JAIC 1998, Volume 37, Number 3, Article 6 (pp. 316 to 333)
JAIC online
Journal of the American Institute for Conservation
JAIC 1998, Volume 37, Number 3, Article 6 (pp. 316 to 333)




With traditional forms of art, it is usually assumed that conservation will involve stabilization or on occasion restitution. It is also assumed that ongoing deterioration is antithetical to the meaning of the work. With contemporary art, however, a broad range of philosophical considerations make this assumption dangerous. In the work of Mike Parr, as with many other contemporary artists, issues of process and signification are much more important than issues of stability and appearance. In fact, stabilizing the work may destroy its meaning.

While such issues are clearly developed in Parr's performance pieces, it is in a series of works known collectively as The Self-Portrait Project that Parr uses traditional drawing methods to explore issues of process and signification. This project uses the artist and images of the artist as the point of departure, beginning in the early 1970s with drawings and later including prints. Parr's works on paper are most often presented to conservators for treatment, but not all works on paper serve the same function in The Self-Portrait Project. To identify an appropriate treatment strategy, the role of the individual work needs to be ascertained.

Many of these works on paper exhibit signs of degradation and active deterioration, so I asked Parr whether this effect on the appearance of the object was likely to be a problem always, or only for certain works, or not at all. He responded by explaining the types of processes that constitute The Self-Portrait Project.

Drawings, for example, serve a number of functions, some of which Parr considers suitable for public display and others that are part of a private archiving process. All the drawings, however, are part of Parr's working methodology, and their value resides in the act of making them, not in the finished object.

I wasn't interested in the idea of likeness. I was interested in turning the whole idea of representing the self, or another, into a problem of process. So I thought of the self-portrait as a kind of container, which was in a sense arbitrary—it was only a field within which various repetitions, various kinds of inadvertent distortions occurred. Because it was only a container, and I was interested in process, I began to realise that a lot of that process could also be accidental. It could be the random interface with the world. I got to the point with a lot of the big drawings where I would (I still do) have heaps of drawings that go on over years and they lie around the studio and … they get very dirty and so on—I find all that rather stimulating (Parr and Slogget, 1991).

It is inappropriate to conserve and stabilize these drawings because they are working methodology that delineates the psychological content of the self-portrait. The drawing is not the self-portrait, the process it signifies is. The act of conservation limits the potential of these works to contribute to The Self-Portrait Project.


Because the works in The Self-Portrait Project exist, among other reasons, to comment on the passage of time and relationships involving this passage, a particular work may be a “tracer” or marker of the ideas and processes that led to its formulation and a signpost to a larger body of work. Because the object may serve to define or mark that which is not an object, it is absolutely critical for the conservator to understand the relation of the object to this idea or process.

This concern with process has been a major focus for artists in the 20th century. Jasper Johns reveals: “My work is in part concerned with the possibility of things being taken for one thing or another—with questionable areas of identification and usage and procedure—with thoughts rather than secure things” (quoted in Rothfus 1993, 270). Adrian Piper expresses a similar concern: “I think because my work is so much about communication and dialogue with the audience that if the conditions of communication are not respected, then the whole point of the work is lost” (quoted in Davenport 1995, 47).

When the artist focuses on issues of “procedure” or “dialogue,” conservation treatment aimed at stabilizing the object may severely limit the development of new possibilities and ultimately the meaning of the work. “Many of Parr's installations refer to paradigmatic systems of definition: the alphabet, the dictionary, language, photography. For if it is through naming and classification that restriction can be implemented, then it is through the transgression of these systems that new paradigms can be proposed” (Gates and Parr 1991, 2).

The conservation process must not limit the formation of new paradigms, result in the emergence of a constant or dominant paradigm with materials conservation as its central construct, or oppose the artist's intention for his or her work. Removing sticky tape, mending tears, removing dirt, or even framing and mounting may all limit the paradigmatic potential of Parr's drawings.

Fig. 2. Mike Parr, Selected Drawings from the Self-Portrait Project, 1983–1990, installation City Gallery, July 1990. Photograph courtesy of Anna Schwarz Gallery.

