Culture

Art

Dark Mofo: an easy cell

By Jenny Valentish
Incarceration is a recurring theme at Mona’s 2018 winter arts festival

I’m orbiting the Earth, overcome by my good fortune. The fact that I’m wearing virtual-reality goggles doesn’t detract from a breathtaking experience. The sun glows benevolently in the distance.

“But they haven’t got that right,” I think. The curvature of whatever is partially eclipsing the sun is too ragged. Then I notice this object is getting closer, fast. It’s a human skull – of course it is – spinning through space. Inevitably, our paths will collide.

Once inside this cavernous cranium, I’m trapped. The skull – its scale distorted – continues its infernal oscillations. I catch a glimpse of the Earth through one orbital socket, but I can’t spin out of my bone cell. Despair settles like a shroud. I can’t see my hands, but I know I’m wringing them.

Shaun Gladwell’s Orbital Vanitas could have been a meditative experience, had I the mental fortitude to not thrash against my circumstances. It’s a fitting lens through which to view this year’s Dark Mofo program.

This sixth incarnation of the festival has the theme of “time”. More obviously, a sub-theme of incarceration has bubbled to the surface. It’s in the Dark + Dangerous Thoughts symposium that preluded the festival, during which a fierce debate raged about numbers of Indigenous people in jail. It’s in the A Journey to Freedom exhibition at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, of which Orbital Vanitas is a part. It’s in Tanya Lee’s “absurd swimming carnival”, Landing, where volunteers take part in a 24-hour relay to swim 431 kilometres, the distance between Australia and Manus Island. And it’s in events such as Quartet for the End of Time, performed at the historic Port Arthur penal colony, and originally written and performed when composer Olivier Messiaen was imprisoned in a concentration camp. The signs of Hobart’s own convict past are evident in many of its buildings, which are constructed from forced labour, and are for the next few weeks illuminated by the fires and giant inverted red crosses of Dark Mofo, resistant to the rainfall.

Making a statement about totalitarian violence and incarceration is the artist Mike Parr – a three-time veteran of Dark Mofo – who will be buried under the bitumen of Macquarie Street, effectively erasing him from view. He’s taking a copy of Robert Hughes The Fatal Shore into the box with him (a book that details the brutality of Britain’s convict transportation system), but a reference to “the shadow cast on Indigenous people by the genocidal violence of … colonialism” is included in the explanation of his work, and that’s caused some controversy. Some Aboriginal people support this gesture (which coincides with a push to give Hobart a dual name of Nipaluna), while others are angry that there has been no consultation.

Three days after he is buried, Parr will rise again. That’s appropriate, because walking towards the crowds and the flashing lights of the diggers, it feels like approaching a crucifixion. Parr seems unconcerned, descending the ladder without fanfare. Still, watching him be sealed in by bitumen surely has us all questioning our own endurance.

Certainly, we need to learn not to struggle against the longer queues this year. Last year’s Dark Mofo attracted 444,056 punters, a 49 per cent increase on the average for previous years, and that’s noticeable. Destination Southern Tasmania urged local businesses to “paint the town red” to show support for the festival. Not only have many shops and office blocks complied, but boats in the harbour and the Tasman Bridge itself glow scarlet. In the Salamanca Market on Saturday, many stallholders have created products with Dark Mofo’s red cross insignia. Not everyone’s on board. Local Christians march through the market in protest of this year’s inverted-cross installations, congregating in the nearby park to sing.

For the Mofo converts, there are many spectacles to behold this year – the Société Anonyme costume ball at Hadley’s rather colonial hotel; Night Mass, a sprawling nocturnal neighbourhood that refashions existing venues to create new ones, such as the Twin Peaks-style Bang Bang Bar in what was the Tattersalls Hotel; the annual Winter Feast, a food hall illuminated by fire; and large-scale laser and light installations, such as Ryoji Ikeda’s spectra.

Of the bigger-name drawcards, there’s Laurie Anderson (who also has a virtual-reality work, Chalkroom, co-created with Hsin-Chien Huang, which drew on Anderson’s storytelling), Einstürzende Neubauten and St Vincent. The latter precedes her set with a short film, The Birthday Party, stylistically reminiscent of Veronika Franz’s cosmetic-surgery horror film Goodnight Mommy. Like these films, everything St Vincent does is saturated with colour, from her pink PVC stage outfit to the album art from Masseducation, which she draws from tonight. There’s no band backing her (all the more room for her lavish guitar solos), so over the course of her set she uses all three mics spaced across the vast stage.

And then there are the events of which nobody knows what to expect, but which will require much debriefing. Such as the performance by Inuk throat singer Tanya Tagaq, whose electro-industrial band performs in front of a screening of the 1922 anthropological documentary, Nanook of the North. Her vocal range, from guttural to ecstatic, necessitates circular breathing, and it takes her somewhere so primal that the front few rows might be blushing. Vocally, she depicts the animals and the land itself, with human endeavour relegated to the background.

Benjamin Britten’s economical opera The Rape of Lucretia requires only eight singers and 13 musicians. This Victorian Opera and Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra production deconstructs it as each performer is shadowed, ventriloquist-style, by one of the opposite sex. Somehow, this swapping of gender roles highlights further the commentary on male entitlement that runs through Ronald Duncan’s libretto, which is particularly biting on a weekend that vigils are being planned for Eurydice Dixon. “Men defend a woman’s honour when they would lay siege to it themselves,” observes Junius. Tarquinius responds: “I am honest and admit as a woman’s my beginning, woman’s the end I am seeking.”

After three days, it’s time for Mike Parr to emerge. Through Sam Wallman’s drawings in the exhibition A Journey to Freedom we have learnt that biotechnology could be developed to trick a prisoner’s mind into thinking they have served a thousand years in just eight hours – which would mean a great saving for taxpayers. Has time similarly distorted for Parr? Would his meditative mindset have made three days seem like three weeks or three hours? He gives nothing away as he ascends the ladder and is ushered off, but later he reveals that the new bitumen had subsided under the weight of the rush-hour traffic, causing his coffin to rattle and hum.

As I board my plane back to Melbourne, I feel myself let go of the beguiling tension of Dark Mofo. But the smell of smoke in my clothes lingers on.

Jenny Valentish

Jenny Valentish is a journalist and novelist. Her first nonfiction book, Woman of Substances, was recently published by Black Inc.

Image courtesy of Mona/Dark Mofo/Rémi Chauvin

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