Book review Absolutely Mardi Gras Jointly published by Doubleday and the Powerhouse Museum 1997 RRP $29.95
The cover, like the title of this publication, is absolutely late-nineties: an absolutely over-the-top hair confection made by Michael Gates is modelled by a cross-eyed, star-struck, absolutely pearl-bedecked Maude Boaté. The photograph recalls the flaccid, absolutely meaningless air-brushed contours of a Pierre et Gilles, and the citric multi-coloured title pays homage to the TV show that celebrates the absolute silliness of post-feminist hankerings.
However, despite the appealing air-headedness of this contemporary style, the stringency with which the writers have researched the history of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras recalls the "marriage of art and politics" (David McDiarmid, p.102 that forged the beginnings of this now world-famous event. The publication coincides with the twentieth anniversary of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Parade, and draws much of its information from the 1996 Powerhouse Museum exhibition of the same name.
Like the event itself, much of the initial appeal of this publication lies in its visual impact; 106 colour pages recall some of the past highlights, and focus briefly on the work of those who have given the SG&L Mardi Gras its special genius and focus. In these all-too-brief biographies, more serious issues raised by the event itself are only alluded to; of the five artists focussed on, three have already died from an AIDS-related illness. The brief accounts written by Robert Sweica, Glynis Jones and Judith O'Callaghan are peppered with references to the absolutely serious nature of the event's origins. In quoted recollections of many of those involved, it was the seriously political nature of the original march in 1978 which spurred the total commitment to the event as a vehicle for political voice. Confrontation with police at Hyde Park at 11.00 pm on Saturday June 24, 1978, lead to fifty-three arrests. In the words of Peter Tully, '
I'd gone along expecting a mardi gras and finished up in a humdinger of a riot in Kings Cross. Because of the police, it's grown to what it is today. Perhaps without that riot, we wouldn't have had Mardi Gras...It was terrifying. It was very violent.' (p.6)
In part, this publication celebrates the obvious success of the event: the first parade in 1978 drew between 1000 and 2000 participants; the 1996 parade drew a crowd of 650,000, and was televised live to an audience of millions. The Mardi Gras now brings in 38 million dollars annually, which makes it the single largest tourist drawcard in Australia. (even so, the Federal Government in its infinite wisdom has decided to prevent the Channel 2 coverage of the event in 1997) Yet the steadily increasing success of the Mardi Gras came at a price; in the words quoted from the 1986 Australia Council Artistic Report, 'We are almost victims of our own success' (p.92) In this focus on the increasingly bureaucratised nature of the festival's organisation the pure celebration suggested by the colour and glitz of this publication takes a more critical turn.
By the early nineties, the creative responsibilities that had been shared by artists had been taken over by committees which now determined the artistic direction of the festival, parade and parties. The collaboration, interaction and creative chaos that had characterised the earlier SG&LMG workshops were superseded by an operation which defined the workshop as a 'service'. Ian McMillan, who took on the role of senior workshop artist in 1992, describes the new values of the Mardi Gras organisation; 'We have changed the emphasis from a sort of tempestuous, indulgent, romantic, artistic vision to a more professional, reliable get-the-job-done approach. No private agendas.' (p.102 of the catalogue)
McMillan's statement is quoted after 101 pages documenting aspects of the commitment and passion that made the Mardi Gras possible; even amidst the silly-yet-serious flavour of the late nineties it seems kind of sad that the adjectives tempestuous, indulgent, romantic and artistic have been superseded by a more 'rational' approach to carrying out something with such a riotous, impulsive and notorious (but no less successful) history. In the end the reader is left with the feeling that there are many aspects of the SG&LMG that are not dealt with in enough detail; the complexity of some of the issues hinted at in this short and excellent synopsis invites more in-depth research of an event that , despite the froth and bubble on the surface, does not simply happen by magic.