First published on 19 Apr 2013. Updated on 12 Feb 2014.
The overarching effect of Dark Mofo is of being a child again. At every turn, there's something exciting, over-stimulating or thrillingly gross.
An initiative of the Museum of Old and New Art with help from Tasmania's State Government, it’s the vision of MONA’s founder David Walsh, creative director Leigh Carmichael, curators Nicole Durling and Olivier Varenne, along with the extensive Dark Mofo team. As with MONA itself, which opened in 2011 at the cost of $100 million from Walsh, the Bacchanalian brief was the link between sex, death and beauty.
This winter festival is partially inspired by the Sculpture Project in Münster, Germany – a public event held every 10 years since 1977 – but is also the dark flipside to MONA’s summer festival, FOMA. It stretches for ten days, which means by the time Time Out arrives for the final four we’ve missed incredible projects like Vandemonian Lags – in which thoughtful troubadours including Mick Thomas, Ben Salter and Tim Rogers investigate Tasmania’s convict history (and on occasion their own links to it), and a massive concert headlined by the Presets. That doesn’t matter – from the moment we begin our cab journey at the airport, we’re besieged with things to gawk at.
IN THE SKY
The most towering talking points of Dark Mofo would have to be Patricia Piccinini’s Skywhale hot air balloon – a fantastic spectacle to watch inflating – and Ryoji Ikeda’s Spectra, which spears the sky with beams of light up to 15km high. Both are freely accessible to the public and attract a scramble of interest whenever there’s a take off or night falls.
It’s at this early point in proceedings that Time Out starts to hear tales about the enigma that is MONA’s David Walsh. It seems every local has something hyperbolic and wonderful to say, starting with cabbie Abdul, who paints Walsh as the patron saint of taxi drivers. Walsh’s homecoming to the bad ’burbs of Hobart to build MONA, reckons Abdul, could be likened to Obama coming into office. “Suddenly the wannabe gangsters who had come from nothing all had hope that they could become something bigger. It was an inspiration.”
Tickets to those Dark Mofo events that aren’t free are sold individually, making this a festival inclusive of the local community. The tourists certainly come in droves, though – many courtesy of the $100,000’s worth of free flights on offer. As Premier and Arts Minister Lara Giddings said at the Melbourne preview party in May (held at a Hawks vs. Swans game), the local government has been moved to up its game since Walsh opened MONA. It’s resulted in a sharp uptake of funds pumped into the arts, to complement Hobart’s already established epicurean scene.
(Time Out certainly happens across a few great local exhibitions while roaming around town, as well as workshops put on by Island Magazine, Hobart’s 34-year-old literary quarterly.)
Case in point is the April reopening of the excellent Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery (TMAG), which has had $30 million pumped into it. TMAG is also the temporary home to the Dark Mofo installation Afloat Asunder by Ian Burns. Deep in its ‘Bond Store’ basement – that more resembles an archeology dig – rigs of light bulbs are mechanically triggered to spell out words on the brick walls. They’re emotive words, but produced without human hand. The smell of dust on glass pervades the senses as the bulbs tick, tick, tick their message ceaselessly – or until a filament blows.
A short taxi ride away, Bill Hart’s Conversations in the Dark is installed in Rosny Barn. This multichannel set-up is a disorientating experience. As the viewer enters the barn in pitch blackness, an audio loop plays fragments of words, constantly eluding us of the meaning we’re grasping for. Similarly, the screens that hem us in show hints of hands, faces and shadowy forms before the images disintegrate again.
Also around town is the nightly festival club, Dark Faux Mo, open till three in the morning. We don’t visit, preferring to start our wanders early each day, but we hear rumour of drag acts and dancing in wardrobes.
While Hobart certainly isn’t lacking in locavorian delights, for the final three nights of Dark Mofo most people swarm to the Winter Feast. Held in Princes Wharf 1, the cavernous hall is adorned with candles and wooden stalls – temporary home to the likes of MoVida, Bruny Island Cheese, Bottega Rotolo, the Tasmanian Whisky Producers Association and Universal, selling delicacies including goat, wallaby and seafood.
Roaming around the great hall are aristocrats of the French Revolution era, dancing to a baroque trio playing in a peekaboo nook above the main entrance. Outside there are barbecues from Sydney’s Porteño, Tasman Quartermasters and others. Fires are dotted around the site to fend off the winter chill, and artists including Sal Kimber and the Twoks play to the huddled masses. Fencing all that in is the incredible spectacle of Robin Fox’s White Beam – actually a multi-colour megawatt laser that whips between the trees in time to phasing bass frequencies, enveloping those beneath it in smoke… and mysterious wetness.
