Weimar on the Derwent

It’s the Dark Mofo festival in Hobart and tea and scones are being served at Government House. An unexpected ingredient in the scones is blood—Aboriginal blood. When a guest finds their tea is too strong they cause offence by asking for more hot water.

The Museum of Old and New Art (Mona) produces two successful cultural products. In January it stages Mofo, a celebratory summer festival of art and music in Launceston, and in June it’s the turn of Hobart for Dark Mofo marking the winter solstice.

Michael Connor appears monthly in Quadrant.
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Hobart was looking rather fasho. Winter had arrived and the winds lashed the aggressive black flags with red crosses lining the streets. The banners announced the seventh coming of Dark Mofo. With the arrival of the interstate hipsters, for whom the festival is staged, a journalist got fashion conscious: “Black and red are the standout colours for both local and interstate Dark Mofo patrons, but with subtle differences in how they prepare for the cold.” It is Hobart and the writer may have been confusing Satanists and Essendon supporters.

Dark Mofo thrives on controversy. In 2016 art students protested when their school was surrounded by poster artworks saying “Your work is shit” and last year, as the ABC reported, one event by an international artist “included mock crucifixions set to music, culminating in a frenzied squabble by blood-soaked participants writhing in the entrails from a freshly slaughtered bull carcase”. And to ram home the point the festival placed four inverted red crosses around Sullivans Cove and banked on the outrage.

This year the taunting crosses are back, right side up, and Christians are less willing to give the festival the headlines it lives on, even though the religion-baiting is happening not long after the New Zealand and Sri Lankan massacres. Hobart Baptist Church quietly displays their own cross to which a figure in a hessian bag is fixed: “Artist Michael Henderson said the work combined a gangster disposing of a body and the crucifixion of Jesus in an attempt to connect the ‘dark’ of Dark Mofo and the ‘light’ of those who want it gone.” When comment on the festival was sought, pastor Stephen Baxter resignedly pointed to the obvious hypocrisy: “It is rather ironic that [Israel] Folau can have his contract cancelled for offending people by quoting the Bible, yet Dark Mofo can openly offend Christians without recourse.” Amongst the financial supporters of Dark Mofo are the Tasmanian and federal governments and Qantas.

The festival strikes off around the Queen’s Birthday weekend and on the Saturday at midday, as Dark + Dangerous Thoughts are being discussed at the Odeon Theatre, loud bangs echo around the river as a military salute is fired in honour of the Queen. Some hours earlier a friendly sniffer dog in Devonport discovered $220,000 of ice being carried by a passenger on the Spirit of Tasmania—a festival “travel partner”.

Dark + Dangerous Thoughts is what you would expect and the female “curator” had promised it would focus on “angry white men” and, ensuring all points of view were covered, would even “have a focus on the soft right which are very influential in the world. I think left-leaning people might find that a bit challenging.” A Christian minister was given twenty minutes to explain “Why I’m Pentecostal” and Claire Lehmann, the editor of Quillette, who was advertised as a “moderate conservative”, was invited to discuss “Sex and the soft right”. (Is that a Mona joke?) Several weeks later Andy Ngo, a Quillette editor and photographer, was bashed by left-leaning Antifa thugs and hospitalised for treatment of a brain haemorrhage: soft Right meet hard Left and their dark + dangerous ideas.

The supposed challenges are buried under the presentations of the monotonously over-exposed  who appear at all Left writers’ events to sell their books—the same people who are always popping up for talks in local Tasmanian bookshops and university-funded conferences: Benjamin Law (selling forthcoming book) on “Moral Panic 101”; Stan Grant (selling his book) on “Australia Day” and “Are You Black Enough”; Jeff Sparrow (selling his book) on “Are the Right’s dangerous ideas in part to blame for Christchurch”—he does not wonder whose ideas were responsible for the massacre of Christians in Sri Lanka; David Marr and Frédéric Martel (selling his book) on “Priests in the closet”; Yumi Stynes on “What are you afraid of?”—perhaps “How many frequent flyer points did you get?” would have made more sense for these mainland travellers in the age of flygskam (Swedish for flight shame)—the international environment-saving, anti-flying campaign. A good discussion might have led to persuading festival presenters and audience members to sign a pro-environment pledge to walk back home after the festival.

The printed program, looking like a hipster prayer book with black covers and red crosses, held gloomy artistic photography and challenging typography on coloured paper (hard to read to discourage the plebs?); good value at only five dollars. The website was also unreadable and the Mercury stepped in: “Are you dazed and confused after trying to navigate the Dark Mofo website? Maybe we can help.”

Hobart has recently undergone much change. Around the waterfront the old, scruffy and rather appealing buildings and rickety wharves have gone and been replaced by clean lines and new buildings. The city itself has been shaken about and is bright with new eateries and shops, and familiar mainland retail outlets. It all looks very nice, like Geelong on the Derwent.

