Time Out Melbourne

Did the earth move for you at Hobart’s second-ever Dark Mofo? If it didn’t, you’re doing it wrong

Listening to people talk about Dark Mofo – at the airport, in cabs, at hotel bars – you could be forgiven for thinking they’re pulling your leg.

“We passed a zucchini between our legs while someone in a black hooded cloak made the walls rumble.”

Yeah, good one.

It’s all true, though – every morning the local papers confirm what we’re sure we saw, in just as much excitement as we’d relayed it ourselves. Indeed, festival director David Walsh seems to be to The Mercury what Father Christmas is to the under-fives.

Granted, the queues are much longer this year, but Dark Mofo is a festival in flux. Last year, the Presets closed proceedings in MAC2, the cavernous harbourside shed. This year there’s no major headline to draw a crowd of that size, so the MAC2 hasn’t been utilised. This pushes the art installations into less obvious – and more interesting – spaces such as the Town Hall Underground and the Prince of Wales Battery (and the sky). Much of the music action moved to a new base of the Odeon, but presumably this will again change by next year, given that the Odeon’s neck is on a developer’s chopping block. Eventually, attendance figures will plateau and organisers can adjust venue sizes to suit, but even then, risk-taking creative director Leigh Carmichael has the vision of Dark Mofo being a shapeshifter. Change is the only constant. That, and paramedics on standby.

Music highlights

If the unofficial theme of 2013 turned out to be hallucinations – a few of the installations, including Kurt Hentschläger’s ZEE, actually induced trips – then this year it’s sonic frequencies. Which, if tuned into willingly, can have a similar effect.

The leading purveyors of this are Seattle’s SUNN O))). Remember when it was fashionable for metal bands to tune to drop-D? This lot (named after their favourite amplifiers) take it all the way down to drop-A, which is also colloquially known as “the brown note”. The band materialises on stage at the Odeon, which is packed thickly with smoke-machine effluent. They’re dressed in hooded robes, surrounded in ceremony, and proceed to drone through a set so loud and bassy it reverberates up your spine and sends shockwaves through your body, fanning fine hairs about your head. There's a strong chance you will walk out of the rubble with a different molecular structure to that when you walked in.

The challenge, with Dark Mofo's catalogue of low-frequencied acts (see also Earth, Void ov Voices and Veil of Darkness), is to get in the zone. You might abruptly pop back into reality and wonder why you’re testing the stability of the nearest wall, in a room smelling of old chip oil, with lights crashing to the ground back near the bar, but perseverance will drop you back into it again. Dark Mofo music events are experiences you need to invest in and engage in, not instant entertainment.

Also at the Odeon is Afterlife: ten-plus bands who are “very Melbourne,” as a passer-by notes en route to the bar – or maybe it was a comment on the audience. As we walk in, HTRK are on stage, slipping us a pharmaceutical downer. Jonnine Standish has a sedative way of singing, throaty and soft. It’s reminiscent of gap-toothed Parisian chanteuses from the 1960s, now eternally trapped in some ambient soundscapes. She impassively stands side by side with Nigel Yang; two ghosts in a thick fog. They leave their gear still playing as they vanish off stage. Eventually, it, too, fades to black.

Kirin J Callinan reinvents himself as regularly as Madonna. Tonight he’s a transvestite getting the 96 tram to Bojangles in 1984. He’s a scene from Amiel Courtin-Wilson’s Hail. Playing songs from 2013’s Embracism, his band (including Aaron Cupples, of Alpha Males and Civil Civic fame) are clones in black skivvies. They’re impassive as he slides about, breaking into a burst of funk footwork, taking his guitar off and spinning it, skewering individual audience members with his unnerving eye contact, and moving the mic with his mouth as though he’d like to pin it against the wall and feel it up. Musically, one minute he’s JG Thirlwell, the next Patrick Wolf. He’s thrashing a spiky guitar tone, then indulging his chorus pedal. Has he even heard of all these references? Either way, he’s a huge talent.

A world away from this is In Praise of Darkness. The Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra and Chorus are joined by virtuoso violinist Jun Yi Ma, soprano Jacqueline Porter and Anu Tali, who doesn’t so much conduct as dance. This classical dream team taking on the works of Arvo Part, John Tavener, Peteris Vasks and Brett Dean have attracted many interstate visitors just for one concert. In the candle-lit auditorium, the Chorus begin with a Gregorian chant, setting the tone for an evening laden with ritual and reverence. Part’s works, in particular, resonate with warmth, working to the ethos that silence is sacred and it is the notes around the silence that creates the ceremony.

