Surrealist operas. Nude swims. Communion at a nightclub. From the stages to the streets, this year’s Dark Mofo festival brought an impressive display of artworks and events to successfully stave off the cold for another season.
For those unfamiliar with the festival, Dark Mofo is an annual festival of arts and music held in Hobart. The festival is run by the Museum of Old and New Art (Mona), Australia’s largest privately funded museum. Dark Mofo is conceptually centred around the Winter Solstice, which takes place on the final night of the festival – the break of day and end of the festival is then marked by a mass-nude swim in the ocean.
Taking place over the course of two weeks, the festival included installation works scattered across the city as well as a smorgasbord of events far and wide. Events included club nights, food markets, fashion runways and a flaming purification ritual. This year’s instalment was branded as ‘Resurrection’, after COVID-19 cancelled it in 2020 and sustained travel restrictions in 2021.
Dark Mofo’s events program was innovative and exciting, breathing life into the city and lighting up the night. The festival’s installation artworks included pieces across a wide scope of mediums and themes, largely succeeding in their mission to engage and provoke audiences — albeit with some duds.
Dark Mofo impressed me. It committed to its vision with sprawling districts of performance art, concerts and fireside drinks. It stayed open late, exhibited weird artworks, and took over the city. For someone used to lockout laws and empty Sydney nightclubs, I was ecstatic just to sit around a fire at 2am drinking mulled wine accompanied by street food.
However, the festival is not without its problems. In the initial leadup to Dark Mofo’s 2021 instalment, the festival announced their commission of Union Flag — an artwork by Spanish artist Santiago Sierra that was set to immerse a British flag in the blood of First Nations peoples from countries claimed previously by the British Empire. The announcement opened expressions of interest to participants who were “invited to donate a small amount of blood to the artwork.”
While the artist claimed that the work was an ‘acknowledgment of the pain and destruction colonialism has caused First Nations peoples’, asking Indigenous people for their blood is not a critique of colonisation. It’s an extension of it.
In conversation with the ABC, palawa woman and spokesperson for the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre Nala Mansell said “I understand the idea of blood on the flag, but I’m not sure if it’s appropriate to be calling for Aboriginal people to be donating blood when we have already had enough blood spilt as it is.” Yorta Yorta rapper and writer, Briggs, commented that “We already gave enough blood.”
Overland Journal’s Cass Lynch put it best: “The concept on its own isn’t active as an agent of truth-telling, it doesn’t contain an Indigenous voice or testimony, it has no nuance. On its own, it leans into the glorification of the gore and violence of colonisation.”
The work was widely condemned by activists and mainstream publications alike, and was cancelled within 24 hours of its announcement. Numerous artists pulled out of the festival. Dark Mofo’s creative director, Leigh Carmichael, apologised through a Facebook post, writing that “we made a mistake, and take full responsibility.”
Mona’s owner, David Walsh, issued his statement via blog post:
“Had all this gone swimmingly: blood collected, naff anti-colonial point made, feedback positive, who would have benefited? Not First Nations people. They already know they’ve been fucked over by colonialism. Who then? Mona? Me.
…. It’s no wonder everyone is disgusted. I’m sorry.“
In the wake of the backlash, the festival committed to a number of measures to improve their accountability and include First Nations voices in their organisation.
They appointed one of their critics, Caleb Nichols-Mansell, as a First Nations Cultural Advisor. The creative agency behind the festival, DarkLab, created a First Nations advisory group with $60,000 initially allocated. Dark Mofo 2021 and 2022 both began with a Reclamation Walk, with this year’s instalment curated and led by palawa/ Wiradjuri artist Luana Towney and Bigambul/ Wakka Wakka cultural practitioner AJ King. The opening weekend included a ‘precinct-wide takeover’ of Indigenous entertainment and food, led by Rob Braslin & Jalen Sutcliffe. The opening night featured further performances from Indigenous artists, including from the festival’s former critic Briggs.
