That Dark Mofo, the Tasmanian festival dedicated to the dark arts, has courted controversy once again is no surprise. Just under 1,500 people signed a petition earlier last month to have four 20-metre inverted crosses, used by the festival as a wayfaring system, removed. The Australian Christian Lobby dubbed the iconography ‘highly offensive’.
Yet what struck me visiting Dark Mofo is not that it is the antithesis of religion, but how much it shares with it. Namely, the yearning to create meaning, to provide order, and to address the big unknowns. From the vast hall of the Winter Feast – adorned with thousands of fiery candles – to the public burning of the ogoh-ogoh monster and the annual nude swim, this is an event that fetishises ceremony. In a recent School of Life talk in Sydney, bestselling author and sociologist Hugh Mackay claimed Australia is ‘more socially fragmented than it has ever been’ with a population that is overmedicated, overweight, and suffering an epidemic of anxiety. The answer, in a country where few of us know our neighbours, he said, is to be found by returning our focus to the local street. By building community.
‘Every Sunday you would sit with your community and think about what it means to be a good human – I still think that thought process is valid,’ Leigh Carmichael, Dark Mofo’s creative director, says. ‘It doesn’t necessarily need to have God to have to go through that.’
If Vivid, Sydney’s winter light festival aimed squarely at tourists, is the equivalent of cultural junk food, populist but ultimately unsatisfying, Dark Mofo aims for something deeper: to nourish the soul. The question is, does it succeed? And can a quasi-pagan festival, selling itself as the avant-garde rebel located at the ends of the earth, generate true camaraderie – the type Mackay claims Australia needs.
On June 17, artist Mike Parr emerged safely from a steel chamber underneath Hobart’s busiest road – where he had been buried alive for 72 hours to symbolise the victims of totalitarianism and violence.
In Underneath the Bitumen The Artist, Parr was particularly interested in the burying of Aboriginal history in Tasmania. Another, less talked about, aspect of the artwork was the way it galvanised community. The artist deliberately left his burial obscure, with next-to-no marketing and no sign on the site itself. Thousands came to cheer him on as he went under (I even witnessed punters taking selfies on the busy road, dodging cars). But many more have driven over him oblivious he was submerged beneath.
Parr saw this as an advantage: it was, he told me excitedly the day before his interment, about ‘galvanising people at all different kinds of levels – the purpose of Dark Mofo is to invoke the whole community’. Curator Jarrod Rawlins put it this way, ‘This is the biggest performance for the festival. And you can’t see it.’
Underneath the Bitumen was designed to provoke anxiety and stir conversation. Some will question whether that works if the artwork is concealed (there is the risk it cements the art world as elitist, speaking only to those ‘in the know’.) For others, though, it represented the ultimate form of inclusion – incorporating Hobart’s drivers, unwittingly, as part of the performance.
A tradition Dark Mofo has adopted which is more obviously all-embracing, to children as well as adults, is the Balinese ogoh-ogoh cleansing ritual – in which the fears of the community are written down, purged, and released. The ceremony has two parts: first Balinese masters make an animal (this year a spider). Punters then write down their fears on paper and place them inside the creature. On the final night of Dark Mofo, the figure is marched through the street, before going up in an explosion of flames. Some of the fears scrawled on the paper are practical (‘heights’); others philosophical (‘Never finding true love’). Four-year-old Veda Moar declared she is afraid of monsters. Her father, Phil, has fears that are harder to pin down. ‘What am I really afraid of?’ confessed the Hobart-based salmon factory worker. ‘I think I’m afraid of getting really boring. Of becoming sedentary in front of the TV.’ Dark Mofo is the antithesis of a night watching the box – bringing people out into the chilly streets en masse. (Even the Hobart Lord Mayor Ron Christie, who Dark Mofo are in a funding war with, admitted to me that before the advent of the festival most winter evenings he would be sitting on an empty harbour, eating fish and chips. Back then he dubbed the city ‘Slowbart’).
The event that pushed boundaries the most this year was Night Mass – a giant party, taking over an entire street of Hobart, which featured more than 100 artists, a rave in an underground cinema, and a bar decked out to look like a scene from Twin Peaks. In one performance work, a female artist, naked from the waist down, pumped a lat machine to create hundreds of vulva paintings, using her genitals and red paint to stamp onto sheets of paper. Another saw professional wrestlers fight each other to screaming hordes. Weapons included two inverted crucifixes: one wrapped in gusset, the other with barbed wire. It was called Night Massacre.
The religious theme prevailed throughout: in a video work the mundane act of making pasta – breaking the eggs, mixing the flour – was turned into something sacramental, with sacred signs, burning incense, chants, and spinning planets. Given the set-up many found Night Mass a quasi-religious experience. ‘By transforming the city it enables you to transform along with it,’ 28-year-old local radiographer Todd Stricklato gushed. Jai Thorpe, a 32-year-old Hobart landscaper, was more skeptical: ‘It’s a little bit fake,’ he laughed. ‘We’re pretending very well.’
Yet for me, the evening proved that Dark Mofo, for now, still stands on the edge, exploring the unknown. And in doing so, it reaches out to our deepest, most fundamental need for human connection. It is telling that this giant street party had no program: that you might never know what was happening through another door, behind another wall. This element of discovery in itself built solidarity and a sense of the transcendent. As more than one person said on the night, without a hint of irony, ‘See you at mass.’