Heart of Darkness: Tasmania’s Dark Mofo Arts & Music Festival

Due to my romance-damaged mind, Tasmania has long been somewhere I’ve wanted to go. We are here for Dark Mofo, an arts and music festival run by Hobart’s art gallery, MONA. This is the rare type of festival that tells the truth when it refers to itself as an arts festival — music is just one of the arts being celebrated here.

We fly into Tasmania’s second-largest town, Launceston. Disembarking from the plane, the early morning light rises over fog-shrouded hills, a fog that lingers till well after midday. It’s a view that sends several people (not just me) attempting to poorly capture the view on their smartphones. While Tasmania is widely known for this sort of beauty, it’s generally also thought of as being rather dull. The MONA gallery has initiated somewhat of a change to this image. It is run by David Walsh, an eccentric millionaire who made his money gambling. Within 12 months of the gallery being built, it became the main tourist attraction in the state. Because of this cultural status, MONA is given a unique power over the state and the town. For several years now, the gallery has run two festivals that occur close to the Winter and Summer solstices. As Dark Mofo is the winter edition, it is given gothic themes of darkness and the occult that consciously echo pagan festivals like Yule or Saturnalia.

From our drive from Launceston airport to my travelling partner’s family home, I’m in awe of the natural beauty of the state. Despite ostensibly being here for a music festival, I’ve been equally concerned with seeing as much of the island as possible. Our morning is spent at Cataract Gorge, a place that is far more appealing than its name would suggest. After lunch, we embark on the two-and-a-half-hour long scenic drive from one side of the state to the other to get to Hobart, where the festival is situated. Reaching Hobart at night, you see much of the city demonically lit in red. The port of the city is transformed into the free-to-enter Dark Park which features a huge laser-covered sculpture that engulfs you with demonic synthesised drones. The park area features large works of conceptual art, sculpture and performance art which are rarely anything less than visually impressive, even if their meaning can seem obtuse without an arts degree. The effect is very much of being at a theme park for the eyes and the mind, rather than the body.

It being Friday night, we’re attending the festival’s version of a good-time dance party, Transliminal. Daft Punk’s abrasive early single ‘Rolling and Scratching’ plays as we enter the venue, foreshadowing an evening at the stranger end of dance music. The large venue is mostly lit by an impressive overhead light display. Each light is attached to the rectangular upper floor balcony of the venue. The DJ Julianna Huxtable takes the stage a few minutes after our entrance to the main room of the venue. Huxtable is an artist and musician whose work is strongly informed by her identity as a black and trans/intersex woman. Her music is closely tied to New York’s avant-club music scene that has been a home to musicians like Arca and Total Freedom. That scene frequently celebrates dance music as something close to punk music for people of colour and LGBTIQ people. Huxtable’s set is an eclectic blend of genres that still retains a distinct identity. She plays: dark ambient music; weirdo rap like Princess Nokia and XXXTentacion; hints of trance classics like ‘Born Slippy’ and Robert Miles’s ‘Children’; Riot Grrl tracks like Bikini Kill’s ‘Rebel Girl’ and Hole. Despite playing such renowned tracks, Huxtable’s set manages to transform this music into far more than the sort of set a DJ might play in a packed city bar to keep a drunk crowd happy. The common theme throughout Julianna Huxtable‘s set is one of intensity. Much of the set has a sound reminiscent of Arca or Kanye’s ‘Yeezus.’ It is a sound of industrial distortion mixed with hip-hop and Latin dance music. The music Huxtable plays is avant-garde but an avant-garde that comes from a person of colour. It embodies an afro-modernist philosophy of looking to elevate black and Latino music into the frequently white space of experimental music. As you might imagine it’s a divisive set. I overhear many people complain that it’s undanceable, which it kind of is.

I’m disappointed afterwards when Italy-via-Melbourne DJ Chiara Kickdrum follows her with a more conventionally pounding techno set. While many in the room were clearing hoping for the return of a steady 4/4 pulse, I was happily enjoying its absence. Although my opinion was hardly helped by my current struggles in maintaining a good mood throughout a night-out. My brain has been acting like a weak democracy that easily falls to the fascism of anxiety and depression. Alcohol has been messing with this unsteady situation as Russia might in an election. It also can’t help that we were up at 5 am to catch a flight.

DARK MOFO

We start the next day with a trip to MONA itself. The gallery sits built into the rock of a small peninsula in the middle of a river. The 360-degree view around it is a stunning view of Hobart, mountains and water. The inside of the gallery itself is no less impressive. Like the rest of the festival, the gallery specialises in the spectacle, pieces that will draw you in with their sheer size or shock value. Two notable pieces are the Australian artist Sidney Nolan’s large ‘Rainbow Serpent’, a mosaic of 1620 paintings that takes up an entire room and Wim Delvoye’s ‘Cloaca Professional’, that reproduces the functions of the digestive system, transforming food into shit, basically. Like the Dark Park, the gallery is far closer to entertainment than your standard gallery (something it has received criticism for), it looks and feels much like a science museum.

