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Sacred and Profane Madness 

As Mardi Gras approaches, we can thank Friedrich Nietzsche, the 19th century German philosopher, for some useful perspective. Nietzsche saw two main forces at work in human society. All that was rational, orderly and structured he deemed "Apollonian" in honor of the Greek god of light, clarity and form. By contrast, all that was ecstatic or irrational, including madness, mysticism and drunkenness, he called "Dionysian" because of the way reason and will were swept away in some sort of frenzy. Mardi Gras is purposely Dionysian, which is why we honor Dionysius, locally better known by his Roman name, "Bacchus."

America, which makes a fetish of reason, righteousness and modernism, is among the most Apollonian of nations. New Orleans, which is forever unimpressed by reason or righteousness, and is mostly anti-modern, is the most Dionysian of American cities. Well, somebody had to do it. We have our values! (Hey, what would Krewe du Vieux do?) Lyle Bonge's Mardi Gras photos at the Palma Gallery bear the appropriately Dionysian title, The Sleep of Reason, but they're actually kind of nostalgic because so many date from the 1960s, before the frats invaded Mardi Gras en masse. What we see is a view of an older, more parochial brand of debauchery that can seem both more innocent and more depraved for being so unselfconscious. The more self-aware Carnival worldview that would one day blossom in the Societé of St. Anne, the Krewe of Cosmic Debris and the Krewe du Vieux was nowhere to be seen in 1964. Yet, like the 1930s Mardi Gras photos of John Gutmann, there is something a little sinister about this bayou Satyricon, as if the burlesquery somehow reflected some of the weirdness of post-JFK America during the Vietnam war.

Not that anything obviously political is going on. On the contrary, the tone of these generally untitled images is very psychological and a tad ironic. Interspersed amid the baroque extravagances of the gay French Quarter Carnival scene, with its manic flourishes of glitter, feathers and sequins, appear the deadpan visages of families in and out of costume looking like the ghosts of Saturnalias past, as well as some severe guys in suits, like FBI agents who ended up infiltrating the wrong event. There's a surreal, mise-en-scene quality about all this that reveals people in moments of seemingly pagan dislocation, as if the minotaur or the Burning Man were just around the corner. It's a far cry from the Mardi Gras of the tourist brochure, but it fits with Bonge's own history as a scion of a leading Mississippi art clan and a veteran of Black Mountain College in the days of John Cage and Cy Twombly.

Very different in tone, yet at least as otherworldly, are the images in Tomer Ganihar's Raving in the Desert series of big color photographs from the Israeli trance music explosion of the 1990s. A native of Israel born in 1970, Ganihar discovered a surprisingly spiritual vein of his country's rave scene while on leave from military service in 1990. Unlike such sessions of all-night trance music in the West, there was a spiritual idealism in the air that Ganihar relates to the Kabbalah, Judaism's most esoteric and mystical tradition. It may also have been a reaction to the rigid militarism of a country where war was becoming a way of life, not unlike the hippie revolution in Vietnam-era America in the 1960s. Documentary only in the most subjective sense, these views of Israeli raves are often blurry, baroque and impressionistic, colorful waves of pulsating bodies in motion punctuated by more sober scenes of torn and mangled streets just after a suicide bombing, or perhaps a reenactment of some ancient ritual on the desert. Some of this also made me think of the whirling dervishes of Sufi Islam. It takes a little while to process the mystical component that distinguishes these raves from their equivalents elsewhere, but at their best these images convey a sense of spiritual ecstasy amid the horrors and banalities of the politics of terrorism, a danse macabre that allows the Bushes and the bin Ladens of the world to set the tempo, whether the rest of us like it or not.

click to enlarge The Mardi Gras photos of Lyle Bonge evoke a surreal quality about the French Quarter scene on Fat Tuesday, revealing revelers in moments of seemingly pagan dislocation.
  • The Mardi Gras photos of Lyle Bonge evoke a surreal quality about the French Quarter scene on Fat Tuesday, revealing revelers in moments of seemingly pagan dislocation.


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