To say Diamanda Galás’ voice is an instrument would be a gross understatement. It’s a portal into other worlds, into the past, present, and future. Tonight, at the grand old Theatre Royal, she’s a medium into the fever hospitals of Germany in the early 1900s. The 23-year-old poet Georg Heym could scarcely have imagined the treatment his poem 'Das Fieberspital' would receive a century later in Hobart. Galás creates sensations of dread and terror as she bashes on a piano with her fist and elbow, and drifts between three points on stage like an apparition. At its most insistent, her voice can oscillate like an alarm, howl like a gale and squall like a storm. At other moments she sings with relish in guttural German and throaty French, amid death rattles and wheezes. Some audience members excuse themselves and don’t come back, others group outside afterwards, purged and reawakened.

You might well spot an artist on the program who is an obvious draw card for you – some have flown over just to see Diamanda Galás – but at its essence, Dark Mofo is a festival of discovery. Come for the artists you haven't heard of... and go home somewhat changed.

Art highlights

If there’s a theme to the exhibitions and installations at Dark Mofo, it’s loose; loosely sex and death, as implicitly prescribed by Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) director David Walsh (per the museum’s twin themes) to Dark Mofo’s artistic director Leigh Carmichael, but also encompassing beauty, terror and the fantastical. Many of the works tap into the mysticism one associates with solstice rituals of old and the pagan philosophy of lifecycles, in the human and natural worlds.

Mostly, however, one is struck by how much, these days, the art focus – at festivals and major institutions – is on a) the interactive and b) the instagrammable. If people bother getting out of the house and away from their screens, they want something that’s an “experience”. And it’s not truly something you’ve “done” until you’ve instagrammed/Facebooked it.

The other interesting theme in cultural programming over the last decade has been towards activating non-cultural spaces for cultural activities: a night at the museum (something that Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery did in fact host as part of this year’s Dark Mofo); ‘art bars’; turning historically industrial spaces into art parks or cultural installations. There was plenty of that at Dark Mofo, too: “we’re embracing the urbex ethos (urban exploration) and venturing into some of Hobart’s underused and under-the-radar locales,” reads one program note.

But firstly, for the “public” parts of Dark Mofo: free, accessible, family oriented. There was Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s interactive mega-light-installation 'Articulated Intersect' (you control a light display comprised of 18 searchlight beams, using Hobart’s night sky as your canvas), Yin Xiuzhen’s 'Washing the River' (you scrub an ice-wall of polluted water from the Derwent River clean), the Wheel of Death (art as a fun ride, complete with black-robed choir-of-doom, carriages decked out like funeral carriages, and a purple-and-platinum lighting display), and the Winter Feast – not strictly art, but in a massive hangar decked out like an art installation, the humdrum business of purchasing and eating food turned into an “event”, and roving performers (beasts and folk straight out of pagan mythology) wandering amongst and interacting with the diners.

All these projects were centred around the Hobart waterfront. It’s a public-funded festival, and the trick is to make the art both accessible and relevant to the local audience, not just the inter-staters. Mission accomplished (although the massive queues for Winter Feast reportedly left a whole lotta hungry audience members pissed off; the Dark Mofo crew acknowledged as much in an announcement on the Facebook page and vowed to be better prepared next year).

In particular, 'Articulated Intersect' and 'Washing the River' brought kids and families and passers-by into commune with each other the art. The Ferris Wheel of Death ultimately seemed to function more as eye/insta-candy than a bona fide festival experience. Whatever: the people came, the people ate, the people instagrammed and tweeted and let everyone know they were there and they were happy to be there.

The rest of the festival required rather more seeking out, tucked into various venues (many specially “activated” for the festival) around the CBD and occasionally further afield (Rosny Barn, over the other side of the river; and of course MONA, the mother-ship).

In the eye-candy department, nothing could beat Queensland artist Ross Manning’s Different Rhythms: installations of kinetic sculptural forms and light that took over the subterranean spaces of Town Hall Underground and the Prince of Wales Battery, normally closed to the public. The works presented across these two spaces were old and new permutations of his ongoing investigation of light and colour: at the simplest end of the spectrum, a work that explores the iridescent qualities of light diffused through layers of plastic; at the more complex end, beams of light refracted through glass prisms into rainbow displays; dazzling crystalline displays of clustered triangular “dichroic filters” that call to mind the subterranean caves of Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth.

Another interesting activation of space was Michael Goldberg’s An Inn for Phantoms, which took up two rooms of the Narryna Heritage Museum, creating an installation of photography, film, and objects from the collection selected and arranged so as to cast curious shadows. The cumulative effect of all elements is to make us think about perspective in viewing art, as much as conjuring a slightly eerie atmosphere (dolls will do that).