I can't wait to be old + boring so I can live in Tasmania

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After bathing in the beautiful winter sunshine of the gallery grounds we eventually make our journey to my first meal of the day (at about 6 pm) and our evening’s entertainment. The first band we see are the German industrial rock band Einstürzende Neubaten. The group is legendary for their anarchic performances in the eighties that included a gig at London’s ICA where they attempted to drill into the ground in search of a rumoured tunnel that led to the nearby Buckingham Palace. Bizarrely, the pneumatic drills involved in this performance were part of the band’s onstage instruments. The group is also generally known for singer Blixa Bargeld’s guitar-playing in Nick Cave’s band, The Bad Seeds. The band themselves seem to have mellowed in much the same way their hometown of Berlin has since the ‘80s. While the sense of danger and anarchism is still there, it’s mostly remembered through its link to the past. While there are no drills, the band still uses somewhat of a junkyard orchestra: sheet metal xylophones, a pizza oven for a kick drum and metal dropped from a bucket from on top of a ladder.

The band has a wonderfully imposing stage presence. The set starts with a beeping noise while the band members stare silently at the crowd. Eventually the bassist begins his accompaniment to the beep. Having only heard the band’s experimental early work, I’m shocked by how accessible (comparatively) the music is, much like the Bad Seeds themselves. The band’s songs are mechanically precise, frequently suggesting harrowing crescendos that only occasionally arrive. The songs are spare, tense and bass-driven, sung in both English and German. The mood is rarely lighter than funereal. The only exception being Bargeld’s dry banter in between songs. He is a man whose every move is completely purposeful and lacking in self-consciousness. Bargeld’s spoken-sung vocals are sometimes interrupted by a scream of precision, not one of passion. He announces that one song commemorates 100 years since the end of WWI. With the current tensions in Europe it seems easy to imagine that calamities like those that have fallen upon Berlin will fall upon other cities of the world. Perhaps these are just the feelings triggerted by watching such a brutally menacing band.

We are briefly herded out of the venue while it rearranges itself for Borderlands, a night of experimental electronic music. After re-entering and sitting ourselves in the upper balcony of the venue we are told by the first musician, Lawrence English, that his music is better when felt through the body when lying down on the floor of the venue. We do as we’re told and lie on the floor for his performance while low synth drones are emitted from his laptop through guitar amplifiers. In my notes, I describe it as “some of the most unsettling music I’ve ever heard. The sound of the devil being summoned, of the gates of hell opening”. I feel as if the demons present in the music have transcended the enjoyable comic-book Devils in heavy metal and I’m now terrified as you would be in front of Beelzebub himself. The music tends to be made of simple drones that grow more intense throughout each movement while the treble frequencies are atonal noise. After the performance, I’m surprised when my friends describe the feeling as blissful and relaxing, an interpretation I can’t understand. It’s as if we all felt we were in the presence of a deity, but only I thought I saw horns.

Klara Lewis follows with her set of glitchy noise perfectly synced to visuals. Surprisingly, a few of my friends find this performance anxiety-inducing while I find it closer to relaxing (for avant-experimental electronica, at least). It’s an enjoyable performance at the time but leaves slightly less of an impression on the mind after.

It is better to burn than to disappear. ―Albert Camus

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Following her is the only artist I see at the festival who I would have previously described myself as a fan of, Grouper. This Oregon-based musician makes serene ambient music that makes you feel as if your spirit has detached from your body and is slowly travelling through deep forest. Grouper, real name Liz Harris, plays music made of very basic harmonies from guitar and voice that are layered in enough reverb to sound utterly otherworldly. Her Oregon home parallels Tasmania as a forest-filled, mountainous state. Images of leaves and water are projected onto the screen behind her. They are shown up close, seeming removed from the physical trees and lakes they form parts of, the way Grouper’s music seems removed from verses, choruses or songs. Her music even fills you with the same feeling of eternity as that of staring at a large body of water. Grouper’s set is hypnotically beautiful but also so quiet that you can irritatingly hear chatter throughout the venue. At one point, someone loudly shouts for everyone to “shut the fuck up” which receives more applause than she does at any point, to my irritation.

Following Grouper is Alessandro Cortini whose music comes across like a blend of post-rock and noise. His sound is one of glacial change: pretty arpeggios are slowly transformed into distorted monsters. The heavy synth drone rattles the upper landing we’re sitting on. The music might best be described as ear-bleeding ambient.

The next day is the last of the festival (which had been going on for two weeks). It ends with the procession through the town of a Tasmanian Tiger. The beast is filled with pieces of paper detailing people’s darkest fears. It is then set alight in a deeply ritualistic manner. A good amount of Hobart’s permanent residency, young and old, seems to be attending the event. At Dark Mofo, this inclusivity is as much a part of the art as the shock and the spectacle. The town itself is transformed as an artistic statement (however hollow some might see this as being). It brings to mind an artsy twist on New Orleans during Mardi Gras or Rio during Carnival.

Overall, Dark Mofo is a festival deserving of a pilgrimage. For better or worse, art has replaced the pagan gods that used to lurk behind the Winter festivals that Mofo imitates. Art is a similar beast: something that fascinates us, something we don’t understand, something we’re in awe of, something that we believe to have magical qualities and place too much faith in. Nonetheless, we’ve yet to start sacrificing anyone for its benefit or begun persecuting landscape painters for not adhering to the ‘one true art’ of conceptualism. Enjoy it while it lasts.

Visit Dark Mofo website there.

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