Last week I flew to Adelaide for the opening of the Trent Parke exhibition, The Black Rose, at the Art Gallery of South Australia. The exhibition, co-curated by Maria Zagala and Julie Robinson had been a topic of daily conversation between my twin and I for months, if not years. There was no way I was going to miss it. Sharing my life with two curators I’ve come to understand that every now and again – and it’s really not that often – curator and exhibition subject connect in a powerful way. I had a feeling that this was that kind of show.
A few things pointed in this direction: Trent Parke’s remarkable personal story, the project’s ambition (only seven years in the making) and the scale of the exhibition (carte blanche to the entire temporary exhibition space). In his early thirties, and newly a father, Parke’s thoughts turned to the traumatic memory of his mother’s sudden and unexpected death from an asthma attack when he was 13 years old. The exhibition charts Parke’s odyssey – an epic emotional, cosmic and vast geographical journey – undertaken with his own young family across the country and ending at his childhood home in Newcastle, NSW. Documenting birth, death, and the everyday banalities of suburban life, Parke and the exhibition curators have collated a selection of the thousands of mostly black and white photographs, in addition to multimedia and installation works, into a series of self-contained rooms that articulated the exhibitions themes.
Apart from the visual material, Parke wrote some 15,000 words to accompany the project: a diaristic collection of notes, recollections, dreams and observation, some of which appear on the walls and as part of the exhibition catalogue. These form an interesting adjunct to the visual works. The photographs, all formally exquisite and technically precise recall the documentary style of iconic mid 20th century magazines like Life. (Parke is Australia’s only Magnum photographer – a difficult feat and rare honour). Parke acknowledges that he is not a writer in the short film that introduces the exhibition, and reiterates the statement in the catalogue despite identifying as a storyteller. His prose – unabashedly pulpy and overwrought – is everywhere. Parke’s widely divergent skills as a artist and writer had an interesting effect. I literally flipped between Amazing! and Terrible! every second step. The juxtaposition of very different modes – professional and amateur – added a compelling dimension to the exhibition. For Parke, this project was a total excavation.
Parke’s exhausting and exhaustive search for meaning by way of documentary, vernacular and theatrical form powerfully conveys the messy, dislocating experience of trauma. At the exhibitions end I was in awe of Parke’s capacity for risk – emotional, professional and financial. It seemed to me the definition of courage.
Trent Parke, Black Butterfly from The Black Rose, 2014 gelatin silver hand print 120 x 152cm
The Black Rose
Art Gallery of South Australia
14 March – 10 May 2015