At a glance:
- The visual arts programme swerves between provocative, heartbreaking, tear-jerking and downright freaky.
- ‘The Divine Comedy’ is the standout, but Weiwei’s ‘White House’ puts the Chinese artist’s art and activism right where it belongs.
- Dark Mofo has garnered a cult following of worshippers who can’t get enough of its eclectic programming schedule.
As one of Australia’s most talked-about visual art and music festivals, Dark Mofo has fast become an important cultural statement that attracts interstate and international visitors to Hobart, Tasmania every year.
The winter solstice festival, which usually runs over two weeks in June, was extended to three this year due to popularity. This is where pagan influences, events after-dark and exhibitions with even darker themes encourage visitors to think outside the box.
The festival itself is possible thanks to Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) founder David Walsh, who opened one of the largest private funded museums in the southern hemisphere in 2011. His modus operandi was to open a museum dedicated to sex and death. A new hotel is set to open on the site too.
Dark Mofo, and its summer sidekick MONA FOMA, which happens in January, revolve around the museum’s approach to public art and installation. Walsh once described Mona as “a subversive adult Disneyland” and what visitors get when they come to Dark Mofo in the depths of winter chimes on the same philosophical point of view.
But while art and music form the core of Dark Mofo, it’s also so much more than that. This year, a cruise dubbed Natty Waves took visitors on a journey of electronic beats, wine tasting and local food to feast on for a three-hour trip.
Night Mass, which kicked off at 10pm and crawled into the wee hours, was when performance artists, metal bands, VR installations and dance parties spilled from theatres to pavements all in the name of a darkly good time.
And then there’s Winter Feast, set on the waterfront at Salamanca, a family-friendly setting where indigenous food and a heavy metal kitchen unveiled the importance of banquets cooked over an open fire after dark. Candles burned brightly, red crosses and neon ones lit the way, and a changing line-up of entertainers added to the vibe.
This year’s music programme featured FKA Twigs, Anna Calvi, John Grant and festival favourite Blixa Bargeld (of Einsturzende Neubauten fame). And for a festival that’s been able to lure Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds as well as St Vincent, attendees have come to expect great things from Dark Mofo programming geniuses who wheel and deal all year to secure some exclusive acts to head south.
Dark Mofo sold more than 100,000 tickets in 2019, a 25 percent increase on last year’s figures, and clocked over AUD4 million at the box office. It’s a sign that Dark Mofo has certainly exceeded all expectations, but where it goes next remains to be seen because the team behind it don’t want to become too mainstream. There’s a fine line between art and death.
“Dark Mofo has grown into its own beast,” explains Jarrod Rawlins, curator at MONA and Dark Mofo. “The core of the festival is always a visual one, but it’s also a complement to the music. The two need to be balanced in terms of how much energy we put into it. That said, 2019 has been our biggest festival and we’re certainly very proud.”
THINGS TO DO IN HOBART
A luxury waterfront hotel with the best views of the Derwent River and Mount Wellington, Macq 01 comes with well-appointed rooms named after prominent Tasmanians. This is where modern and chic interiors, a personal butler if required and glam high-quality bathrooms rule.
There’s no signage to help you spot it, but once inside you’ll be treated to some original dishes by former Melbourne locals who now call Hobart home. Head here for a fine selection of natural organic and biodynamic wines and cocktails after dark.
You won’t find a better natural wine list anywhere, making Lucinda one of the most adorable spots this far south (and the latest addition to Dier Makr). This late-night hangout delivers on delicious bar snacks with a vivacious difference combined with a drinks list you can spend a fair chunk of time studying.
Another late-night bar to find a bar stool and kick back for the night. They spin vinyl, pour great wines and cook great food—everything from radish-whipped miso to potato and taleggio ravioli.
This small 20-seater restaurant made TheAustralian’s top 50 list of places to eat and is adored for its value-for-money menu. Make sure you book ahead—it’s cosy, quaint and serves top-notch food.
The visual arts programme swerves between provocative, heartbreaking, tear-jerking and downright freaky.
Japanese artist Seaborg’s Slaughterhouse-15 transformed Hobart’s old Avalon Theatre into a barnyard of inflatable pigs and naked farm girls who dance around in latex while sipping ‘frozen semen’. Then there was Australian artist Paul Yore’s ‘It’s All Wrong but It’s Alright’, which combined graphic collages of gay sex and children’s neon toys in a technicolour collage of excessive political messaging. That’s the sort of programming you find at Mofo, where no topics are taboo and where sex, religion and politics are the norm.
This year’s festival also coincided with the unveiling of a AUD27 million Siloam wing at MONA featuring the works of Ai Weiwei, Alfredo Jaar, Oliver Beer and Christopher Townend.
