I Spent Two Days Inside an Immersive Performance Art Piece in the Tasmanian Mountains
This weekend getaway featured a two-headed goose, a guy dressed up as a sexy goat, and some light chanting.
This year's Dark Mofo program kicked off in earnest at the launch of the Marina Abramović retrospective Private Archaeology at Tasmania's Museum of Old and New Art (MONA). Hundreds of people queued up for hours in the cold. On offer: four decades of video art, installations, and hands-on experiences, with one room where participants sat at a long table counting grains of rice in silence. This was all-you-ca- eat Abramović—the equivalent of a classic rock band indulging you with just the hits.
"Indulge" may seem an odd word given the starkness of a lot of the work. But if you saw the excellently accented Marina speak the following day in conversation with MONA boss David Walsh, you'd have to admit there was something nurturing about her. She spoke of the need to give time to each of your personas, even the part of you that just wants to eat chocolate and do nothing. She even told a man during her Q&A session to not "give up so easy" when he repeated his question three times because nobody understood it—making the whole theater share his struggle.
Marina, a self-avowed "believer in everything," preaching the importance of living for the moment was a perfect beginning to what brought me to the Tasmanian capital of Hobart, where MONA is located, in the first place: Wild at Heart. A collaboration between Dark Mofo and event production group Unconscious Collective, it was touted as a "road trip, exhibition, banquet and two-night immersive sleepover." Attendees were chosen through a ticket ballot and details were kept to a minimum. All we knew was it would be weird, and given MONA's track record, fucking brilliant.
Choosing a hire car instead of the free bus from Hobart, we were given a map and the first of four mixtape CDs curated by HTRK's Jonnine Standish. The other three we collected at checkpoints spaced about an hour apart all the way up to Cradle Mountain. Through the windows we saw about a billion sheep patchy snow, and, when the mist permitted, bleakly beautiful landscapes. The alps in particular had a brutal and alien feel, all wet rock and burgundy scrub.
Arriving at Cradle Mountain Hotel after a four-hour drive, we found the place overrun with taxidermy and alpine decor. Its rooms had tents in them and the TVs either played campfire footage or episodes of Lassie. If you picked up the phone, you could speak to a live pet therapist. In the hallways (which were filled with blue fog) people in spooky animal outfits peered at you around corners and disappeared. They'd gone all-out.
Dinner was held inside an indoor wilderness, complete with astroturf and fake campfires. The food was camp in all possible meanings of the word. There were bits of beef jerky hanging from sections of farmyard gate, baked potatoes filled with wallaby stew, and slabs of pig face terrine which was sliced off and slid into your hands. Easier to manage but just as tasty were the skewers of trout and foraged mushrooms grilled on hot stones, as well as the s'mores, which were sprayed with whiskey citronella and grilled with a blowtorch.
Between the savory and sweet courses, the crowd viewed new work by Melbourne artist Ash Keating. Comprising eight large-scale paintings, Remote Nature Response was a representation of the mountain ranges we'd just driven through. They were great.
The next day started with a standard breakfast in the dining hall. Lots of eggs and beans and stewed fruit—like what you'd get at a corporate retreat. It was a good chance to catchup with some other guests. The general feeling was that everyone was excited for whatever was to come next. In the daylight, the grounds of the hotel looked like landscape paintings from the 1800s. It would have been nice to stick around but the itinerary called for an AM checkout followed by a short drive to the second night's accommodation: Pepper's Cradle Mountain Lodge.
The log cabins and hunting lodge decor of Pepper's allowed it to play more naturally in the Twin Peaks tableau. This would later be the setting for a big feast, curated by UK food artists and jelly-mongers Bompas & Parr, with wild meats hunted by Ross O'Meara. The presser hinted at darkness, decadency, ritual, and blood. In the meantime, the guests were taken by bus for an appetite-building walk around nearby Dove Lake.
A few hours later the first dining group gathered in the hotel lobby. It was fancy dress, although some (including us) got the memo late and had to construct our costumes out of things we brought or could find. Canapés were blood-themed, and that set the tone for everything that followed.
A bell rang and we were ushered into a drawing room. There we were given Negronis with ice cubes flecked with bloodworms. After more canapés—including dates stuffed with blood sausage, potatoes carved into marrow bones, and filled sour cherries—a ritual began. This started with a few incantations and ended with each guest knocking back a shot glass of pigs' blood mixed with beetroot juice that tasted like a nosebleed and felt slimy on the teeth.
Dinner came next in the banquet hall, complete with long tables and an oversized fireplace. Once diners were seated, servers in ceremonial dress marched in with food. Along with a full baby deer on a spit, there was a literal mountain of spatchcock, platters of roasted marrow bones (real this time), a large bowl overflowing with a thick offal sausage, and a two-headed goose that may or may not have been ornamental. There were also vegetables but they were at the other side of the room.
Though I remember enjoying everything, it all felt very Game of Thrones-y, where the banquet's high production values overshadowed my memory of what it all tasted like. It was a bit like a movie you have to see twice to fully get how good it is. Unlike a movie, you can't download a custom-hunted medieval feast, so this was a one-off.
The main course was followed by drinks and music in the tavern presided over by a guy wearing nothing but antlers, a biker jacket, platform ankle boots, and a trailing, goat's-tail merkin. It was an odd sight, but after drinking pigs' blood and everything else we'd seen so far, the crowd was in danger of getting immune to the weirdness. Luckily, the rest of the night kept everyone just off balance enough to ensure this didn't happen.
There were two dessert courses. For the first, we were led up a staircase. On the landing, face painted attendants handed us paper cups of ice cream, directing us into a chapel-like room. In it, candles surrounded a naked woman dripping in caramel while writhing on an altar. Behind her stood another girl (clothed), pouring more caramel. On either side were other clothed women flambéing bananas with blowtorches. Moving down the table like a buffet line, we each took turns collecting banana segments before having caramel sauce scooped off of bare flesh and drizzled into our outstretched cups. Cameras weren't allowed in this room.
Dessert number two was a small dining room with tables covered in jelly body parts. There were faces, breasts, and dicks, all laid out on glass tiles. Guests were instructed to share with each other and to not use their hands. Whether through awkwardness or a general lack of appetite (we'd consumed a lot of food) not much of the jelly got eaten. However, the effect was pretty cool.
The remaining hours featured a quick bus trip up to a settler's chalet for mulled wine, some more digestifs in the sitting room, along with two more body-stockinged goat boys who lithely butted heads on top of a solid oak table. Slowly the attendees filtered out to get horizontal and let their stomachs go to work. After two long and weird days, there was a lot to process.
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