July 2023

The Nation Reviewed

Yawn fest

By Marieke Hardy
Illustration of people sleeping in camp beds and snoring musical notes, keeping one person awake
Travelling to Dark Mofo to pursue a good night’s sleep in the company of Max Richter, an orchestra and 350 housemates

It’s probably a bit rote and revolting, becoming a sleep bore. Fetishising a good, full night’s sleep, knowing the actual language for mattress toppers and blackout curtains, and that people can order from something called a “pillow menu” in nice hotels. It’s sleep, it’s sleep – babies steal it from us, if we don’t get enough we die. The actor Heather Graham recently revealed the secret to her flawless complexion is sleeping “between 9 and 12 hours a night” (“I love sleeping. When I tell people how much I sleep sometimes, they are horrified”), and to that I say, what the actual fuck. My husband is currently rubbing my endless, brittle exhaustion into my face by napping right next to me like a selfish jerk. I love him. God I wish I could sleep.

Approaching middle age, we trade war stories of sleep debt, swear by pills and routines and melatonin (the real stuff, not the crap you get from the chemist), track the rhythms of our breath with apps that watch over us in the night like harried parents. We crawl through nights without it and apologise for never having had enough.

I sometimes have somniphobia-level anxiety about sleeping; a gnawing fear of not being able to do it right, or enough. I try to dig through its roots in therapy, but the self-fulfilling prophecy of sleep anxiety equalling no sleep is a relentless cycle.

So I’ve come to Tasmania to sleep, sort of.

I first attended Tassie’s bloodied, sex-and-death arts festival Dark Mofo in its inaugural year, 2013. The festival was raw and untamed and lawless and very rough around the edges, and so, to be quite frank, was I.

How one engages with the festival changes over time. I’ve crawled through an all-nighter to run naked into the sea at dawn for the official solstice swim, been the last to leave the festival’s Faux Mo after party, participated in a secret show about death. Taken off with illicit lovers (still very sorry to everybody embroiled in that particular chaotic romantic mess across 2014), stumbled through the freezing streets of Hobart, shoes in hand, eyes curly-wurly with chemicals. The beauty of the choose-your-own-adventure map that David Walsh and outgoing festival director Leigh Carmichael provide you with over the festival’s two-week run means that you can make selections based on your staying power/energy levels/capacity to stand in a factory space with an audience of munters while a cow’s carcass bleeds on the floor (see: 2017’s 150.Action by Austrian artist Hermann Nitsch).

My husband still chooses adventure, flinging himself into most evenings with an open mind and complete lack of direction, and ending up at a succession of house parties, after parties, dawn lock-ins, cuddle puddles. He slips into bed at 6am, reeking of vapes and whisky and new friendships. Ready for it all again the next day.

This year, I choose balance. Staying in a warm, spacious apartment for a leisurely week, booking in for some yoga classes, cooking soup, interwoven with getting out amongst it. Gothic songstress Ethel Cain, electronic musician Laurel Halo’s ambient bliss, the ethereal sounds of Drab Majesty in the Hanging Garden, Sleaford Mods at the Odeon (this gig is slated to run from 7pm to 8.15pm – can this please be a model for all future events?). I plan out my days with the care and rigour of a ship’s captain. Why? BECAUSE I NEED SLEEP, I can’t push through fuelled on wine and amphetamines anymore. I’m 47 and ferociously protective of my mental health. But I still want so badly to participate, commune with open-hearted strangers, taste unexpected things and stumble across hidden galleries. An immersive festival, now with added sleep.

Hence the appeal of Sleep. The groundbreaking eight-hour classical work by German-British composer Max Richter was designed as “a personal lullaby for a frenetic world … a manifesto for a slower pace of existence”. Richter has toured the piece globally, inviting audiences to experience the performance live, played by a full orchestra, while they sleep (the audience, not the orchestra – although the concept of an audience watching over a sleeping orchestra somehow feels very Dark Mofo, too).

In prospect, Richter’s Sleep speaks to both me and my husband – the music, the experimental art, the humanness of the concept. It speaks to his love of an all-night adventure and my yearning for rest. It’s called Sleep, for fuck’s sake. But can you really sleep at Sleep?

So we’re queueing to enter a warehouse down by the water in Hobart, icy wind predictably whipping off the choppy waves. It’s nearly 11pm and the atmosphere is the sort of jolly, carnivalesque anything-could-happen vibe that accompanies most Dark Mofo events. There are some fires, a bar selling hot drinks, a few wags braving the winter weather in silk pyjamas. My husband confesses he’s added a little whisky to his coffee. A friend cheerily offers me a gummy: “Be careful though, they’re strong. We’ve only taken a quarter.”

I’m excited to hear the music but am of course holding anxiety about actually sleeping, in a cold warehouse, in a room full of 350 strangers. The festival is providing pillows, camp beds, “two-fleece blankets” and heat packs. I’m worried it’s not enough. We’ve borrowed sleeping bags from a local mate, I’ve packed my sleep mask, melatonin (10 milligrams) and ear plugs (is it rude to wear ear plugs during a musical performance?).

The room is barely lit and eerily quiet, with only the sounds of hushed reverent whispers and rugged-up punters shuffling around in the gloom dibsing beds like at school camp. At midnight, Richter sombrely leads the musicians on stage and we all sit up in our beds doing a gentle little clap. They start playing. Everybody lies down again.

Now I lay me down to Sleep.

If you’ve not heard it, and you really should, Richter’s Sleep is a stunning, undulating piece of music. Ponderous, dense, nurturing. Melodic. It’s also, when performed live by a string quintet and a soprano only 10 metres away, very loud. Shoved deep down into the sleeping bag, toasty as hell thank you, I feel the vibrations through the mattress. The familiar buzz of the insomnia demons begins to make itself known. I turn on one side, then another. Then my back. Sleep mask off. Sleep mask on. Can’t drink any more water because the toilets are outside and it’s freezing out there, and there’s no way I’m picking through all these beds to pee at 4am. I’m listening, but I’m trying to drift off too.

And then I stop struggling, stop trying to assume it’s going to be one particular way or any planned, perfect thing. I just breathe and try to let this extraordinary set of circumstances wash over me in present time. To stop marking moments and let this ethereal artwork take the lead.

In the darkness, my husband’s hand reaches over and finds mine.

In the morning someone asks me, “Did you get any sleep?”

“I tried,” I say, “but some arsehole was playing music really loudly just over there.”

We laugh, stumble back out into the bright, clear, cold sunshine, warm ourselves up with hot coffee and bagels, and spend the rest of the day bumping into each other with soft edges like sleepwalkers. For as long as we can, we sit within a Venn diagram of an experience that gave us an absolute, life-affirming gift: of being awake and asleep at the same time.

Marieke Hardy

Marieke Hardy is a curator, screenwriter, artist, and producer.

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