The first piece of artwork I saw at Dark Mofo was a video projection of the last Tasmanian Tiger on the side of the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery. I left a cozy, whisky soaked, launch to check it out before the sun completely disappeared. The clip of a lonely animal, out of place in time, restless and hemmed by its inevitable death, was a suitable taster for the festival. Every year Dark Mofo examines the depravity and levity of humankind: from the Feast—an adult-orientated food romp through the kind of fantasies that allowed the new King Arthur film to happen—to the unsettling discomfort of Mike Parr's performances. I've been to the past three of MONA's winter festivals, and each year my resulting articles are meditations of similar topics—ghosts, witches, the weight of a shared dark past. Sitting there, in front of that doomed tiger, I thought, "Maybe this year they'll just lean in and make the polluting pigment death?"
Soon it turned cold, although as many attendees noted, not as cold as usual for this time of the year, and I hurried away for Ancient Rain, a performance of Irish letters set to song by Paul Kelly and Irish singer Camille O'Sullivan. It did little to quell my thoughts of mortal themes. A collection a poems and writings, works crossed several subjects, but all pooled back to the end of things: lost loves, dead children, final embraces, departed parents, regret and decay. Poured so romantically into folk songs, it felt almost cruel to witness, as if this century of worst days was too private to be viewed among so many strangers. Although, the sea of tear-stained faces did lend the kind of weight one has come to expect from Tasmania's most emotionally wrenching fortnight.
Many crowd members stronger than me peeled away at the end of the show to find themselves again at Transiminal, this year's rolling rave that flashed to life when all the other events and parties called it a night. Water logged with the week's first crash of emotion I dragged myself to bed. Making notes that night I again reflected on the familiar talking points I expected to detangle over the next few days. My assumption that I had this year's content cracked was partially on point. A reimagining of Sleeping Beauty performed by giant, perfectly grotesque puppets, couldn't help but slide across thoughts of grief, even if there was a happy ending and a fabric version of Trump.
Down the road Mike Parr had laid out 70 buckets of stinking, stale piss to tie in with his nervously anticipated Empty Ocean performance. The buckets probably meant a lot of things to the crowd that dutifully took it all in, strained faces painted by the pursuit of art and understanding. Having been privy to a similar display the year before I wondered if Mike Parr had become desensitised to the smell of his own urine by now.
Empty Ocean dominated conversations over the weekend. Little was known about it: it would be held on Brunny Island at 2AM, you had to meet the ferry at 1AM, it was recommended you sleep up to five hours before heading out, isolate yourself from other people and avoid alcohol. After the intensity of last year's Willow Court performance, more than one person wondered if the rules were to try and minimise fainting when faced with whatever the controversial artists cooked up. For the record, I don't think Parr would do anything to avoid a woozy crowd.
That show ended up being a collection of retirees clashing stones together in unison on a moonlit beach. It was a hypnotic, and a rather welcome change from the perils of last year's asylum-set endurance piece. But to my surprise, it wasn't the offering that stuck with me the longest. That prize went to the Museum of Everything, taking up a fresh residency at the bottom on MONA.
Across rooms and rooms—I got lost more than once—curator James Brett presented a selection from his beloved collection. Wandering through you dip in and out of thousands of minds, some flush with mania, others so despondent you can't help but feel like an artful peeping Tom. The many pieces on display cross topics including spirituality, war, rage, violence, family, love and the apocalypse. It's would be misguided to try and wrestle them into a review that will hopefully come in under 1000 words or assign a narrative arc. The presentation is chaos; and surprisingly liberating at a festival where so many people are scratching for meaning in every forgotten coffee cup. It is loud and exhausting, but once you finally find your way out, it's also an exhilarating injection of life in a program so interested in the poetry of death.
Of course, if you had a taste for death that you needed met, Hermann Nitsch was on hand. Considering you've reading a Dark Mofo article, chances are you've heard of 150.Action—the performance piece that saw the Austrian artist and a bunch of sometimes naked assistants pull apart a bull and generally write and rolick in its blood. The event was preceded by weeks of protests, threats of boycotts and disruptions, and was the reason many of the PR staff looked especially exhausted. But once you got over the sight, and smell of all that gore, and the reality you would be standing for three hours, 150.Action served as more a frenzied talking point that dire prism to reflect on the weakness of human—and bovine—flesh. Scandal aside, it was a hell of a small talk topic for the rest of the week.
In previous years, Dark Mofo seemed to thrive on a sense icy desolation. You really felt like you were on the edge of the world, reckoning with the centuries of madness that come with that. But this year felt warmer, figuratively and literally. Kids darted in front of you while waiting in line, people smiled, there were even a few ill-advised t-shirts. Maybe it was the electricity of the Museum of Everything serving as a warm core at the heart of Mona, maybe it was climate change—either way, there were fewer ghosts this year.
Creators was a proud partner with Dark Mofo again this year. Check out some of our other coverage here: