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The 6 coolest things we saw this weekend at MOFO

Written by
Ben Neutze

After nine years in Hobart, MONA's FOMA festival (also known as Museum of Old and New Art: Festival of Music and Art, or just MOFO) has bid adieu to the Tasmanian capital. It's to make way for MONA's new hotel; construction will take over the festival's main stage area, so the event is moving north to Launceston. This year's festival took place across two weekends, with a mini festival in Launceston (which ran January 12 to 14) and the main event in Hobart (Jan 15 to 22).

We went to experience the last Hobart MOFO, and here are the things we loved the most.

1. Eve Klein: Vocal Womb

Eve Klein
Photograph: MONA/Jesse Hunniford

Singers have been using laryngoscopes to diagnose vocal problems for years; the tiny cameras show the functioning of the vocal cords and muscles around the larynx, offering a scientific perspective on the voice.

Australian mezzo soprano Eve Klein uses a laryngoscope for an artistic purpose in this short concert performance, giving the audience a close-up view of her instrument as she sings. The footage of her fleshy insides is projected onto a large screen behind Klein, who sits perfectly still with the camera inside. The actual mechanics of this prove to be fascinating: Klein dons white rubber gloves and inserts the lubricated laryngoscope into her own nose, and performs alongside artist Ana Wojack, who stands right by Klein and operates the device.

On paper, the work might seem gimmicky – and it is a little – but it's also much more moving, compelling and thought-provoking than you'd think. At the core, there's an intriguing tension between the cool, clinical nature of what's effectively a medical procedure, and the passion and artistry of Klein's singing. There's also something incredibly voyeuristic about what's happening: when she first inserts the laryngoscope, you wonder for a second if you really should be looking inside this stranger. What develops is a strangely intimate dance between the artist and this medical equipment.

Klein has composed the two extended arias, with text by Australian writers Quinn Eades and Virginia Barratt, and both compositions are melodic enough to hold your attention even without the laryngoscope. 

2. Brian Jackson and the Southern Gospel Choir

Brian Jackson
Photograph: MONA/Jesse Hunniford

Brian Jackson is a legend of American soul music of the 1970s, best known for his pioneering collaborations with Gil Scott-Heron, including the seminal 1971 album Pieces of a Man. That album featured the spoken word track 'The Revolution Will Not Be Televised', which many consider an early precursor to the explosion of rap music in the 1980s.

For this performance, Jackson was joined by a band with blistering live brass and a number of special guests, including Tasmania's own Maria Lurighi and the Southern Gospel Choir.

This is one of the best things big arts festivals are able to do: they bring together international artistic leaders with locals. When the collaboration is as successful as this one, the performers give off a totally fresh and irresistible energy.

3. Jamila Woods

Jamila Woods
Photograph: MONA/Jesse Hunniford

If Jackson is a veteran of soul, then Jamila Woods is very much of the new breed. The Chicago-based singer has collaborated with Chance the Rapper but flown largely under the mainstream radar. She has a distinctively warm, peppery voice and phrases everything in an effortlessly cool way. Her songwriting is even more impressive.

Her Friday evening set proved to be a massive crowd-pleaser, mixing originals from her debut album HEAVN with a few covers, including Destiny's Child's 'Say My Name', and a version of Nirvana's 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' so genuinely funky you'll almost forget Kurt Cobain's raspy scream.

4. Pharos

Unseen Seen, James Turrell
Photograph: MONA/Jesse Hunniford

MONA has a brand new wing which has only been open since Boxing Day 2017. Unlike the rest of the museum, full of cool, dark spaces built deep into the ground, Pharos is full of light, jutting out over the water. That's rather appropriate given that it houses four new works by James Turrell, the world's leading artist working with light.

At the centre is 'Unseen Seen', an artwork/neurological science experiment entirely unlike anything we've experienced before. After signing a lengthy and rather intimidating waiver about the potential long-term health impacts of the work – basically promising you won't sue the museum if you have a panic attack or an epileptic fit – you're guided into a giant white orb. At the top of this futuristic space, you lie flat on your back and watch a 15-minute program of intense flashing, colourful lights, which trigger hallucinatory patterns and visions. What you see depends entirely on you, but it plays all kinds of magical tricks on your mind – frequently you lose your depth perception entirely and could swear that your eyes were shut while they're actually wide open. But closing your eyes won't block out the lights; they're so intense you'd have to use your palms, or press the panic button you're given.

'Unseen Seen' is a ticketed experience and costs an extra $25 on top of your museum admission, but we'd suggest it's now an essential part of any MONA visit. And you'll need to book ahead.

5. Breadwoman Variations

Photograph: MONA/Jesse Hunniford

Los Angeles artist Anna Homler has been performing as Breadwoman since the 1980s. She wears a hollowed-out cob loaf on her face and covers herself in rags. A live soundtrack of 'bread language' is created by two sound artists behind Homler as she performs slowly evolving, simple physical movements with breads of all varieties.

It's not necessarily possible to understand exactly why Breadwoman is so fascinating – and Homler can't really explain why she decided to don bread in the first place, suspecting it may be part of a primitive desire to return to the womb – but there's something soothing and meditative about watching her perform.

6. Faux Mo's big queer celebration

Paul Capsis
Photograph: MONA/Jesse Hunniford

Faux Mo is the official MOFO after party, and this year's Friday night party was wild. When we arrived, rising stars of Australian dance music Electric Fields had the venue shaking with their originals and a cover of 'Everybody's Free (To Feel Good)' so uplifting it became a pseudo-religious experience.

But the party really started when Australia's king of cabaret Paul Capsis arrived aboard Tas Pride's Rainbow Boat Cruise, singing to partygoers from across the harbour. He eventually made his way into the venue with members of Tas Pride for a short and brilliantly eccentric set that featured an electrifying take on Amy Winehouse's 'Back to Black'. He also proved himself to be totally unshakeable – when a partygoer tried to join Capsis on stage, he quietly told her no, before advising "I'm wearing gold". She backed off pretty quickly.

MOFO 2018 ran from January 12 to 22, but the museum is open the whole year around. If you're heading down, check out our guide to Tasmania, including a hit-list for dining, drinking, sleeping and seeing in Hobart. 

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