And even more changes are under way as the university is moving into the CBD and the small city centre is being squashed under the weight. At a time of accommodating increased numbers of visitors, tourist hotels, along with office buildings, empty spaces and shops, have been scooped up by the university and are being converted for its use. The historic Theatre Royal has undergone a major renovation as part of $96 million “creative industries and performing arts development” merging it with a still uncompleted neighbour which will house the music conservatorium. The renovations have left in place the dress-circle pillars which can make a performance a misery. This beautiful theatre is still without a resident performing company and it is already too expensive for either local amateur or semi-professionals to hire on a regular basis.

Mona too is asserting a permanent city presence through its subsidiary Dark Lab, which is one of the partners in developing the Hanging Garden, a new “cultural precinct” for performance, food and drink. The music venue is called Altar and the nightclub High Altar. During the festival weekends they were used to stage Night Mass entertainments. Originally promised as a never-closing venue, it currently seems to be operating only on weekends. These are interesting times.

Dark Mofo is praised for bringing “weird” and even “brutal and nauseating” art and performance to Hobart, as if we needed more. During the first week of the festival an ongoing criminal case was in the courts: “A man who has admitted to cutting off his housemate’s head, drowning his dogs and then burning his car should be acquitted of his murder, a jury has been told.” As with other highly promoted festivals the great majority of the resident population sort of knows Dark Mofo is happening but does not feel greatly involved.

Why does my notebook have an entry saying “stolen knickers”? I have no idea.

Dark Mofo has created a surge in winter tourism. Annual tourist numbers reportedly reached 1.06 million in 2018 and during the eighteen days of this year’s festival 25,000 interstate visitors accounted for 65 per cent of the 100,000 individual ticket sales: revenue was over $4 million, up from $3.1 million in 2018. The expenses are unknown.

Music performances from national and international performers are the backbone of the festival but seem to attract less attention than the food, the weird art, and free public events—including a nude solstice swim.

Winter Feast was a nightly and family-friendly food banquet: “Take the child into the forest to a spot far from here. Then stab her to death and bring me back her lungs and liver as proof of your deed. After that I’ll cook them with salt and eat them.” Despite the Brothers Grimm invitation more than 100,000 people took part. A common criticism from locals was that it was overcrowded.

During the festival, 2000 passengers arrive on the P&O cruise ship Pacific Explorer. Cruise-ship-bashing is quite popular in Hobart. The more ships arrive the less they seem wanted. During the festival a Mercury letter to the editor merged cruise-ship-hatred and the push to stop a proposal to build a cable car up the nearby mountain which looks over Hobart—the name of the mountain is currently rather controversial: “We will make an example of this undemocratic push [to build the cable car] and the cruise industry will incur the wrath it deserves. Game on.”

Dark Path, a free event with food and paying bits on the side, in which participants take a night-time walk through the Domain and Botanic Gardens, reportedly attracted 15,000 people. At the beginning there was a marvellous light show. Though the palette of primary colours seemed limited to yellow, white, red and green it produced startlingly clear and magical patterns which were relentlessly swept aside as if by a moving hand which made them one moment blurred and then turned them into glittering, flying sparks like a glimpse of distant fairyland—more Myer Christmas window than Dark Mofo gothic. Intellectually the experience resembled a visual riff on that epoch-marking mid-twentieth-century aural masterwork “Balham—Gateway to the South”, as performed by Peter Sellers. Unfortunately, fairyland vanished when we exited the congested bridge, turned off the roadway into the carpark, turned off the wipers and set foot in the mud. It had stopped raining—mostly.

Over the footbridge, recently finished after what seemed a century of Hobart construction work, to a path on the Domain lit by flaming lights. In daylight it is a good place to walk the dogs: at night it is cold and miserable and usually colonised by the homeless. Following the path we come to a place with posters stuck to trees—publicity promised “the truth of history” which we would find “emotionally relentless”. People stop, glance and carry on. Each poster represents a missing Aboriginal child from the colonial period and is linked to a further display at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery. Despite the hype and layers of guilt it resembles a set of Twitter messages which no one will ever read.

It is cold. Nearby is the old Powder Magazine. Some people queue near the closed door. A sign says there is a twenty-minute wait to view the Demon Core—“inspired by a disastrous critical mass experiment at a major American nuclear facility in the 1940s”—too long, too cold, and it is again raining lightly.

Continuing on and downhill and into the Botanic Gardens. Some of the beds beside the paths hold speakers and lights. There are odd sounds and voices. What we have ignorantly walked past is Limbic Resonance: “Listen out, as rituals of primal screaming and meditative breathing ring across the dark gardens. With candles, bells, salt, soil, mirrors and her voice, [artist Naomi] Blacklock explores mythologies of the witch: a symbol old and new of otherness, rebellion, and emancipation.” Juxtaposing lost kids and witchcraft is a bit Hansel and Gretel and a lot more disturbing.

