Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras

Visual Arts Program 1999

The theme for Mardi Gras this year was 'equality in diversity', a catchphrase that seems to epitomise one of the most fundamental operations- and problems--of the festival. How do you sufficiently represent a community that is infinitely diverse? Mardi Gras is ultimately a community festival, and the inclusion of work that reflects its various aspects, while not always meeting the usual standards of artistic merit, is still very much part of its brief. The opportunity for artists to show work that doesn't get seen in galleries eleven months of the year is a valuable one, and the jumble of work that is presented every February provides Mardi Gras with a unique and often surprising edge.

As the festival has grown, so have expectations, and this cannot help but shift the focus away from community arts towards the larger, higher-profile events. Mardi Gras is a proposal-driven festival, and as it pulls more visitors and greater critical coverage, the larger galleries and institutions have become increasingly involved. This has not proved all bad: it has provided the chance to see artists we may not otherwise see, particularly international artists; and has also provided a critical dialogue that recalls Meaghan Morris' defence of the institution as an opportunity for 'serious politics'.

One of the developments has been a more concerted effort at cultural diversity within the program. The involvement of spaces such as Gallery 4A and Boomalli has meant greater Asian and Aboriginal content. An emphasis on indigenous involvement has been a feature of the directorship of Jonathan Parsons, who has been at the helm since 1997. Each year his Festival Director's message evokes the traditional owners of the Sydney area, and the number of indigenous exhibitions has grown markedly. This year there were three in the visual arts program. Clinton Nain 's installation and performance was shown at Hogarth Galleries, while Coo-ee exhibited the paintings and prints of Arone Raymond Meeks, amongst others.

At the Australian Museum's new Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander gallery Djamu, Mardi Gras stalwart Brook Andrew curated the intriguing blak beauty. Beautifully and enigmatically presented in a glossy black cube, the exhibition surrounded the viewer with the camp signifiers of neon and feather boas while displaying an eclectic range of objects drawn from various museums and private collections. Moving around the space and reading Andrew's catalogue essay, you were presented with an acute and disconcerting sense of your own cultural expectations: the mirrors at each end of the gallery made you very aware of just who was looking at what. The objects themselves ranged from the more obvious adornments to turtle eggs and a marsupial mole, and there was, apparently deliberately, very little information about them. Placed in jewellery-shop cases or on velvety black busts, the pieces became fetishes, sexy and mysterious. While this admirably sidestepped ethnographic reading, it was also confusing for those not familiar with the cultures represented. The placement of the show within Mardi Gras could quite easily add to that confusion, with connections being made to gay and lesbian culture which are perhaps not there, besides the highly personal selection by the curator himself. The objects are gorgeous, however, and Andrew's presentation highlighted very well the point that Aboriginal cultures are erotic and graceful, with a deep sense of beauty, something rarely appreciated by white society.

As always, photography featured prominently in the festival, particularly with the international artists. Jonathan Turner, who has previously brought out Pierre et Gilles and Erwin Olaf, this year presented a small but neat show of Baron von Gloeden 's work. While now looking faintly ridiculous, with their heavily staged images of awkward Sicilian country lads, fresh out of the fields (you can't help but wonder what the boys were thinking as they posed as satyrs and graces, completely starkers), the photographs still have the ability to startle. There is a rawness to them which makes them somehow closer than the work of those that followed in the Baron's wake (some included in the show): Herb Rills, Bruce Weber, Robert Mapplethorpe. The slickness of these photographers' work gives their subjects an airbrushed distance, faintly unreal, while von Gloeden 's subjects are rarely beautiful, with thick features and heavy cocks. It was perhaps this grittiness that compelled the police to investigate the exhibition in its last week of display, following a complaint. Turner closed the show a day early but explained that he was going to do so anyway.

Another international photographer, the Canadian Evergon, was shown at the Australian Centre for Photography. Four suites of work were presented, covering ten years of the artist's career and including huge Polaroids, black-and-white photographs and holograms. A major romantic, Evergon quotes Baudelaire and Shakespeare, and creates fictitious creatures called Ramboys, 'a mythical tribe of promiscuous boys'. The photographs of Ramboys (who roll around with deer while wearing sheep horns and Doe Martens), while luscious in quality, were too self-indulgent to be absorbing. Far more successful were a series of black-and-white photographs of beats, shot in various cities in Europe and North and South America, as well as Sydney. These were enormously powerful, and created a gay mythology with much greater depth and scope than the cavorting Ramboys. The whole range of gay experience seemed to flow from these simple scenes, shot in toilets, parks, forests, under bridges, and down alleyways. Loneliness, desperation, sensuality, hope, inventiveness and lust were evoked without the need for any figures at all.

Other exhibitions included Andrew Osborne's series of wooden cabinets and light boxes at Object gallery, providing a mix of wry humour and high-art opacity. Osborne's throwaway titles and comic touches were offset by the glossy finish of the work, which had the look of finely-worked furniture. There was something elegiac, too, about the blurred photographs and paper dresses inside the boxes, emphasised by a small wreath placed on the gallery window sill. Across the room, Age of Consent featured several artists who used a range of materials, notably Nathan Waters's Oldenberg-oversized stamp-pad, funny and angry all at once, with a big red OUT emblazoned upon the stamp, reminding us that the closet is ever-present, no matter how open one is. Mark Stewart's small embroidered works have the quality of samplers, and with their cute retro feel and square-jawed heroes, could almost be hung in mother's kitchen. Stewart's complex collision of influences and references, within a relatively simple format, work better than Anion Veenstra's tapestries (featured in a solo show elsewhere in the festival), which provided fairly literal representations of male sexuality, with their images of porn stars and lounging nudes.

Noticeable in the visual arts program this year was a dearth of lesbian work on show, which , according to Jonathan Parsons, was simply due to a lack of proposals from women. This is a problem that is important, if difficult, to rectify, due to the structure of the festival. If true equality within diversity is to be made possible, Mardi Gras should take this into account, and perhaps needs to be more proactive in its production of exhibitions. Mardi Gras is an institution now, and it is time to consolidate its position as the visible face of gay and lesbian culture. There have been moves to refocus the budget, with better funding for key areas, and progress toward development schemes and inter-festival exchange has been made. Mardi Gras has a responsibility to facilitate and develop, as well as respond, and this process, if set in motion, will surely result in a festival that is representative as well as stimulating.