Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably heard about the man living under a road.
He’s Mike Parr, a 73-year-old Australian performance artist who spent 72 hours this weekend buried in a 4.5m x 1.7m x 2.2m steel box underneath one of Hobart’s main roads, Macquarie Street. The ordeal was for his performance piece ‘Underneath the bitumen – the artist Mike Parr’, part of Hobart’s annual Dark Mofo festival. The artwork was said to “memorialise the victims of twentieth century totalitarian violence”, including the violence committed by British colonisation in Australia.
It was an unusual spectacle and one that drew more than 1,000 spectators to see his entombment on Thursday night and subsequent exhumation on Sunday. Over the course of the weekend he sat underneath the road, with only a slightly off-colour piece of bitumen on the road outside Hobart Town Hall to mark his presence. Time Out spotted a few people staring at the site and reflecting quietly – and a few others filming themselves waiting for a gap in the traffic and then jumping atop the bitumen. It’s not every day you get to jump on top of a world-famous artist.
It was a freezing cold weekend in Hobart, so Parr was perhaps lucky to be tucked away underneath the bitumen. But it also meant he missed the middle weekend of the winter festival, which delivered plenty of highlights. Here are some of ours.
1. St Vincent’s solo masterclass in electric pop
St Vincent (aka Annie Clark) is having a bit of a moment right now thanks to her most recent album, MASSEDUCTION, which ended up on most major music critics' end-of-year lists in 2017 and scored the musician her first top ten album in the US.
Her show for Dark Mofo was an extraordinarily slick production that put her talents front and centre in just about every way imaginable. Instead of a support act, the night opened with a short film she'd co-written and directed, 'The Birthday Party', part of the anthology film XX, which premiered at Sundance Film Festival last year. It takes place in the most suburban and conventional of settings, but things soon take a dark and unexpected turn as a woman discovers her husband's dead body and attempts to maintain the artifice that everything is fine.
It's a strangely appropriate intro for a performance that has its own glorious artifice: St Vincent's seemingly effortlessly cool electro-pop, glam-rock style. With a shining pink PVC leotard, thigh-high boots and an array of neon guitars, she owned the stage entirely. She didn't need a band, just recorded tracks from her five studio albums, a spectacular but restrained lighting show and her own talents.
Her show felt a little like all the women backing Robert Palmer in his 'Addicted to Love' video merged into one and decided to kick Palmer to the side for a far more compelling night. And strangely all that artifice eventually became more meaningful than anything that might be delivered with earnestness or sincerity.
2. New York’s no wave legend Lydia Lunch’s blistering spoken word set
Lydia Lunch is one of those rare artists who has maintained a clear and uncompromising perspective for a lengthy career (four decades – so far) but played an extraordinary number of roles with a dizzying artistic output during that time. She's one of the most enduring artists to emerge from New York's short-lived 'no wave' scene – defined by its music with confronting dissonance and noise – and brought a sense of that nihilistic darkness and confrontation to her collaboration with improvisational drummer Weasel Walter.
The show kicked off with a flurry of noise smashed out on a drum set by Weasel Walter as a strobe light intensified as the sound grew. Lunch then walked on stage, sat at a small table, placed her handbag next to her and rifled through a small folder of papers to decide what piece she would bestow upon the crowd. Her eclectic spoken word pieces – kicking off with a wild and darkly funny one about how murderous she often feels, moving onto subjects like booze and drugs – were punctuated by bursts of drumming, keeping a chaotic energy driving the show forth. This was not a gig for those hoping to sit back and relax.
What's more, the support act was an Australian band called Bitumen – a reference to where Parr was at the time, perhaps?
