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Anna Schwartz says Mike Parr’s use of ‘Israel’ and ‘Nazi’ in performance work led her to sever ties

<span>Photograph: Joe Armao/Joe Armao/The Age</span>
Photograph: Joe Armao/Joe Armao/The Age

Gallery owner Anna Schwartz has defended her decision to sever ties with performance artist Mike Parr after a 36-year relationship, saying the inclusion of the words “Israel” and “Nazi” together in his work on display in her gallery were “a dealbreaker”.

Speaking on ABC’s Radio National on Monday, the Melbourne gallerist described elements of Parr’s exhibition at the Anna Schwartz Gallery, which included a performance piece called Going Home that took place on 2 December, as “hate graffiti”. Schwartz emailed the artist the following day to say she would no longer represent him.

The work, the third part of a trilogy called Sunset Claws, involved Parr writing words on a wall in the gallery with his eyes closed.

Schwartz said she regarded Parr as “the greatest artist this country has ever and perhaps will ever produce” and it had been an “incredible privilege” to work with him.

However, she said, “when it got to the point of the word Nazi and the word Israel being on the wall together, whatever the intention … the co-appearance of the word Nazi with the word Israel made me sick,” Schwartz told the ABC’s Patricia Karvelas. “That was the dealbreaker.”

Related: Melbourne’s Anna Schwartz gallery drops artist Mike Parr after political piece on Israel-Gaza war

Schwartz also said that during the work Parr put accounts of sexual assault and atrocities against women during the Hamas attack on Israel on 7 October into “a framework of conjecture”.

Parr said on Monday that during the four-and-a-half hour performance he wrote the word Israel a number of times, that “Israel is an apartheid state and a tragedy for Jews everywhere” and that “Anti-semitism in any form is totally abhorrent to me”.

“I never juxtaposed the words Israel and Nazi on the wall, I never sought to do that,” he said.

He said the performance component of Going Home was an artist’s response to a conflict which had seen “a disproportionate response on the part of Israel to a tremendously immoral and disturbing incursion by the Hamas guerrillas” for which the “Palestinian people are being collectively punished”.

“I object to the fact that this performance, which was seriously conceived, has been completely overshadowed by [Schwartz’s] response,” he said.

“It’s a form of suppression because it takes a position that makes discussion … and intelligent response almost impossible.”

In Monday’s interview, Schwartz said she was not censoring the artist’s work. The Parr exhibition, including the full video of the 2 December performance, would remain on show in her gallery until its appointed closure date of 16 December.

“The work has remained on the walls, every part of it is there on view, including a simultaneous video … that runs the four-and-a-half hours that the performance took, and that video is playing on the walls of the gallery.

“I have provided a neutral platform and support for whatever [artists’] statements have been,” she said. “I don’t mediate the exhibitions.”

In the interview, Schwartz reflected on the loss of many relatives in the Holocaust, both from her family and that of her husband, the publisher Morry Schwartz. She said those who had escaped and come to Australia had seen the country as a place “they could reach in order to live calm, rational lives. And that’s what they have done ...

“That is what Australian society has endeavoured to be, a place of variation, and a place of discussion and argument, yes, but argument doesn’t have to descend to hostility and the invocation and incitement to violence.”

Her decision to end a 36-year relationship with one of Australia’s most high-profile artists came from feelings of deep hurt, she said.

“He said to me before the show … I don’t want to hurt you, Anna. But he did hurt me, because it was an intentional ending of that relationship that I know was fundamental to me. And it was fundamental to him.

“I can’t work with an artist who’s prepared to hurt me to that degree and to insult my culture and my lived experience, the generations that come before me, who have suffered and been annihilated.”

Asked whether she understood criticism of the way Israel had behaved in Gaza, Schwartz said she acknowledged the pain of “the threat of complete annihilation of a people, the threat of saying there will be no rest until a complete culture of people is destroyed”.