Speaking to the ABC, AJ King spoke to the opportunity and reality of ongoing institutional change at Dark Mofo. “Are they committed to the journey? From my perspective, yes, absolutely. Will people like Caleb, myself and Dylan [Hoskins] be continuing to push them for change and to be doing things better? Absolutely.”
If Dark Mofo 2022 was a ‘resurrection’, what did the festival do with its new lease on life? First and foremost, it partied.
Winter Feast, a staple of the festival, delivered in every aspect. The feast is set up as a market-style configuration, offering a huge range of food and drink to choose from across a waterfront district in the heart of Hobart. It opened early and stayed open late, and there was no waiting in line for delicious food. The Winter Feast acted as an ideal ‘pres’ or ‘kick-ons’ for the bacchanal that arose as the sun went down.
From orchestras to punk sets, festival-goers had their pick of concerts to attend. I spent my first night of Dark Mofo at ‘Borderlands I’, a micro-festival of experimental and electronic music. The stage hosted a broad range of acts, beginning with drummer Andrea Belfi’s mesmerising drum set. Experimental producer and composer Nik Void and Klara Lewis presented a stunning collaboration with analogue filmmaker Pedro Maia, the set taking the audience on a journey through visuals evolving from crisscrossing, veinlike forms into a barren wasteland. The trance-like auditory experience slowed into a threateningly haunting echo.
However, the highlight of the night undoubtedly was a stirring and varied improv noise set by artist and rock legend Kim Gordon, supported by Sarah Register and Camilla Charlesworth. Gordon commanded the stage, completely in control of each chord, amp, and reverb – even when taking to her guitar with a screwdriver. The energy of the set was electric; being in the audience felt like I was in the presence of something transformative. Borderlands delivered in every aspect.
The next night, an intimate set from yeule at nightclub venue Altar extended my experience of the festival’s weird and wonderful lineup. Self-described as a ‘fourth-generation goth’, yeule performed a tight set of glitch-pop tunes that kept the crowd in an electronic trance. Beginning with the beautifully hypnotic ‘Pixel Affection’, they grabbed the audience’s attention from their first word and didn’t let go. Yeule’s music is bold, dark, and delicate – they’re not an act to miss.
Altar and the surrounding streets then quickly transformed into my favourite event of the festival – Night Mass: Transcendence. One of the most popular events of the festival, Night Mass sold out before all of the acts were even announced.
The evening kicked off as Her Divine Holiness Pope Alice led a procession of mirrored dancers to perform the rituals of Catholicism in a decidedly unholy space. Crowds rushed to the stage for a chance to receive communion and a blessing from Pope Alice herself, then silently parted as She crossed the venue to take to a stage elsewhere.
Laneways were populated with bars, performance art and concerts. In a carpark-turned-outdoor theatre, projected scenes from a biomorphic surrealist reimagining of Turandot captivated the audience, set in the ‘radical techno-feminist matriarchy’ of 2070 Beijing. Neon stilt walkers and performers in hazmat suits were situated in various corners, as well as the more traditional festival staples of food and drink trucks. I really can’t overstate the convenience and joy of being able to get a post-clubbing feed without even leaving the venue.
Night Mass boasted an impressive music lineup – but with no map or list of stages to be found, I was blindsided in trying to track down certain acts. Immersion in the chaotic atmosphere was fun, but it would have been good to know when and where Ninajirachi was performing.
Regardless, the night was filled with incredible sets to discover across the venue. One such discovery of the night was Adelaide-based rapper and producer Elsy Wameyo, whose Kenyan-influenced beats had the crowd jumping, chanting and dancing. Her set peaked with a high-energy performance of ‘River Nile’, a song that is certainly getting added to all of my playlists.
My highlight of the night was an intimate and sensual set from Swedish pop artist COBRAH, accompanied by pulsating video art and her signature look of leather and chains. COBRAH’s music and image take influence from BDSM and ballroom, evident in her sexually-charged performance of tracks including ‘GOOD PUSS’ and ‘WET’. Her performance, in one word, slayed. Having previously worked and performed with the likes of cupcakKe and Charli XCX, COBRAH is definitely an artist to keep tabs on.