3. A gender-swapped, lip-synched opera
Sydney Chamber Opera has been one of the country's most daring experimental opera companies for the last few years, and this collaboration with Victorian Opera showed the company at the top of its game. Directed by Sydney Theatre Company artistic director Kip Williams, The Rape of Lucretia is a 1946 opera by Benjamin Britten about (you guessed it) the rape of the virtuous Lucretia in ancient Rome. You probably won't be surprised to hear that its attitude towards sexual assault is a little simplistic and plays into cliches about shame rather than exploring power or the real impact of assault. But Williams and his costume designer and associate director Elizabeth Gadsby have illuminated some of these things with great force – even if the libretto can be pretty off-putting to contemporary ears.
Williams and Gadsby do this mainly by having the male singers physically perform the female parts (lip-synching to the female singers) and vice versa. Initially, the wonderful mezzo-soprano Anna Dowsley, who sings Lucretia, watches on as a male singer's (Jeremy Kleeman) body is assaulted. But as the performance develops, these lines blur and Dowsley – who seems to have been separated from her own body as a response to trauma – decides to intervene. It's a fascinating exploration of how we respond to trauma and also gives a sense of how gender is performed.
The musical standards were excellent across the board: Dowsley put her velvety tone and startling vocal agility to strong use as Lucretia, while the two narrators (Nicholas Jones and Celeste Lazarenko) were perfectly in-step. They were expertly supported by a chamber ensemble of musicians from the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra under conductor Jack Symonds.
4. Blixa Bargeld creates an entire solar system with just his voice
Is Blixa Bargeld to be taken totally seriously, or is the German musician sometimes just taking the piss? Or can both be true at the same time? Bargeld performed a show on Saturday night with his band Einstürzende Neubauten, but on the Friday he delivered a fascinating and frequently funny solo gig with just his voice, a microphone and a looping pedal. In one particular segment he performed a vocal interpretation of the solar system, asking his Hobart audience to provide the low hum of a gamma ray as he marked out the positions of the planets at different intervals across a 23-second loop. He even threw some asteroids in there for good measure – by simply whispering, "asteroids, asteroids, asteroids..."
5. The dark magic of Dark Park
Last year, we called Dark Park an "anarchic Vivid", and that label is still applicable to the darkest – and perhaps most dangerous – precinct of the festival. What makes it so dangerous? Well, it's made up of bars, food outlets and a few large-scale art installations, but you can barely see where you're walking over uneven gravel, and there's fire basically everywhere. Yes, there's the same kind of Instagram-able artwork as you might find at Vivid, but not the crowds – nor the frequently oppressive, vibe-killing crowd control.
One particular industrial space, filled with Matthew Schreiber's sculpture made up of red lasers, is maybe the most Instagram-able place at Dark Mofo, but also a brilliant and immersive experience.
And it's also worth checking out the performance pieces happening in the windows of the Tasmania College of Arts – just around the corner from Dark Park – where you can interact in unique ways and maybe even watch somebody getting tattooed. It'll all still be running for the final weekend of Dark Mofo.
6. TMAG’s provocative prison exhibition
The good news about this exhibition is that it's open until July 29 – so both you and Mike Parr still have plenty of time to get along. A Journey to Freedom is at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery and features local and international artists exploring issues of incarceration from all different perspectives – from immigration detention to Aboriginal deaths in custody and Tasmania's violent penal colony past. It's a fairly small exhibition, but some of the works are hugely impactful, including Jean-Michel Pancin's installation, which includes a prison door from the notorious 'Pink Palace' Risdon Prison and a concrete slab marking out a cell.
7. Shaun Gladwell’s VR trip around the world
Shaun Gladwell's 'Orbital vanitas' is also part of A Journey to Freedom, although its links to incarceration are a little vague. But it's still one of the most effective artistic virtual reality experiences we've seen. You start floating in space, high above the Earth, while a dark skull floats toward you. You end up taking a brief tour of the inside of the skull, staring down through the eye-holes at the Earth below. It's dark, confronting but a surprisingly peaceful way to spend seven minutes.
And for Mike Parr, after 72 hours underground, seeing the expanse of the whole universe might be a welcome change.
Ben Neutze travelled to Hobart as a guest of Dark Mofo.
Can't get out of the city? See the best art in Sydney this month.