BY THE WATER
Here’s a neat tip for those attending Dark Mofo in 2014: if you see a queue, stand in it. Upon our arrival at the Beam in Thine Own Eye programme, held in Macquarie Wharf Shed No.1 right up until July 28, we find the most mindboggling exhibits require a wait time. In the case of Ivana Franke’s We Close Our Eyes and See a Flock of Birds, it’s ten minutes. Once seated inside the cubicle, in front of banks of lights, you’re instructed to close your eyes. The sequential flashing of these LEDs induces explosions of pulsating colour through your lids, and snatches of numerals and letters.
Anish Kapoor’s Imagined Monochrome – which employs a real-life masseur who treats you in the manner the artist has prescribed – is booked up until July 2 (“no, Anish will not be personally administering the massage,” the attendant explains patiently for the umpteenth time). That’s okay, as for us the highlight is easily Kurt Hentschläger’s ZEE. With queues for the installation doubling after a few punters are hospitalised for seizures, the omnipresent paramedics only seem to add to the appeal.
“My name’s ‘HELP’ if you need me,” the attendant at ZEE says, before admitting around ten of us into a room rendered intangible by the sheer output of smoke machines. Strobe and pulsing colour lights somehow turn our surroundings into kaleidoscopic geometry. The effect is of an en masse hallucination as we fumble our way around by handing on to a rope that skirts the perimeter. It’s disorientating and decidedly moreish – those staggering out of the room with thousand yard stares after 16 minutes almost unanimously profess the desire to relive the experience despite the difficulty in breathing once inside. Should we collapse, though, heat sensor machines are on hand to find us.
From there, a sensible course of action is to immerse oneself into Satanalia – the closing night party inside the large hanger just beyond ZEE. The acts – most of which trade on hypnotic grooves – include the Drones, Mono, Barbarian and Boris.
IN THE WATER
The hotel staff making us a giant warming latte at seven in the morning laugh gaily when we say we’re off to watch the Annual Nude Solstice Swim in the River Derwent. “The temperature in my car read one degrees,” one says. The fact that it’s 12 degrees in the water may not sound so bad, but take a moment to consider the shock one’s body might go through when dropping back from 12 to one – dripping wet.
“The Lord Mayor is taking part,” our cab driver tells us of Damon Thomas. “He was being interviewed on the radio and the announcer said, ‘If someone donated $10,000, would you do it?’ Then they did, so he had to – but only if the DJ agreed to it too.”
The media is kept at a respectful distance as the hundreds of swimmers are given the debriefing: “Don’t be a hero. Lower yourself in slowly.” Defibrillators are at hand for those who proceed without caution.
When the time comes, Buddhist monks take up drumming, which creates an incredible sense of ceremony. Flares are let off and the first wave of swimmers peel away from the flaming oil drums on the beach and launch themselves, whooping, into the water. Curiously, it’s an overwhelmingly emotional moment to watch. As predicted, the whooping cuts off abruptly when the swimmers turn back and start to emerge from the water.
In the welcoming warmth of a nearby café afterwards, we start chatting to the proprietor, who has plenty to say about the positive influence of David Walsh on Hobart. The mayor, he scoffs, is one of the archaic old guard – "kids who had plenty of fun themselves growing up in the ’60s and ’70s and then wound up restricting the fun of everybody else”. If Walsh and his team hadn’t come along to show them up, he opines, nothing would ever change. Indeed, you only have to stroll around the shopping and hotel district of the city – as yet untouched by Walsh’s reach – to find yourself thrown back in time three or four decades.
It would be remiss of us to visit Hobart without taking the ferry out to MONA – Walsh’s “subversive Disneyland”. In fact, it’s more like a Bond villain’s bunker, cut into the cliff as it is, complete with fluffy white cat prowling around outside. This labyrinth of alternately sinister and beautiful artifacts is an artwork in itself and, like much of what we’ve seen at Dark Mofo, so immersive as to be disorientating.
Hobart has committed to Dark Mofo for another three years at least, so make this winter festival a fixture on your calendar. In our mind, it’s worth a trip to the Southern Hemisphere, so it’s certainly worth a hop across the Bass Strait.