As a way of illustrating how unintended elements in his drawing contribute to paradigmatic shifts, Parr used the example of a large self-portrait with a wavy yellow line resembling water damage. This mark had occurred when Parr's dog urinated on the drawings in the studio. These marks are, says Parr, “a true random factor and … incredibly important within the context of the drawing…. Because it's so obviously a random factor and given my whole attitude towards drawing, it totally short-circuits the traditional aspects of the work. It's like a Zen master's blow except that it's the dog being territorial, but it's equally abrupt” (Parr and Sloggett 1991). In this case the raw quality, the “Zen master's blow,” evinces the temporality of the work, and leaving the work untreated is the most sympathetic response to the artist's intention.

Sometimes, marks of wear and tear may impose problems that require a conservator's attention but not treatment-based intervention. In describing Word Definition, which he did in 1971, Parr talks about these problems:

It came up in relation to a piece called Word Definition that I did in 1971 that's now owned by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney. What they've got now is a relic which bears all these marks of decay and change and when the relic was exhibited a year or more ago in an exhibition in Sydney it looked very fascinating, it had these wonderful qualities to it, but given the original intention of the piece I suddenly realised that these were the kinds of qualities, that while very interesting, interfered with the real intentions of the piece, because in a way they were a kind of sentimental pictorial component. That instead of people being confronted with the rigour of a system whose very point was that it demonstrated the alienating aspects of definition and analysis, they saw an image that was humanised by the passage of time and it was the passage of time that was particularly perceptible, in fact much more perceptible. It became a kind of bribe, the work became acceptable or more acceptable, it seemed to acquire a pathos by virtue of this other evidence and other aspects that were false in terms of the intention of the piece…. So then my instruction to the museum was that we should use this piece as a master copy to make a photocopy, and that the photocopy would be the basis for all future production. So that every time it went up it had this aggravating raw quality about it. Thirty years down the track it would still have that quality of just being off the machine, and that was much closer to the original intention of the piece. (Parr and Sloggett 1991).

In this case Parr's solution to the problem of degradation involved a procedural rather than a treatment-based approach. In a work that should, by necessity, be raw and blunt, conservation treatment aimed at stabilizing the object is procedurally wrong. Parr's statement “What is mended is in a sense forgotten or displaced” (from his performance piece Libretto Alphabet/Haemorrhage; see Parr 1993, 41) refers not simply to physical mending as a conservator might understand it but also to psychological and philosophical mending. Any treatment proposal needs to acknowledge the role of such tension in the work.


It would be easy to conclude, on the basis of discussions about the drawings, that conservators should simply take a hands-off approach to Parr's work. Prints, however, raise different, more complex issues. When Parr is working with the plates, then issues of randomness and chance represent the dominant paradigm. However, once the plates are printed, the printed sheet must be preserved in pristine condition to signify the end of the process.

[The] conclusive form [of The Self-Portrait Project] was in the print making, because the plates are always a record of every mark that's gone onto them in some way…. It becomes this kind of archaeological site, and I began to think that the self-portrait really was a record of traces in time, and by turning the copper plates around and working on the back and recycling and reusing them and forgetting them and not knowing what was there and coming back to that surface and scraping them back, that in a sense I was creating a kind of a dig. So here was this dig going on which was the true meaning of portraiture. It seemed to have this relationship to the unconscious almost, that you were excavating all of this content. It was very stimulating for me to try and think about this disorder in relation to the self-portrait as a container…that the self-portrait in the late 20th century has become a kind of fiction—a kind of absence rather than a presence and that the real presence is this collision of chance and intention and layers of process within that container. So it was all best got at by print making. (Parr and Sloggett 1991).

But the image on the plate and the printed image are not the same. The printed image represents a procedural end point, whereas the plate, like the drawing, needs to be able to reflect paradigmatic shifts of process. In this respect the copper plate is closer to the drawings than the drawings are to the printed image, despite the dissimilarity of material. Like drawings, the plates represent a working methodology, not a finished object.