‘The Divine Comedy’ is the standout, but Weiwei’s ‘White House’ puts the Chinese artist’s art and activism right where it belongs.
Jaar’s work is a study on climate change, which takes participants to hell and back (some metaphorically, perhaps others physically).
“Part of my job is to challenge your expectation of what art is,” explains Rawlins
Who spends a good chunk of the year travelling the world sourcing artworks for the next year’s visual art programme.
Jaar’s work was years in the making (two and a half to be precise) and Rawlins explains it’s supposed to provoke and get people talking about it.
“I spend a lot of my time talking to artists and reading about what they do and trying to understand their motivations for creating something that is potentially controversial,” says Rawlins. “Most of it is not reckless or gratuitous, it is not something artists wake up and do for kicks. As a curator I need to understand their motives and when I do, it gives me the ability to confidently present that to you as something that is serious and real. I encourage everyone to take the time to understand it. You don’t have to like it.”
The 40-minute experience of Jaar’s ‘The Divine Comedy’ requires you to wear a safety harness, experience intense heat above your head and commit to being trapped inside a room that fills with cloudy smoke you can’t smell but robs you of your sight. It’s certainly the most confronting and thought-provoking addition to MONA.
“Alfredo is talking to you about climate change and its forthcoming impact on the planet,” says Rawlins. “I have known Alfredo for a number of years and we had his work on show in the festival a few years ago. He’s an amazing conceptual artist and trained as an architect. When David Walsh invited him to make a proposal for the museum, it was an opportunity for Alfredo to come back with something he couldn’t achieve everywhere else. We don’t hand out briefs. ‘The Divine Comedy’ was about coming back with something super ambitious. He had the idea written on paper for a long time.”
Jaar’s study on climate change presents collective trauma with the human experience.
“He wanted to do it in a way that the narrative was open and broad. Dante was a perfect way to allow anybody with experience of art or literature or otherwise to come to the work without being confronted with conceptual art, which a lot of people can be,” he explains. “It’s a beautiful resolution for me of those two things.”
Weiwei's ‘White House’ is made from the frame of an 80-square-metre Qing dynasty home and situated underneath a skylight, while Beer's 'MONA Confessional' is a massive listening tube, in which you can reveal your darkest secrets to strangers on the other side of the museum.
The symbiosis between MONA and the festivals has put the conversation around art back on the dinner table.
Tourism Tasmania statistics reveal that MONA continues to be the second most visited tourism attraction on the island, behind Salamanca Market. Twenty percent of those who visit the museum are international travellers. Premier Will Hodgman said the festival had proved time and again that it was worth the AUD10.5 million investment deal.
"It's always been a challenge to get people here in the depths of winter, but since its inception in 2013, Dark Mofo has been a beacon for not only those who want to come and visit our state, but for many Tasmanians. We come out of hibernation at this time of the year and celebrate,” said Hodgman.
For Dark Mofo’s 2020 programme, Rawlins has his eye on Asian artists.
“Australian and New Zealand art is very important for us, but our focus next year is Asia—from Japan and more to be announced,” he says. “Moving into these regions seems inevitable for us, but we don’t have a game plan. The main thing is to look for good content in the world. For now, it’s exciting for me to look around the Pacific region.”
Rawlins says that even in a globalised world, art continues to be regional.
“Most artists make things about the world in which they inhabit,” he says. “And with that comes the geography in which they exist. There’s a special group of artists who get to travel the world all the time and make things in a particular international style. But overall, art is an expression of a place, a time, and we see it through music and cinema too.”
With many of its events plunged in darkness on purpose,Dark Mofo has garnered a cult following of worshippers who can’t get enough of its eclectic programming schedule.
Whether it’s to see metal bands play at 1am, listen to Bargeld host a question-and-answer session with his fans, try meditative breathing or chant around dark gardens, this is where you leave inhibitions behind for a soul-searching chant of your own.
“Controversy isn’t important to us but sometimes there are visual art displays which agitate,” says Rawlins. “At the end of the day, we want to host art exhibitions that exist in niche networks in the world and allow them to be exposed to a wider audience. We’re always about dark themes and finding poetic ways to unveil the mysterious, the unknown. What international visitors may not realise is a festival like Dark Mofo takes over the city of Hobart. It’s all encompassing. The city is beautiful all year round, but the city becomes a festival in winter. You can’t get that in a city the size of Singapore, but with our population being as small as it is, you can’t help but feel pulled into the centre of it all. It’s quite magical. You can see a whole city transformed; it’s a special thing.”
Words by Jane Rocca.