Mark Hilton, ‘Knackers’, RMIT Spare Room, 2005

‘Knackers’ is a backlit duratran, a twenty-first century evocation of a medieval stained-glass window. Hilton’s subject was a sex scandal involving the St Kilda Football club. Look for ‘Knackers’ and others of Hilton’s work at Darren Knight Gallery, Sydney.

The television broadcast of an AFL football game begins with Mark Seymour and the Hunters and Collectors reminding viewers that we’re ‘all marching as one on the road to the Holy Grail’. Television producers, determined that even the most mediocre match be seen as the stuff of legend, weave together anthemic pub rock with images of clashing footballers and salt of the earth fans, all decked out in their tribal colours. We’re all in this together; stately warriors and peasant hordes are fused in a televisual echo of feudal carnival.

Regardless of what Mark Seymour had in mind when he wrote the song, the Holy Grail, we are told, is the AFL Premiership cup. It’s nice to see Dan Brown’s ubiquitous Da Vinci code given a hip and shoulder but the AFL’s story is just as glib. If footballers are pursuing the Holy Grail, does this mean they are latter-day Arthurian knights? If there’s anything knightly about AFL footballers, it less Sir Galahad and more Heath Ledger; this is a case of rock and roll upstarts on the make, not pure-hearted chivalry in search of communion with God.

While militaristic analogies have accompanied football since its inception, it’s hard to keep up the metaphor in the age of the professional athlete, now draped in the jargon of managerialism. The team is now the ‘player group’ and a win is a ‘positive outcome’. The only cloaks the AFL’s Crusaders wear are dressing gowns plastered with sponsors’ logos or the shiny raiment woven by their publicity machines.

A more telling equivalence between AFL football and the medieval Crusades lies in their rhetoric and trappings. Both are structured around quest, pilgrimage, ceremony, honour, ritual and sacred relics. But beneath the textual pleasure afforded but such analogies are the crueller vestiges of feudalism, the droit de seigneur and the spoils of victory.

This is where our knights are side-tracked from the path of virtue. Perceval, the hero of Chrétien de Troyes’s twelfth-century fable and original pursuer of the Holy Grail, was characterized as an innocent. But hardly a season goes by without one of our young noblemen hitting the headlines for some transgression or other. Season 2004 offered a bounteous harvest, starting with the St Kilda family day, a medieval carnival if ever there was one. As a Collingwood supporter, I had no reason to attend, but I experienced it through family photos—my daughter on the stage handing Leigh Montagna his guernsey—and my wife’s eager discussions of the Saints prospects . . . discussions which next day quickly shifted away from on-ground performance to the Saints perennial ability to come up with an off-field scandal that would sour their season. Something had gone wrong, someone had gone too far, the revelry had gotten out of hand. SMS messages escalated into media speculation, police inquiries, spin and counter-spin. In the end, no charges were laid but behaviour had been far from chivalrous.

And in the aftermath our scribe, Mark Hilton, recounts the legend to us. Like any Crusade, it’s a story of noble ambitions and human frailty, of the naked power underpinning ceremony, and of the violations of territory that come with any quest.

Original publication: Exhibition brochure for Mark Hilton, Knackers, RMIT Spare Room, 2005

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