Fiona McGregor: Buried Not Dead

Fiona McGregor's "Buried Not Dead" (Giramondo, 2021) reflects on twenty-five years of the author's involvement with the arts in Sydney, modulating between memoir, criticism, and art history. In Artist Profile 56, Brooke Boland reviewed the book, finding it a text that "confronts prejudices and erasures in state and national policy, as well as in our art institutions." 

It’s 1996 and Fiona McGregor has been away for “almost a year.” She’s back in Sydney, sitting in the audience at Club 77 and watching a drag performer Groovii Biscuit “in a three-piece suit with big messy eyebrows and clunky glasses,’ a caricature of the recently elected John Howard. “The song crescendoed and s/he started to strip. Groovii’s Howard was awkward, ugly and grotesque. S/he stripped down to Y-fronts, which had the US flag painted on them. S/he was packing with a little gun. S/he started to wank, and the show ended with an almighty gungasm. Oo-oo! Oo-oo!”

This scene opens Buried Not Dead, a collection of essays that dip between memoir, art history, and criticism. As a collection, it reads as an intensely personal record of Sydney’s queer scene as well as writing and performance over a twenty-five-year period, effectively told with the benefit of McGregor’s immersion. 

Memoir, in McGregor’s hands, becomes testimony verging at times on performance. And I mean this in respect to essays like “Dear Malcolm” (addressing Malcolm Turnbull following the same-sex marriage plebiscite and the gutting of Safe Schools), which stands out for its openness to poetic language in the vein of Kathy Acker, or even the late Candy Royalle. 

As an essay, “Dear Malcolm” is gestural and performative, transgressing form. Full of rage but also vulnerability and grief, which makes it even more fierce. It’s a difficult thing to achieve – to find a space where this vulnerability can be harnessed, becoming as it does a powerful indictment of a broken system in the hands of homophobic leadership. In this essay and others, McGregor rallies against institutionalised discrimination, and inseparably, xenophobia, showing the pervasive repression of queer identities in Sydney. If there’s one thing McGregor imparts to readers early on in this collection, it is the deft sanitisation of queer performance in Sydney and the ongoing silencing of marginalised groups. 

The mix of vulnerability and rage is characteristic of the collected essays. “We screamed and cheered, we stamped on the floor, then we danced all night, in a fury,” she writes of a Sex and Subculture party. This simmering anger told through a rare eye-witness account documents Sydney’s underground queer scene in the nineties and how its hedonist celebrations have been gradually eroded by entertainment licence laws, over-policing, and rising venue costs. McGregor writes: “Friends were arrested for half a gram of speed, one joint . . . The media was all but oblivious. Anybody outside the queer scene that I spoke to about this looked at me nonplussed, sometimes even in embarrassment, probably because of the words sex and drugs. (How trivial, what do you expect?) But the policing of pleasure becomes the policing of sexuality and culture. And the policing of anything always always affects marginalised communities more.”

This subject is revisited across essays “Where your cabaret comes from,” “Looking for Lanny K,” and “Fortress Mardi Gras,” the former offering important context for drag and queer underground cabaret. 

McGregor returns to the “traditional sites of galleries and books” in the early 2000s, avoiding the “struggle” of the party scene. This fits with her own trajectory as an artist, her performance art beginning with these early collaborations at queer dance parties and events in the 1990s before she officially launched her solo practice in 2007. The essays reflect this shift, moving into an account of a much more public (sometimes disappointingly less subversive) art scene in essays ‘The Experience Machine’ and ‘Buried Not Dead.’

In ‘The Experience Machine,’ she writes a cutting criticism of Marina Abramović, critical of below-award wages paid to artists for Kaldor Public Art Project’s In Residence, 2015, and Abramović’s rise to fame and near-idol status: “The most reified object of all is herself, reaching apotheosis in The Artist is Present where, regal as a monarch, she received the audience for three months. With 850,000 people paying $25 to see the artist in person, the payoff was formidable. Sitting eight hours a day for three months is a feat of unconscionable physical and mental pain, and well might Abramović earn more than some fat-arsed shyster down on Wall Street. Nor should it matter that her favourite designer is Givenchy, or how much cosmetic surgery she has had, or that her net worth is US $10 million, or that she has done ads for sneakers. What jars is the credo of humility and poverty.”

Herein lies another of McGregor’s preoccupations: What are the gender dynamics within the establishment of fine art, particularly in performance art? What is the role of the ego? With her essay on Abramović sitting alongside one on Mike Parr, the comparison of gender in performance art offers itself easily. “I think about the diametrically opposed aesthetics of Parr’s and Abramović’s burning fingers. How Parr’s abjection and hysteria are acceptable because he is a man, and Abramović’s because they are beautified and presented in the context of New Age spirituality.” 

McGregor’s line of questioning and interrogation doesn’t resolve itself, acknowledged as it is within self-conscious displays of the author’s own personal biases and position, particularly in her essays on performance art. But this is entirely the point. It is an attempt at disarming authority – of the author, of criticism – to show herself as a participant within these cultural dynamics. This self-conscious authorial voice comes with the territory. It’s why so many have characterised McGregor’s book as memoir, which becomes her distinctive form of critical enquiry.

Other artists (perhaps less well known) are profiled: community art producer Jiva Parthipan, performance artist Latai Taumoepeau, photographer Greg Semu, and tattoo artist Bev Nicholas (Cindy Ray). Essays on writers Mary Fallon and Peter Doyle are also included. This leaves the collection expansive in its purview, which could make it lose focus. Fortunately, the uniting force behind the collection is McGregor’s piercing ability to analyse through a prism of personal experience. This enables connections between different art forms, confronting as she does prejudices and erasures in state and national policy, as well as in our art institutions. 

This essay was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 56, 2021.
Images courtesy the artists, Giramondo, Kaldor Public Art Projects. 

BURIED NOT DEAD
Fiona McGregor
Giramondo, 2021
RRP $26.95

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