“You demand it. The Tasmanian winter demands it.” This is David Walsh, the wealthy, mad genius behind MONA, welcoming visitors in the printed guide to Dark Mofo. In four years, Walsh’s city-wide festival, now supported by local and state governments, has become a thing of international envy; a celebration to mark the winter solstice and a time when all that is veiled, dark and mystifying is given room to emerge.
In Hobart in mid-June, where the light begins to fade at 4pm and the temperate averages eight degrees, there is a sense that anything is possible. Icy winds buffet across the wharf, where the darkness is punctuated by fire emitted in sudden bursts from large metal spikes. This is Dark Park: an industrial site that has been transformed into a network of immersive art installations. But I’ll visit those later, because right now I’m drawn, like many, to the enigmatic Blacklist party at the City Hall. And that’s when things blow off course – way off course.
A wild voluntary abduction
It’s 9pm on a Friday and the line into Blacklist coils around the City Hall. Two men stand in front of me dressed as vikings in high heels. A beat rumbles from inside. Out of nowhere, a woman approaches my group in the line, teetering on stilettos. She’s in full hen’s night garb: a tight pink dress, L-plate around her neck, veil trailing behind. “You guys have got to come on my hen’s party!” she says, eyes wide. I’m tempted to turn away from her, until I notice a cameraman standing next to her and a coach bus which has pulled up behind them. “Come with us and you’ll get free booze! It’ll go for 40 minutes and then you’ll still get into Blacklist,” she implores. Without thinking, I nod my head and climb in. I’m not sure quite why I agree, except that this is Dark Mofo, and normal rules do not apply here. With a group of curious punters, I jump into the bus, take a seat, and am promptly handed a penis whistle and a mouthful of passion pop from a dick-shaped water pistol. ‘Time of My Life’ blares too loudly for the small bus speakers. The song ends, then starts again. And again. We’re taken into a box overlooking a sports field, looking at each other incredulously, while the brides-to-be whip our group into a rum-swigging, table-dancing frenzy. They disappear from a few minutes, then re-appear on the field, naked and wrestling a female footy team. No sooner than we've arrived, we’re back on the bus, then back at the front door of Blacklist (below). The only proof of what just happened is the colourful penis stickers on our cheeks. This is live, guerrilla art at its best – a little slice of escapism in an already surreal setting.
An art party in a crematorium
The Funeral Party spills out from Turnbull Family Funerals and into the courtyard. Women gather in lacy gothic dresses, slim figures prowl in full-length sequinned body suits. Faces are shrouded, lips and eyes are painted black. In the foyer of the building (which, make no mistake, really is an operational funeral home and crematorium) party-goers shed their coats and prepare to enter the main parlour, which is decorated in gothic splendour and bathed in red and purple light. Above an alter is a sign which reads ‘Lost Without You’. All manner of musical acts and performance artists perform throughout the night; a string quartet, guitarist Chelsea Wolfe, dance duo Glitter and Snatch. It’s tempting to remain in the safety of the dance floor, but this party takes many guises – and many of them require more than a bit of morbid curiosity. As I navigate winding staircases and dark corners, I find a woman embalming a near-naked (and mercifully, breathing) man, a guided death meditation and a strangely inviting room filled with mirrors and coffins.
The entire crowd congregate only once. Glad in gimp masks, long cloaks and strapped into huge speakers and drums, Denver electronic percussion collective Itchy-O appear from nowhere and stir the room into a cacophonous, demonic riot – then disappear just as suddenly.
A dark cold winter is embraced
It’s back to Dark Park, where the path between various art installations, bars and food trucks is lit only by thin red cables on the ground and structures spitting fire into the sky. Dark Park is the artistic hub of the festival, second in scale only to the nearby Winter Feast; a food hall with a distinct pagan slant, dripping in more neon crucifixes than Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet.
Dark Park is free to enter and opens in the early evening, which means that on my visit, locals and families have joined tourists to find out what’s inside the art-filled warehouses. Michaela Gleave’s glowing sign, reading FEAR EATS THE SOUL, reflects on the wet concrete. I’m struck by how much freedom is given to visitors here; staff, safety barriers and signage are kept to a minimum. Visitors simply seem to choose their own paths, tread carefully and respect one another – something that, as James Valentine pointed out, simply wouldn’t fly at tightly controlled festivals elsewhere.
In such a stylised environment, Dark Park could have run the risk of feeling too contrived, pushing the red-and-black, sex-and-death angle a little too hard. Thankfully, festival director Leigh Carmichael has curated a space that’s more like an irreverent art playground; no plaques, tickets or tripping hazard signs in sight. At United Visual Artists’ ‘Our Time’, a network of swinging lights confuses any sense of spatial awareness – just as 'House of Mirrors' by Christian Wagstaff and Keith Courtney defies order. Breaths are held in the dust-filled ‘Bodystorm’ by Grupo Empreza (below), and socks become sodden in Patrick Hall’s 'The Cloud', as hundreds of illuminated faces hang from the ceiling, filling the space with a puddle of tears.
A journey into the darkest corners of the mind
One of Dark Mofo’s major art experiences demands a journey both physical and emotional. Mike Parr’s ‘Asylum’ has taken over most of Willow Court in New Norfolk, which is located almost an hour’s drive from Hobart. The network of buildings was once a prison for people convicted as “criminally insane”. Later, these inmates became patients, and eventually, in 2000, the hospital was decommissioned.
Parr, who is a veteran Sydney performance artist (last seen in at the 2015 Sydney Biennale, burning his art) has invited visitors to Willow Court. Just two requests have been made for entry: that visitors wear closed-toe shoes, and that they bring a mirror.
MONA is famous for O: a technologically advanced location-sensing app which guides visitors through the gallery. As you encounter an artwork, you’re encouraged to select whether you ‘Love’ or ‘Hate’ it. O then tells you the number of people who agreed with you, inferring that both opinions (as un-nuanced as they are) are completely valid. After all, Walsh is a provocateur – not all works in the gallery are supposed to appeal.
I'm thinking about this as I walk through 'Asylum' and come to the opinion that if I were carrying an O with me, I'd have to tick 'Hate'. Parr created ‘Asylum’ in response to the death of his mentally ill brother, and began the piece with a 72-hour durational drawing exercise. In the following week, visitors have been interacting with the space, treading softly on broken glass, animal droppings and the awful dread of past suffering. Arranged throughout the buildings are elements of Parr’s own work; confronting videos of his performance art, an ancient dictionary open to the word ‘black’, a chilling soundscape of screeching guitar. But there are questions I can't shake: what are the ethics of superimposing your own work onto a site where so much misery occurred in the recent past? Are visitors really connecting with this regrettable sting in Tasmania’s history, or just indulging their taste for the macabre? Still, only at Dark Mofo could an uncompromising, controversial artwork of this scale be risked (and state-subsidised) – and that is always something worth celebrating.
A cleanse through fire and water
The longest night of the year has come. I’m surrounded by kids, parents, friends and strangers, and we’re all waiting for a giant Balinese dragon to catch fire. A centrepiece this year is Ziggy, a huge papier-mâché sea dragon. Over the course of the festival, Ziggy has been stuffed with thousands of pieces of paper, on which people have written their fears and regrets. Finally, it is the time of The Burning, the closing ceremony of Dark Mofo, where a man with a flaming torch will set the dragon alight, flecks of personal proclamations disappearing into the black sky.