Night Mass was a fantastic mix of art and nightlife, with patrons dancing well into the early morning. On one of the longest nights of the year, it barely felt like it was dark at all.
Beyond events, Dark Mofo also comprised a range of installation works at sites across the city. These installations took various forms, with interactive and video art as well as photography and sculptural pieces.
With isolated artworks scattered across the city, each individual work stood on its own and could be interpreted as such, without competing for space or dominating one another. It also allowed works to vary wildly in tone — for better or for worse.
One particularly affecting artwork was The Angels of Testimony by Meiro Koizumi, a video and installation piece that drew on testimony from a Japanese war veteran. In text and on film, 99-year old Hajime Kondo confesses to horrific war crimes that he witnessed and committed in the Second Sino-Japanese War, presented alongside videos of young Japanese people reading the testimony themselves. The work is confrontational and stomach-turning, grappling with questions of personal and national guilt as well as the limits of human brutality. Exiting the building housing the work only to be spat back onto the streets of Hobart was a disorienting and sobering experience.
Across the city was a vastly different work, Hiromi Tango’s Rainbow Dream: Moon Rainbow. I had high expectations as the snaking line gradually progressed over the course of thirty minutes waiting. Signs outside promised a celebration of joy: “Out of the darkness, light begins to appear around the edges. A rainbow emanates from the centre, vibrating pure energy. The healing colour palette captures and holds us in a joyous moment.”
Unfortunately I am a hater, and was not held in a joyous moment. What I was met with was instead a glorified selfie room, comparable to the Museum of Ice Cream or Van Gogh Alive. The work was a strange curatorial decision for a festival that prides itself on the weird and wonderful, on art that pushes boundaries. It appears that not even Dark Mofo is immune to the Instagram-ification of art.
Joel Croswell’s nearby installation of Anthropoid came off as similarly shallow, with post-apocalyptic imagery likely seeking to interrogate technology, war, and human progress. In reality, however, the work appeared as a group of life-sized ape sculptures gathered around mounds of dirt, with discarded keyboards and gas masks hinting at a Planet of the Apes-esque narrative around humanity’s capacity for self-destruction.
Nonetheless, the festival still played host to a range of other thoughtful and engaging works. Bill Viola’s video installation Inverted Birth was an intensely sensory experience, diving into themes of renewal and discovery, life and death. Hosted in a cavernous, industrial space, the video begins with Viola drenched in a black, tar-like liquid. Programmed to play in reverse, audiences gradually see this substance pour off of him to reveal further layers, including what appears to be blood, milk, and water, until he is finally clean. The reversal and scale of the work brings attention to the way that liquids fall off his body, how he flinches, and the relentlessness of the torrent that pours on and from him.
Doug Aitken’s New Era, previously exhibited at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art, was an incredible dive into the technological age through a vast mirrored spectacle, utilising fractal-like imagery and symmetry to show the explosive expansion of digital communication. The opportunities of technology were also explored by Loren Kronemyer through Cryptic Female Choice, an installation that explained her decision to mint one of her own reproductive cells as an NFT. Kronemyer hand-waves away the environmental impact of NFTs (as well as them being ‘lame’), arguing that their energy consumption is the same as mailing 15 art prints. The NFT itself is presented in the exhibition as a contract on a large screen — a cryptic choice indeed.
Whether the fact that some artworks didn’t hit the mark was a result of the festival bouncing back from closures, avoiding controversy, or simply losing its spark is unclear. But within the vast program of events and art, there was certainly enough excitement and depth to keep me on my toes — as well as lure me back to Tasmania as soon as possible.
Dark Mofo is public art with an edge, with purpose; it’s the arts festival that we deserve. It is worth travelling for. The next time you’re discussing whether to attend Fringe, Vivid, Falls, or Splendour, don’t discount going South.