It starts with a vehement letter and ends with a rush of images. In between there are props, posters and glitzy attire.

To concentrate only on its impressive visuals, however, is to skate over the point of 57 Questions -¦, the Mardi Gras history exhibition now on in Chippendale.

At its core, the show, which surveys the history of the Parade and Party from fiery beginnings to today, is about something less tangible.

Co-curator Daniel Lutton explains:

This exhibition is about representations of how people have experienced these events.
But within that there are all these other stories that are going on, that aren’t recorded.

And so, as well as documenting Mardi Gras lore, 57 Questions -¦ encourages visitors to consider their own view of the annual event.

It does so with something of a hit parade of Mardi Gras history, gathered in the main from personal collections.

Exhibits range from the outraged to the outrageous, beginning with the so-called 57 Questions Letter, sent by the Gay Solidarity Group to then NSW Premier Neville Wran after the first Mardi Gras in 1978.

The letter questions police action at the initial Parade, and for Lutton is a highlight.

It’s the provocative questioning, it’s the fact that people sat down and thought of those questions and challenged and moved forward, he says.

It’s just really inspiring to know that that was written and acted on.

Other exhibits are more whimsical.

Fred’s Head, a papier-m??ikeness of Mardi Gras opponent Fred Nile’s head, was escorted by the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence in the 1989 Parade.

It encapsulates the Parade’s style and wit, Lutton says.

A series of photos from the Flinders Laneway Recovery parties, meanwhile, documents a slice of Mardi Gras history that has slipped away, underlining one of the exhibition’s key questions: What has been lost?

But for all the misty-eyed nostalgia it may inspire, 57 Questions -¦ is as much about the present as days gone by, Lutton insists.

Bringing all the exhibits into our current socio-political issues is a key aim, he says.

Three scrapbooks that accompany the main exhibits help to achieve that.

Entitled Parade, Party and Place, they document Mardi Gras’ changing significance to the community, drawing on press clippings and internet commentary.

Visitors can make their own contribution to Mardi Gras by adding their thoughts or stories to the scrapbooks.

As Lutton puts it: In a nutshell we are all participants in our history and have the power to shape it one way or another.

In the end, however, 57 Questions -¦ is as much about the frivolity of Mardi Gras as it is about the politics involved.

The final exhibit, a video montage of Mardi Gras moments, is a fine example of that.

Whether of Kylie’s legendary Party performance in 1998 or of marchers busily preparing their floats, the technicolour images convey what Lutton calls the hallucinogenic and overwhelming feel of Mardi Gras.

And, he adds, certainly a sense of magic.

57 Questions -¦ is on at Pine Street Creative Arts Centre, 64 Pine St, Chippendale, until 12 March.

It is open weekdays from 9:30am to 5:30pm and Saturday 11am-4pm and is free.

There are free guided tours on 3, 5, 8, 10 and 12 March at 2pm.

For tour bookings email nmgfestival@netbreak.net.

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