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

<span>Photograph: Zan Wimberley</span>
Photograph: Zan Wimberley

The Melbourne gallery owner Anna Schwartz has dropped the provocative performance artist Mike Parr after a 36-year relationship, after a piece commenting on Israel’s military action in Gaza.

Schwartz sent Parr a two-sentence email on Sunday, the day after he installed the third part of his exhibition Sunset Claws, informing him she would no longer represent him.

In the work Parr painted black words on a white wall at the Flinders Lane gallery, before obliterating most of the words with blood-red paint and exiting the room weeping.

Among the words Parr said were painted on the wall were “Palestine”, “Israel” and “apartheid”, and a reference to “ethnic cleansing”. It also included the sentence “Hamas raped women and cut off the heads of babies”.

Schwartz said she had ended her association with Parr due to a “serious breach of trust and difference of values”.

“I was sickened by the hate graffiti inscribed on the wall, however I in no way intervened nor censored Sunset Claws, as the full length video of the performance, still playing in the gallery, will attest,” her statement said.

“I have always acted in the interest of the artists represented by the gallery and this is the only time an artist has breached my principles of anti-racism.”

Parr said he “abhorred” antisemitism and people should visit the installation to judge for themselves. It covers both floors of the Melbourne gallery and includes a four-and-a-half-hour video of the performance.

“Anna understands very well the political nature of my performances,” Parr said. “All my performances are controversial, they divide the audience … but that is the point of performance art …

“We’re still a democracy and this is an issue that concerns many in the art world, and many young artists in particular. It’s an issue that they feel inhibited about addressing through their work because they could be in the position that I am now placed … They fear they could be cancelled.

“What Hamas has done in Israel is totally reprehensible and cannot be condoned. But to all intents and purposes 20,000 civilians have now died in Gaza and tens of thousands have been wounded.” (According to the latest figures from the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry, the death toll is more than 17,000.)

Saturday’s performance was witnessed by several people including the cinematographer Gotaro Uematsu, photographer Zan Wimberley and the editor-in-chief of the Saturday Paper, Erik Jensen, who Parr said had agreed to be the artist’s official witness.

The Saturday Paper is published by Schwartz Media, run by Anna Schwartz’s husband, Morry Schwartz. Jensen has also written for the Quarterly Essay, also published by Schwartz.

On Sunday Jensen emailed Parr the notes he took during the performance.

“Yesterday was an incredibly profound experience,” Jensen wrote. “At the end of the performance I found I was crying.”

Parr said he had quarrelled with Morry Schwartz about a week earlier about the situation in Gaza, including coverage of the issue in the Saturday Paper, which Parr said he perceived to be unjustifiably pro-Israel.

Related: Second Sydney Theatre Company board member resigns in wake of actors’ pro-Palestinian protest

“When I told him the Israelis had turned the Gaza Strip into another Warsaw ghetto, he just blew up,” Parr said.

Morry Schwartz, who is the son of Holocaust survivors, said he had argued with the artist but the conversation had nothing to do with the Saturday Paper or its coverage. “From my side it was a conversation, from his, a polemic,” he said.

Both Morry and Anna Schwartz vehemently denied that Morry had anything to do with the decision to end the gallery’s relationship with Parr, and the Guardian does not suggest that he did.

Jensen said he disagreed with any criticism of the Saturday Paper’s coverage, and said he and Parr had never discussed it.

“Our coverage has been scrupulous and impartial,” he said. “I admire Mike enormously as an artist and believe in his work …Mike deals intensely and acutely with the human experience.”

Parr has been exclusively represented by the Anna Schwartz Gallery since its inception in 1986.

Schwartz has been described previously in the media as Australian art’s kingmaker. She represents more than two dozen prominent Australian artists and five of her artists have been selected to represent Australia at the Venice Biennale.

The 78-year-old Parr describes himself as the “gnostic grandfather” of performance art in Australia. His often-confronting performances frequently involve tests of endurance and examine thresholds of pain, attracting considerable media attention over the past four decades. Much of his work is overtly political.

In 2003 he spent 30 hours in a Melbourne gallery with the only arm he was born with nailed to the wall, in protest at the Australian government’s treatment of refugees and asylum seekers.

In 2018 he interred himself in a cavity below a city street in Hobart for 72 hours, partly in protest against the historical atrocities committed against Tasmania’s Indigenous peoples.