Midsumma Festival, Melbourne’s annual celebration of the LGBTIQ community, has long been far from marginalised. Spanning six weeks and featuring an impressive program covering all aspects of artistic endeavour it is rightfully considered one of Melbourne’s most significant touristic attractions.
This year’s edition had an even more celebratory tone, taking place after the ratification of the Marriage equality law, and though it officially culminated last week, some of its programs are still going on. Not least among them, the exhibition ‘We are here’, a collaboration between the State Library of Victoria and the Australian Lesbian and Gay Archive (ALGA), which features visual art works casting a ‘queer gaze’ upon LGBTIQ histories that have been forgotten or excluded from the Australian social narrative.
“It’s a great gesture on behalf of Midsumma and the State Library to partner with this exhibition and host the show for quite a long time, until April,” says Peter Lambropoulos, whose work is featured in the exhibition, alongside that of Archie Barry, Susan Maco Forrester, Briony Galligan, and Peter Waples-Crowe. “The State Library is a pretty significant cultural institution within Victoria and it is an important gathering place. It has a history of being a place where people gather especially to protest whether it be about LGBTIQ issues or refugee issues or union issues. And it’s a fantastic space in which to position visual art.”
When asked by the exhibition’s curator, photographer and visual artist Angela Bailey, to take part in the exhibition, Peter Lambropoulos started musing on the premise of the show. “What happens when institutions that are mandated to be representative of everyone, catalogue their collection items in selective ways — you can accidentally lose whole histories.”
All the participating artists had access to the State Library Collection, but Peter Lambropoulos soon turned back to ALGA, as he was looking for audiovisual material, which is not the main concern of the Library collection. “The title for the exhibition is WE ARE HERE, so when I found a whole lot of historical video documentation it got me thinking, if I’m here now, where was I? I started thinking about memory and locating myself back in time”.
With this in mind, the artist started looking through the videos, looking for events that he might have attended himself. “I found that memory is very slippery, that I’m forgetting a lot of things and I’m remembering other things very differently. I never found myself in any of the documentation, but I did find friends. I also found footage from a performance I remember attending. It was by the drag artist Miss Candee from the early 1990s.”
The footage shows Miss Candee mashing up Helen Reddy’s song ‘You and Me Against the World’ with Meryl Streep’s iconic line “The dingo’s got my baby!” from the Fred Schepisi film Evil Angels, which was about the Azaria Chamberlain case that had shaken Australia at the time.
“This was not drag that I had seen before,” says the artist. “Normally drag is someone trying to impersonate the opposite gender. For drag queens this often involves big hair and sequins and makeup. This performance was different, bad wig, frumpy dress, ugly doll – it was hilarious and dark and scary all at the same time, and it stayed with me which is why I wanted to work with this footage.”
Using this footage as a basis for his own project, Peter Lambropoulos took a snippet out of a huge frame, turning it into a close up of Miss Candee mouthing the line in a short loop, over and over, albeit without sound. “The lips are saying it but you don’t hear it.”
The video loop was then projected onto sandpaper, and merged with radial gradient animation, creating a mesmerising result, filled with colour and brightness and texture.
In a way Lambropoulos’ work is a reflection of a reflection of a reflection. It’s a work of art, based on a video footage, of a performance which imitates a scene from a movie narrating a true story.
There are lots of overlays of narrative there and it is all deliberate, commenting on the nature of memory, collective and personal. “Here I am eroding and wiping away a segment of my community and to do that I’m using sandpaper, I’m projecting onto a very abrasive substance,” explains the artist, describing how the conceptual and the practical come together to reinforce the aesthetic. “I think forgetting or memory loss can be useful at the individual level but problematic at an institutional or structural level,” he says. “On a personal level, forgetting or having selective memory loss allows people to change and transform, but at an institutional level, particularly one that is basically a memory or collection institution like a library, if you’re not accessioning collection objects with the right kind of descriptions, you can essentially write communities out of the social narrative; you are effacing them from the story.”
Does he think that this is pretty much what happened to the LGBTIQ community? “To a certain extent, yes,” he says. “Especially if you start thinking about personal biases when cataloguing queer content; sometimes people don’t have that filter. There is definitely queer content in the Library’s collection, it’s just not accessioned accurately. So I think there is a real benefit in people going back and looking at objects through a new lens.” His work invites the audience to do just that. “I like to make work that is visually seductive,” he explains. “Because it is colourful and moving, I’m hoping it’s going to engage people on a visual level, without having to read an explanatory text or to even know what the show is about. I want to get people in and see what’s going on in here.”
* ‘We Are Here’, curated by Angela Bailey for Midsumma 2018 and featuring Susan Maco Forrester, Peter Waples-Crowe, Briony Galligan, Peter Lambropoulos, and Archie Barry is presented at the State Library of Victoria until Sunday 1 April 2018. For more information about Peter Lambropoulos, visit http://petlamb.com.au/