June 21, 2017

Dark enlightenment

By Jenny Valentish
Photo Credit: Dark Mofo/Lusy Productions, 2017 Image Courtesy Dark Mofo, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia
Hobart’s Dark Mofo is an illuminating reflection on myth, ritual, sex and death

A concerned YouTuber made a video about this year’s Dark Mofo – the fifth of MONA’s midwinter gatherings of dark arts and cultivated chaos. The clip painstakingly dissects the festival’s supposed satanic content, but Dark Mofo doesn’t feel sinister to me. Not for all the blood-drinking rituals in the world. It feels meditative and reverential. It feels like a reminder to slow down, look up, look within, look into the abyss, to examine the human condition before it dissolves into an algorithm. It excites me because the art of ceremony is largely lost in our culture, and entirely absent from my own life.

The gateway to this contemplation is the sub-bass frequencies. They’re everywhere you turn in Hobart this time of year: under the Town Hall; upstairs in the Masonic Lodge; reverberating through the Odeon Theatre; pulsing across Macquarie Point. I hear people humming along to them as I walk from event to event. I feel my internal subwoofer vibrate in response. Whether these frequencies are emitting from a bill of death metal bands, Hymns to the Dead, or from the speakers at dark rave Transliminal, or from the soul-cleansing Bass Bath at nocturnal universe-within-a-universe Welcome Stranger, it’s believed that they’re a useful tool for meditation and healing. When it comes to Chris Levine’s iy_Project, in which a lattice of 40 lasers communicate between towers, the chosen “om frequency” of 136.1 Hz is thought to match the frequency of the Earth itself.

For five years now, Dark Mofo’s creative director, Leigh Carmichael, has been working to the brief of mythology, ritual, sex and death, tying into the themes of David Walsh’s museum. Many of the curated artists, across all mediums, seem to be on a mission to create disassociation; others – through the effect of auditory hallucinations and nightmarish imagery – pursue lunacy. But there’s beauty in the madness. Siren Song, at dusk and dawn, emanates the operatic voices of Carolyn Connors, Deborah Cheetham and Tanya Tagaq from speakers around the waterfront. It’s a sound installation from Byron J Scullin and long-term collaborators Supple Fox that rewards those prepared to pause and acknowledge the passing of time.

The music programming hovers around experimental, drone and minor-key melancholy. There’s something very Nordic about Dark Mofo – with all the feasting and rugging up – and Norwegian band Ulver plays twice, once recreating their cinematic album Messe I.X-VI.X with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, and once headlining the old Odeon (the first line sung, fittingly, is “festival of torches under the light of the moon”). There are also several performances from Xiu Xiu, an American trio playing the themes from Twin Peaks – as haunting a band as any that has closed the TV show at the fictional Bang Bang Bar. Actually, Dark Mofo might be Twin Peaks’ spiritual home, what with Lynch’s love of sub-bass eeriness, transcendental meditation and stretching out scenes to teach the art of patience.

But it’s the art programming that has accrued the most column inches. Last year, Mike Parr took over the New Norfolk Asylum with installation works, to prompt us to consider mental health. This year, his Empty Ocean does the same for old age, by carting punters off to Bruny Island between 2 am and 4 am to watch rows of ghostly pensioners in their nightgowns, clanking stones together. Crossing – one of the things that particularly irks the Tasmanian YouTuber – is a parade across Tasmania via churches, led by theremin player Miles Brown.

Winning the award for “most-discussed” is Hermann Nitsch’s 150 Action, which draws a crowd of animal rights protesters at the gates. Part crucifixion scene, part ’70s pagan horror movie, the three-hour ritual is observed by a crowd clutching their lattes particularly tightly. Nitsch, nearing 80, looks on from a chair like Bad Santa as a large team of impassive minions, dressed in white, do his bidding. A brass and synth player provide the discordant tones as, one after another, notably good-looking nudes are hung from crosses and fed beakers of congealing blood.

It all reminds me of Kink, the documentary about a BDSM production company, in which the participants describe better knowing themselves after testing their endurance to extremes. One of the 150 Action volunteers tells me that many of the participants are vegetarian, and at least one is vegan, so in addition to testing their endurance, I presume their minds are doing similar ethical loop-de-loops as mine. With the bull brought on site as a headless carcass, it doesn’t feel as though we are watching an animal debased for entertainment – unlike, say, schoolboys punting a dead cat down the road – so much as utilised for ceremonial reverie. But then, to what purpose? The only meaning 150 Action provides me is a reminder that the meat we consume was once a vulnerable, living animal, just like the quivering human bodies strung up alongside. But then, perhaps that meaning is contextualised by the protesters outside, and had there been a religious protest I would instead be pondering profanity.

Despite Mofo’s dependably dark content, 2017 seems to be the first year that the festival has lost any friends. But let’s say we lost Mofo itself. Let’s say the sub-bass frequencies, or global warming, or protests, crumble this gathering into the Tasman Sea. What then? The alternative is cultural elitism, of arts festivals that bill national treasures alongside only the most palatable minorities.

That Dark Mofo can program on its own terms and still bring a tourist boom to Tasmania is remarkable. This year, for the first time, P&O Cruises’ Pacific Jewel sailed into Constitution Dock with 2000 punters from Sydney, boosting the local economy by more than $1 million. Even though the lord mayor, Sue Hickey, objected to 150 Action, Hobart City Council has generally embraced the festival, with banners hung from lampposts. The state government has invested $10.5 million over 5 years. All manner of unlikely local institutions have handed over their buildings, from the Real Tennis Club (its members, dressed in whites, give black-clad revellers late-night lessons) to the Freemasons, who have not only been persuaded to open their temple to women, but to an inflatable snake lady who takes up the whole damn space.

While it’s never the press focus, Dark Mofo’s sense of community is its heartbeat; after all, it’s the brainchild of a man who built a world-class museum in his unassuming childhood suburb. Food doesn’t come from a semi-circle of vendors, it’s in the form of a come-one-come-all banquet hall, and bursting with local produce. While locals often ignore the more esoteric ticketed events, every year the largest, most life-affirming spectacles, such as 2017’s iy_Project in Dark Park, are free. This year’s Mofo comes to a fiery end with the Ogoh-ogoh Burning. The Indonesian demon is paraded from Salamanca Place to Dark Park in a traditional cleansing ritual. Over the course of the festival, more than 15,000 punters have scribbled down their darkest thoughts and fed them into the papier-mâché structure. Now it is set alight to the beats of Tasmanian samba percussion orchestra Chicada. It’s a closing spectacle that seems to be a thank you to the locals, of all ages. And what community couldn’t benefit from a ceremonial purge?

Jenny Valentish

Jenny Valentish is a journalist and novelist, and the author of Woman of Substances. Her latest book is Everything Harder Than Everyone Else.

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