual. You’ve got very easy emotional responses, so you know you say, ‘Oh look there’s a cloud of black smoke over Mike Parr’s action. That’s adding to climate change’. My goodness gracious me. And India’s proposing to burn a billion tonnes of coal a year to fire its coal power stations. And China burns the equivalent of all of Australia’s annual exports of coal in one month. So that’s the real statistic. And if I need to make the point by sending up a little black cloud ….. Not to see that, is not to see the real problem. So that’s the answer to that one. And I’m not being arrogant about it. It’s very important to call people out on this one because feeling self righteous about dividing up your rubbish. It’s very important to feel you’ve done it properly and that the glass goes in the glass container and the paper goes into the paper container. It’s all important, it’s in large part a commercial imperative at this stage because that’s the way it’s recycled and recycling is very important, but it’s not going to deal with the problems that really face us. And we’ve got to be aware of that. So my action is essentially a symbolic one. But it’s using all of the real combustible issues of the problem.


Is this an on-going thing? Will you destroy more of your work this way. Or was that a one-off?


I don’t know. One of the risks is that in the art world if you do something that has a major impact the risk is then that people expect you to repeat it and before you know it it becomes a kind of style. It’s a bit like Andy Warhol painting soup cans. The next thing you’ve got a very marketable sort of line in burning your own work. And I don’t intend to do that. So as far as I’m concerned it’s a complete one-off, because to repeat it is to enter a zone of ambiguous banality, really.


In burning the prints, did that destroy the plates as well?


The plates will be destroyed because all that copper, that’s going to be the next conversation with John that I’m going to just sell all of the copper plates on to a scrap merchant shortly. I don’t want any more prints pulled. I don’t want to produce any more prints at this point.


Never in your life?


No. No more prints.


So that print project is over?


It’s over. And it was given a sort of fatal blow I suppose with the painting-out performance last year because that opened up this void. And following this burning I’ve made the decision that I’m not going to make any more prints. So I’m going to destroy all the plates.


As long as I’ve known you, prints are a large part of what you do.


It’s a massive transition but I think that I’ve also realised that I also need new challenges. I’m old now, I’m sort of 70, and I’ve suddenly realised there’s just a few years to go and I want to speed things up. I want to be more engaged rather than less engaged. I don’t want to be slowed down by people’s expectations. I want to exceed their expectations. I want to make new work. Challenge myself. I want to feel vulnerable at a very fundamental level. Because at that level you most engage people.



I told Mike I would put our conversation on my website.


Terrific. I think we ought to get it out there. You do really understand the tensions in this piece. The important aspect of the performance is that it raises lots of questions that don’t get resolved at the level of the normally fairly glib resolutions that the art world goes for. It doesn’t just invite a resolution at the level of art. It’s dominated by questions of content and meaning that everyone has to contribute to.


Coming back to the issue of value, it’s really important, because you could say we fuelled the performance in a number of ways. We fuelled the performance by dousing the prints with petrol and dropping a match. Petrol is obviously one of the fuel parameters for the work, but the other fuel was the monetary value. The question of value there was turned into a kind of fuel. Ideas were fuelled by the value of the prints, by the act of sacrificing the prints, of burning the prints, and the visibility of fossil fuels. The black cloud that everyone abhorred is the thing that’s coming out of the back of their motor cars in a disguised form. You no longer see puffs of black smoke but you’re still getting carbon dioxide and all of the other greenhouse gases.