We are given instructions when we arrive at the site. We’re confused, but we follow the crowd. Strange pale faces stare out from the windows of the building above. Linger. And they are gone.

We eventually break off and begin exploring the site. The strong smell of possum urine marks the threshold of one of the buildings. The interior of the abandoned building is damp and decrepit. A few small, solitary mirrors are placed on oddly positioned ledges or in corners. Through windows and projections on walls, we see videos of Parr’s extreme body mutilation.

Mike Parr. Aslyum. Mona/Remi Chauvin, CC BY

A sea of pale green broken glass is visible in another building. A possum, scared, runs through an empty hall framed by heavy doors leading to the old cells. An unease is felt, but it seems all too familiar and almost expected. The experience reminded me of Parr’s installation at Cockatoo Island during the 2008 Sydney Biennale. It was an unforgettable experience that stayed with me days after. The similarity is almost boring to me this time.

More rooms, more buildings. The smell of animal and human waste is always present. As we walked, I was increasingly fascinated by the different arrangements, from piles of archived items to a formal display of a Parr print. These mirrors evoke feelings of despair and struggle for control. The colorful hand-held plastic mirrors evoke nostalgia for childhood, innocence, and traumas from youth. Vintage bathroom mirrors are a common sight, as well as broken car mirrors. There are also vanity and travel mirrors.

Mike Parr. Aslyum. Mona/Remi Chauvin, CC BY

The mirrors are a way to register the visitors, but also a conduit for another time. They represent the people who once occupied the space, the damaged and the discarded. The area is haunted by these objects, which amplify their surroundings and capture glimpses of bodies and feet. The sound of vomit that accompanies one of Parr’s video works is what finally breaks down my resistance. I feel disgusted, horror, and sadness. I also feel deep compassion for the voiceless patients at Willow Court.

Our encounter is completed with Parr’s 72-hour endurance performance Entry by mirror only. Parr is seated at a drawing table in a well-lit room. His hand is moving gracefully and repetitively across the paper. His eyes are motionless, and even the rest of his body seems to be still. A mattress and a blanket are neatly folded in the cell. A crowd is watching him.

He becomes the patient, dressed in striped pajamas and drawing with a fixed gaze. A large room in the building is illuminated to reveal a disturbing series of self-portraits made up of heavy black lines. Parr’s image as a patient is now complete, and the performance becomes a touching tribute to the artist’s late brother, who struggled with mental health issues throughout his life. I am touched; I can feel the complexity of this site. My early disappointments are forgotten, and I look forward to my next Dark Mofo experience.

Storms and Shakespeare

The next evening, with another friend, we visited Tempest at The Tasmanian Museum & Art Gallery. Juliana Engberg’s show references violent storms as well as the Shakespearean play with the same title. This time, I am more open and have stopped mapping my disappointments.

I am amazed at how well the journey is crafted as we enter the exhibition. The collection of art, objects, and specimens of natural history creates a rich narrative that is linked to the dangers and wonders of discovery as well as the story of The Tempest. The video How to Put a Boat in a Bottle by Tacida Dean marks the beginning of our voyage.