Against expectations, perhaps, two of the most substantial and satisfying art offerings at Dark Mofo were neither instagrammable (particularly) nor interactive. Pat Brassington’s À Rebours at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery was on tour from ACCA in Melbourne, curated by its artistic director (and 2014 Biennale of Sydney curator) Juliana Engberg. Taking up three large rooms of TMAG, the exhibition comprises a little more than 50 works created over almost 35 years – a survey to sink your teeth into. And she’s a Tasmanian artist, so it’s quite appropriate to Dark Mofo’s remit regarding local creative talent.

The images in À Rebours fit really nicely with the festival – and MONA’s – dark, Gothic vibrations. They evoke straight up horror in places (cinematic montages of found-images from vampire films, of Christ wounds, of cacti), and vague unease elsewhere (heads and faces obscured or erased, orifices aplenty with things sticking out – or taped over) and psychological distress in other places, as if the artist is channelling some past trauma through her work. The aesthetic ranges from the Gothic and almost illustrative, to surreal images – a woman holding a fish; body close-ups manipulated so they are slightly out of joint. While the show covers earlier analogue work, the bulk demonstrates Brassington’s pioneering work in digital manipulation – nothing at all like today’s sheeny-shiny pixel-perfect work – by turns, more collage-like or more pointedly distorted.

Amelia Rowe’s Memoriam is another of the straight-up and substantial art treats, and another great fit with the festival’s celebration of the life-cycle. A barn (Rosny Barn, part of the Rosny Farm heritage site) full of memento mori: pets and other animals transformed in death, by taxidermy and artistic license: flowers, black velvet and ribbon, channelling the rituals and aesthetics of Victorian-era mourning. Each little sculptural piece (a kitten curls up in a wall-mounted black pie dish, sharing its death-bed with a tiny white bird) is heartbreaking but beautiful. So much love and loss crystallised in the one place.

And finally to the Dark Mofo festival’s mother ship: MONA. If you haven’t read about it, fair warning: spoilers ahead. And it’s a shame too, because their latest coup d’art only works if an element of surprise is maintained. Nevertheless.

So – having never been to MONA before, I reached the top of the stairs from the ferry stop and marched right over the tennis court and past a building with gauche signage reading ‘Southdale Shopping Centre’. Weird, I thought. Once I got over the tennis court I paused, disoriented: years of navigating public space and institutions, deliberately intuitive in their layout, told me that MONA should be exactly where Southdale Shopping Centre seemed to in fact be. And then I did the “sensible” thing in this kind of situation, where one is lost – I followed the crowd (many of whom had been to MONA before, so had a head-start).

Inside the building was even more gauchely commercial: posters marketing property development, a stall with free tee-shirts and stickers, a stand where you could donate blood; a table outside the gift shop piled high with copies of a paperback bearing David Walsh’s picture and the title ‘The Land of David’ and a hand-written sign saying there would be a book signing later that afternoon. A Starbucks café to the right of the reception. A stand of tacky postcards near the “information desk”, which turned out to be where you got tickets. All very disorienting.

Around about then, I remembered a friend warning me about “the theme of MONA’s new installation”, and realised I was in it. And I was: MONA apparently enlisted Swiss artist Christoph Buchel to re-create their entrance level as the site of a soon-to-be-completed shopping mall (named after the first ever shopping mall, which opened in Minnesota in 1956).

My interest then very quickly dissipated, as I decided that it was a cheap trick: yah yah, it’s like art as commerce, I geddit. Nothing to this, I thought. Sure, the stand that sells cheap souvenir boomerangs next to Aboriginal ‘gollywog’ dolls is offensive, but every bit of this installation seems designed to offend someone like me, so no thanks. I don’t want to be part of your game.

And it’s true, there’s not much to the Southdale project. But there’s something very interesting to be gained from sitting with those initial, un-self-conscious reactions – how you felt when you read the sign saying that Hugo Boss and Estee Lauder would be opening shop there; how you felt when you saw the reception area, the postcard stand, the book promo, the tourist-info-centre-style aesthetic. Because how you felt says a lot about how you feel about art and its place in culture generally. And not everyone had the same reaction that you did; there were some followers of MONA’s instagram who were thrilled by the news that a shopping mall was to open in the museum. Which begs the question: is this where we’re headed? Food for thought for the insta-ready, experience-acquisitive, fun-hunting audience.

The writers were guests of Dark Mofo

Read our interview with creative director Leigh Carmichael

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Updated on 4 Dec 2014.

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