Fig. 3. Mike Parr. Primitive Gifts II, 1991, set of 12 prints, 107 78 cm each, installation the Ian Potter Gallery, the University of Melbourne, 1991. Photograph courtesy of Anna Schwarz Gallery

I have a very particular attitude to the plates. I draw not only on the front of the plate, but on the back … and I recycle plates. I scrape drypoint off and then redraw over that surface, which contains a lot of residual random marking, such as scratches, dents and further damage from transport…. I used to like the fact that the prints were sent up to Sydney by a commercial carrier, just taped together with masking tape/packaging tape so they would get scraped and damaged and bent and I would hammer them out when they arrived and just go on drawing. What interested me was that accidental noise as I call it … and I would often draw in relation to it. I would think of it as a kind of primary distortion…. I was interested in those kinds of images that carried a distortion that wasn't expressionistic…. Then I thought all of this noise on the plate was a kind of crucial ground for the image…. I would be drafting something … and it would get deflected by all of these marks in the plate … so once I began to identify that aspect of the process as part of the work it meant that once the print was pulled then that part of the process had to be terminated in order to remain significant. These random marks contradicted the constructed nature of drawing…. A lot of it I wouldn't recognize when it came off the plate, and it was the absence of recognition that really stimulated me. So the process had to be significant. It had to be terminated at that point. It couldn't be added to after the event because that would contradict the emotional surprise of its effect. That would have dismantled the intention of the whole idea. It meant that the prints themselves, the actual sheets, must be properly preserved, that they must be very carefully handled so that the random effects could, as it were, be properly contained. (Parr and Sloggett 1991)

Like drawing, print making reflects a process, but once pulled the print needs to be maintained in good condition. Because the prints are the record of the process, and not part of the process in the way the plates are, it is essential that the prints serve as reliable documents. For Parr the culmination of the process is when John Loane pulls the prints and he and Parr agree on how they are to look.

The whole point is that the print … records very intentionally the state of that plate at a particular point in time in the history of the process…. For that process to be truly perceptible in the print, the print has got to be preserved as it was pulled.

Really for all that disorder that is in the prints, for it to properly signify I can't allow them to deteriorate in a kind of arbitrary way.

I think that it's very important that the prints be stabilised as records of this process, to be accurate. If they start drifting and become dirty and scuffed, they're not stabilised in relation to this process. There's got to be a record, so that I imagine that somewhere down the track—I've already done hundreds, there will be a thousand or more prints that constitute one self-portrait. (Parr and Sloggett 1991).

This sequence of statements highlights one of the problems that can arise if we rely only on artists' statements as an authority on which to base conservation decisions, for if we do not understand specific contexts we can form inappropriate conclusions. Parr's statements about the drawings will not help in determining appropriate responses to the prints. It is the knowledge of the process, and what constitutes the end of the process, that enables the conservator to understand at what stage, if at all, conservation treatment is appropriate for a particular object. For prints the end of the process is when they are pulled. For drawings, however, the process is different and the intention, and therefore the conservator's intervention and interaction, must be adjusted accordingly. For Word Definition, photocopying provided a solution to the problems raised by the humanizing aspects of wear and tear, but we cannot assume all photocopies will always be the solution.

At one stage I would go to a lot of trouble to do drawings, … photocopy them and destroy the original and … the photocopy becomes as precious as the original work, it becomes in a sense original, so those particular photocopies raise all kinds of problems that are quite distinct from the ones where I keep the original and the photocopy is like a print. But then there's different categories of those, too. There's a set of photocopies where the original has been destroyed and where the photocopy has been made by working at the dark limit of the machine and … the machine turned to its limit enacted a process of erasure while simultaneously reproducing the work…. What I really want is an image of the reproduction and disintegration of the image so that the necessity of preserving the record requires that it be photocopied again, thus that process can only add to the meaning of the original intention. And if in fact you had to do it 10 times over a period of 20 years and finally you end up with an image which to all intents and purposes was an image of complete disintegration and chaos, simply an image of the machine's limitation, then … the intention of the original impulse is fully met…. In other cases, … the photocopy is a particular kind of print and is meant to bear the same kind of stability in relation to the original moment that a print taken off a copper plate is meant to bear, so that in those instances you would have to go back and photocopy the original if the copy was damaged rather than working from the copy. And these intentions are generally identified as part of the comprehendible intention of the piece. (Parr and Sloggett 1991)

Understanding context is critical. In Parr's oeuvre marks of wear and tear may represent an important part of the work, linking issues of displacement, randomness and temporality with issues of intention and authority; or they may be impositions that interfere with our understanding of the process. While the conservator may consider that fingermarks on a print and fingermarks on a drawing require the same treatment (usually removal), discussions with Parr indicate that is not a safe assumption.

Copyright 1998 American Institute of Historic and Artistic Works