David McDiarmid: When This You See Remember Me @ NGV

David McDiarmid, Strangers in the night, 1978
Reproduced with the permission of the David McDiarmid estate

Sally Gray first met Australian artist and activist David McDiarmid some four decades ago, at a street market in inner city Sydney. Gough Whitlam’s government had just come to power and a lot of creative bohemian types had decided to return from their self-imposed exile overseas. The mid-1970s were an extremely exciting time to be in Sydney, says Gray, “it was a time of incredible visual and cultural and sexual and gender ferment.” Although for openly gay artists like McDiarmid, it was not without its risks (gay sex would remain illegal in NSW for another ten years, until 1984).

Gray didn’t see an exhibition of McDiarmid’s art proper until a year or two after they met, but the two of them didn’t really make a distinction between art, life, craft, culture or fashion anyway. “That’s why we bonded,” Gray says, “we stood and looked at each other across a market stall. It was a visual engagement to begin with, on the basis of what one was wearing and what David and Peter Tully were selling at their strange stall.” They recognised in each other “a form of visual exploration that was open ended.”

David McDiarmid,  Hand and heart , 1984 Reproduced with the permission of the David McDiarmid estate

David McDiarmid, Hand and heart, 1984
Reproduced with the permission of the David McDiarmid estate

David McDiarmid moved fluidly between art, graphic design, fashion design, political activism and art-as-life bohemianism. Following his death from HIV/AIDS related illness in 1995, Gray has been the curator of McDiarmid’s estate in the truest sense; a caretaker and custodian of his creative legacy. While he was still alive “people weren’t interested theoretically in David’s practice, he was seen as an agitprop artist,” says Gray. “He was certainly not understood within notions of the avant-garde, put it that way.” Instead, the fine arts establishment at the time tended to include McDiarmid in thematic shows which dealt with gay culture or the HIV/AIDS crisis, those extra qualifiers and identifiers always tacked on to his name.

When I ask Gray whether McDiarmid also saw himself as a gay activist first and artist second (as figures like Derek Jarman did), she says he would have entirely refused such a hierarchical classification. “I think he wouldn’t want to be forced to make a choice. He would refuse to have the gayness elided, but he would insist on his ownership of the consciousness and subjectivity of being an artist, and insist that he could be an artist in ways that people didn’t understand an artist could be.”

David McDiarmid, Discard after use, 1990
Reproduced with the permission of the David McDiarmid estate

The new retrospective of McDiarmid’s work, When This You See Remember Me (on now at NGV Australia until 31 August), has been curated by Sally Gray with the NGV and it’s the first to present McDiarmid’s oeuvre in its messy, unclassifiable whole. It is equal parts an art exhibition and a social, subcultural, political and personal history.

In the first couple of galleries, McDiarmid’s work deals very explicitly with the emerging queer culture of the 1970s and its visual and sexual language, in response to which McDiarmid seems alternately joyous, bemused and mildly annoyed. But the work from the late 1980s onwards, after McDiarmid had been appointed artistic director of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras and also diagnosed HIV positive, is increasingly furious in both tone and pace of production.

“David had always worked hard and consistently but he’d been very casual about the notion of a career,” Gray explains. “When he was diagnosed HIV positive this incredible urgency came into his work and the quantum of output. There’s rage and cutting insight into the world he found himself in, but also urgency in terms of production and getting the ideas out. Finding a way to express the excruciating reality he found himself in. Finding the creative and artistic means to get that out; out of himself and out into the world before his time was up. It’s as simple as that.”

David McDiarmid, I want a future that lives up to my past, 1994
Reproduced with the permission of the David McDiarmid estate

During our conversation, Gray says that the exhibition–which has been nearly two decades in gestation–feels like it’s a case of right time, right place. So many of the once-obscure touchstones referenced in the show, such as the Paradise Garage club scene in New York at the end of the disco period, are now recognised as massively important moments in queer history and dance music culture generally. You can find amateur video footage of the club on YouTube or download Larry Levan tracks from iTunes.

“I think there are quite a lot of gay people for whom David’s erudition about queer history would have been, until recently, quite opaque. I think the internet has had an unbelievable impact on people’s access to key ideas and imagery… The point I’m making is that there’s now a literacy, not just about queer culture but about the fringes, the edges of things.” It’s a fact that greatly excites and amuses Sally Gray.

“Look, I’m incredibly old. So everything I say is with a kind of wonder that so many things I’ve known about for so long are of interest to young people. It’s a great wonder and delight to me that David’s work is receiving this audience, and that things that I thought were very important for a long time have currency again, when for a time of about twenty years they haven’t.”

>> Maura Edmond
>> Posted 30 May 2014

David McDiarmid: When This You See Remember Me
9 May - 31 August, 2014
The Ian Potter Centre, NGV Australia
10am - 5pm (closed Mondays)
Federation Square, Melbourne