By Anabel Dean
The day after Culture Scouts completed its Dark Mofo arts festival tour of Tasmania there was a banner headline across the front page of The Mercury newspaper.
“Nothing to See Here,” it shouted in bold letters. The Australian artist Mike Parr had ended his performance ‘with a whimper’ after spending 72 hours buried in an underground tomb beneath Macquarie Street in Hobart.
While Parr was meditating, drawing and reading Robert Hughes’ The Fatal Shore, with air and water but no food, our intrepid band of Culture Scouts raged above ground in three heady days of festivities.
Our exploration of Dark Mofo – the midwinter music and arts festival produced by the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) – could not have been more different to that of Mike Parr. There was ‘everything to see’ in the unexpected, shocking, darkly amusing, weird and wonderful mix of high art and avante-garde, around a city that refuses to hibernate in winter. There was so much to eat, drink, experience and contemplate that we could have done with a few more days to restore balance before returning to Sydney.
Dark Mofo, now in its sixth iteration, aims to unsettle. It invites visitors to revel in the frenetic energy that exists between opposite poles of light and dark; to get lost in creative expression; be bewildered and inspired and renewed.
For us, liberation and rejuvenation began the moment that we stepped away from the open fire at our elegant hotel, MACQ01, and into the dark unknown of a chilled winter’s night. It was cocktail hour and, like hundreds of other cultural tourists, we flocked to the docks (past the huge neon red, inverted crucifixes along the waterfront) for the opening of the coveted Winter Feast and Dark Park.
The wildly popular and kind-of pagan Winter Feast is the flaming centrepiece of Dark Mofo. Princes Wharf 1 was alive with foodie stallholders, as far as the eye could see, with offerings of top quality Tasmanian produce.
Long candle-lit tables were held tightly so we wandered outside to roaring fire pits under trees festooned with lights. We embraced the wet weather – well, you had to really - and only the barbecue roasting of a whole Scottish Highland cow stopped conversation for longer than a few seconds. That, and an unexpected unearthing of MONA’s owner David Walsh in a curtained inner sanctum, where he observed that art appreciation is always best in a state of inebriation.
It probably depends which artwork you’re considering at any time but Dark Park, the public art playground at Macquarie Point, succeeded in its promise to shake the foundations of the seen and unseen, the natural and man-made world. Matthew Schreiber’s laser installation Leviathan, and United Visual Artists’ light and sound celestial installation Musical Universalis, might just end up being the two most repeated images on Instagram this year.
Some of us ventured a little out of the CBD - and a hell-of-a-lot further from the real world - to experience The Chalkroom at Domain House. This virtual reality adventure in an empty building allowed us to fly through words and letters graffitied on walls in a 3D city of drawings and stories suspended in space. It was out there. As was Laurie Anderson’s offering upstairs called Drones, the sonic installation of amps and guitar feedback bouncing off walls, a project created with riffing from Lou Reed’s 1975 album Metal Machine Music.
Persistent rain failed to dampen spirits at Night Mass: the labyrinthine all-night cultural precinct featuring more than 100 performers across five venues, with dance, electronic, rock’n’roll, classical music, and a whole lot in between.
We were pleased that nocturnal revelry did not keep Culture Scouts from their early morning pilgrimage to the brightest hotspot of all: MONA. And what a way to start the next day. A chilled glass of champagne in a ferry posh pit (private lounge) with smoked trout and watermelon muesli canapés all the way down the Derwent River to Berriedale.
MONA, of course, is a story all on it’s own. It’s another antidote to closed-mindedness starting, for us, underground in The Void. It came as no surprise that this Triassic sandstone subterranean space has (unusually for a museum) a living wall of moss with water seeping from above, and a cocktail bar.
We passed on the Poltergeist Bramble and opted instead for the continually evolving private collection (called Monanism) with furniture maker and designer, Patrick Hall, as our guide. Hall's installations of secretly opening cabinets like When My Heart Stops Beating (with drawers that say “I Love you” in adored voices including his young son) and Bounty (made almost entirely from the bleached bones of road kill) are personal reflections about human connections.
We understood Hall’s inspiration because, by now, we were feeling connected. The thing we had in common (other than the need to keep warm in the cold hours of a Tassie winter) is our love of art. It’s a glorious and empowering thing to share with others. We won’t let it go.
From love to open head surgery - that’s Walsh’s description of the new Pharos wing - with its corridors of colour and James Turrell’s latest stellar installation Unseen, Seen. Turrell’s works epitomise the idea that MONA (and Dark Mofo) is as much about light as it is about dark. There’s so much here that, really, you just have to experience it for yourself.
The Source Restaurant, as always, revived over-stimulated brains (and bodies) with an astonishingly good lunch. We didn’t need more of something good at Moorilla Winery but it was a fitting end to a day at the museum. ‘Walshy’ would have approved.
In our final MONA minutes we gazed in wonderment at James Turrell’s Amarna. This elevated outdoor platform harnessing light and space is described – Walsh again - as being ‘like what God would do if he decided to build a gazebo’. We should all have one of these!
The ferry for Hobart arrived too soon. There was dinner (very nice thank you, Ettie’s restaurant) and eventually, a bed with luxury linen. But we were not yet done.
Katy Woodroffe’s Sandy Bay artist studio turned out to be our final day sweet treat. It was like sharing an intimate moment with your best friend over a plate of nice brownies by the fire. Katy’s stories of life, travel, history, family and creativity had us as spellbound as her exotic acrylic works on paper.
A quick last minute visit to the marvellous Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery gave thoughtful context to Dark Mofo. It helped remind us how we got here (in terms of natural and human history) and where we might go in the future.
Debate still rages about whether Parr’s time in a steel box succeeded in highlighting violence perpetrated against the Indigenous population by white settlers.
Tim Douglas, in The Australian newspaper, described Parr rising from entombment. “There was no bow, nor a wave of acknowledgment. Parr may have staged a vanishing act, but this was no magic show.”
“The applause dissolved into muted awe as Parr, having briefly appeared, again disappeared from view. There was no artist. A shared moment of silence fell across the crowd, and then rose a single voice from the throng. ‘Encore!’”
We, who explored with Culture Scouts, feel the same. We demand a Dark Mofo encore!
Anabel Dean is a Sydney journalist and guide with Culture Scouts.