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Buried Alive Beneath a Road? An Australian Artist Explains

SYDNEY, Australia — On Thursday evening, Australian artist Mike Parr buried himself alive under a busy road in Hobart, the capital of the Australian state of Tasmania.

For 72 hours Mr. Parr has been entombed in a 25-square-foot steel box just underneath Macquarie Street, in front of the colonial-era Town Hall. He has water and bedding but no food. Cars, most unaware that he is there, drive right over him.

On Sunday night, Mr. Parr, 73, emerged to a cheering crowd.

Mr. Parr is no stranger to extreme acts, having once sown his lips together to highlight Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers. But “Underneath the Bitumen The Artist,” his third and final piece for the annual Tasmanian festival Dark Mofo, is his most provocative.

The act of performance art, he says, is meant to honor the hardships of both the convicts whom the British brought to Tasmania, and the Indigenous people whom the British slaughtered there. He said the burial symbolizes the burying of Aboriginal history — particularly the Black War, a 19th-century conflict fought between British settlers and Indigenous Tasmanians, who were virtually wiped out.

Before his burial, I caught up with him in his Sydney studio and adjoining home. Over a hot pot of tea, Mr. Parr, who is genial and grandfatherly, with a big, warm laugh and mischievous sense of humor when talking about his punishing performance work, described what drew him to his voluntary internment.

The following has been lightly edited.

Why are your performances always so extreme?

The simple answer is they enable me to think. At one significant level, I’m sort of incurable.

What about the pain?

I can manage the pain but I can certainly feel tons of pain — and that is what flows through the work, the immediacy and the intensity.

You’ve said “Underneath the Bitumen” was inspired by Kazimir Malovich’s “Black Square,” a 1915 painting that has been called the starting point of abstract art.

I was thinking about abstraction, the null of the image. The roads are a kind of oblivion. We all drive in a kind of oblivion.

You first wanted to do this piece of performance art, which reflects on totalitarianism and the victims of violence, in Nuremberg, Germany.

Because of the Nazis. That was the wound I was sticking my finger into.

So why Tasmania?

It was a shock to me that half of the convicts transported went to Tasmania.

That’s an aspect of Tasmania, together with the Black War, that is very

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