Print this page

Mike Parr: The Map

The Artist

Mike Parr was born in 1945 and spent much of his childhood in rural Queensland but moved to Sydney  in 1968 where he enrolled at the National School of Art.  His formative years left a deep impression on the artist. Mike's father imbued his son with an interest in language with  the gift of a dictionary which, continues to be referenced in Mike's art.  Also a malformed left arm meant Mike has subsequently railed against representation of the body in society, through visual media and language and led to championing imperfection and incompleteness in place of ‘social norms’

In the late 1960s, before turning to art, Parr first considered a career as a poet. Poetry has informed his artistic practice since with its focus on language, meaning and non-sense. His series Black Box of Word Situations (1971–1991), in particular, reflects this sustained interest in meaning and how language both shapes and constrains society. Black Box of Word Situations, variation 3 (1991) comprises dense, square and triangular blocks of text typed onto several hundred sheets of paper using black, red, blue and yellow typewriter ribbon. A related work, Alphabet (1988–1989), draws upon the dictionary given to Parr by his father. It features 103 individually framed photocopies, each sheet partially filled with black-and-white typed text based on a predetermined system: “all the words in the Funk & Wagnalls Dictionary – Standard Edition whose meaning I do not know”.

Alongside his performance works and language experiments, Parr has developed a vast, ongoing body of works exploring the psychoanalytic, social self. Begun in the early 1980s and collectively titled the Self Portrait Project, Parr’s self-portrait studies first took the form of painstakingly hand-drawn copies of performance photographs. Subsequent drawings acknowledge accidental blurs and smudges, with Parr generating purposeful distortions through the introduction of a mirror (creating reversed portraits) and manipulation of the grid (creating anamorphic portraits). Life after Death (Battery Man) (1988) combines charcoal, pastel and acrylic on paper; it depicts the artist’s face over and over, in varying states of distortion, as though disappearing or disintegrating. Reflecting the instability of the self-portrait, it questions the notion of identity itself as a fixed concept.

In the late 1980s Parr began to experiment with printmaking. Lacking formal training, he explored a range of techniques without the constraints of tradition or convention, often employing several approaches simultaneously, sometimes using his body as a tool to abrade and disfigure the paper surface. The lung, 12 untitled self portraits (1991) combines drypoint and aquatint techniques. In this multi-part work, the artist’s face emerges from behind a mass of thick black lines, burrs and distortions, barely visible or recognisable in some iterations. Subsequent works across media extend these themes, some stridently political in their focus on society and government policy. Recent performances examine responses to ‘difference’ through the treatment of asylum seekers – a particularly pertinent subject in today’s world with its consuming fear of otherness, closing of borders and increased insularity.

The Map by Mike Parr

The Work of Art

The Map was produced for inclusion into the  portfolio of prints titled  'The land' to mark the bicentennial anniversary of European arrival in 1988.  This version is a limited edition number 54 of 80 and was created in 1987.  In  keeping with  Parr's style , the  portrait is deliberately distorted as though one is looking at the image at an oblique angle even though the viewer is looking at the image straight on. It is an aspect which has historic precedence. What may look like distortions in the  image may be clever ways to infuse meaning  or even perception into the work. A classic example is  Holbein's ambassadors at the National Gallery in London. What seems to be a piece of elongated  bone at the foot of the painting is in fact a human skull. The picture was meant to be viewed originally as  people climbed a staircase with the portrait on the left.

Holbein's Ambassadors


Rachel Kent, Museum of Contemporary Art,