Walking away from the Botanic Gardens you pass the entrance to Government House. Participants in the bloody tea parties have had to pre-buy their $15 tickets and they wait here to be conducted through the grounds. They probably don’t know what awaits them. “Take This, For It Is My Body”, is sold like this: “How is blood haunted by history? You’re invited to consume a traditional spread of tea and scones at Government House. This European ritual is subverted by three Aboriginal performers, who will offer you a provocative choice.” Liberal premier Will Hodgman hadn’t got the message: “The festival is a nod to the quirky characters, unique places and fresh produce for which Tasmania is famed.”

There is more provocative art, or rather it might have been if you knew what was happening, and, naturally, expensive food trucks. Feeling bolshie, I grab a Big Mac on the way home.

Last year artist Mike Parr was buried under a city street and resurrected three days later. This year he was blindfolded and placed in a space with brush and paint. He painted the walls as an audience watched on a video feed. When he finished, the location was announced as the gallery space was briefly opened before being repainted. It was a free event.

An earlier performance by Mike Parr appeared in Barry Humphries’s regular Quadrant feature “Pseuds’ Corner” in September 1977. It had taken place in a Sydney gallery and was called Primary Vomit Blue. Parr swallowed blue dye, and an emetic, and vomited: The climax “was a long time coming—the performance commenced at about 7 p.m. but the blue vomit did not find its way on to the white cotton wool spread out on the floor between Parr’s legs until 8.30 p.m. It was a long wait.” It was also a free event.

“Being a lesbian in Hobart is hard” is a new piece of wisdom added to a very large already graffiti-covered container placed on the pavement near the Town Hall. The container is cold to touch and stands on a windy corner. There are observation holes (bullet holes?) in the side of the container. You walk around and peep into a devastated, riot-destroyed town where only media and police survive, or so I read. The model within is carefully constructed, carefully lit. People come and go, moving from spyhole to spyhole. No one talks. A young man adds a bit more graffiti—no one cares. A young man walks past towards the museum. His shirt has a suitable festival message: “People love reading negative reviews”—it sounds hopeful.

Audiences fill the music performances, eat a lot and queue for latex pigs and violence, and to see a virtual-reality man beaten to a pulp with a baseball bat. Art is to Dark Mofo what Sideshow Alley is to the Royal Easter Show. Semen cocktails could be enjoyed in a theatre beside a Uniting Church, music, dancing, food, food, food, nude solstice swim—naked in mid-winter is a bit Weimar and all the photos seem to be from the rear. And finally, The Purging: “Commit your fears into the heart of a giant swift parrot, an endangered species that breeds in Tasmania and forms this year’s ogoh-ogoh: a totem-like sculpture derived from a Balinese Hindu community purification ritual and crafted by Balinese artists.” On the last night there is great bonfire and the firecracker-filled bird is burnt. When journalist Martha Gellman visited Hitler’s Berlin she talked to the young: “They proved to have one parrot brain among the lot and we did not care for them.” It’s no coincidence then that the festival opened with familiar lefties and old ideas, and closed with the burning of a giant parrot.

Mona is a comic novel in search of an author. Turning a hole in the ground at the end of the world into an international tourist destination is genius. Mona is successful without being profitable and in this highly precarious state it has plans for expansion with a prestige hotel and high-end gambling. Money is being borrowed and state and federal governments are being asked to contribute heavily.

Everything is dependent on the brilliant gambler and showman David Walsh. Being an independent and high-profile museum entrepreneur is a dangerous act—to undermine the authenticity of the art makers, as Walsh himself does, is a betrayal and confession. Speaking with reporters last year, as the ABC noted, he offered a personal crude and negative review of his artists:

most of them are pretentious twats … they create stuff, maybe it’s because they think they are trying to create beauty, or create a new movement, or they want to do an exhibition on the moon but really all they want to do is get laid.

3 thoughts on “Weimar on the Derwent

  • John-Tassie says:

    The Dark Path invoice for the hire of the old Powder Magazine on the Hobart Domain during Dark Mofo, has not been paid. Is a legal demand letter necessary or is the money traffic only one way here? In the past, one previous venue (Lady Franklin Gallery) was hired for a month but not used. A double inconvenience to the artists who use the Gallery.

  • Stephen Due says:

    My wife and I used to visit Tasmania regularly. We will not be returning there until this moronic so-called “festival” ceases to exist. It is not “controversial”. It is sick.

  • John-Tassie says:

    The powder magazine Dark Path invoice has been paid.

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