For more than a quarter of a century, South Australia proclaimed itself the “Festival State”. The Adelaide Festival of Arts and the Adelaide Writers’ Week both have strong pedigrees, and have set the bar for similar festivals around Australia. It appears that Tasmania is now taking its turn, with the increasingly popular Dark Mofo, kicking off on June 12, 2015.
Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, Perth and Darwin are all home to annual arts festivals, while Tasmania has its biannual Tasmanian International Arts Festival (Ten Days on the Island rebranded), Australia’s only state-wide international arts festival.
All the major capital cities now host annual writers’ festivals, with food, film and music festivals also flooding our calendars. The “Festival State” moniker is redundant; Australia is now the “Festival Country”.
With audiences already sated, a new festival has to serve something special if it’s going to attract an audience. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. If it’s good, people will come back for another helping.
In Hobart, people are already virtually queuing for their third helping of art collector and Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) owner David Walsh’s Dark Mofo, which coincides with the opening of MONA’s latest major exhibition, Marina Abramovic’s Private Archaeology.
Pre-sale tickets for two concerts featuring Antony and the Johnsons with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra sold out in just three hours. That’s a big change for Hobart. Likewise, pre-sale tickets for the five-night Winter Feast of food, fire and music were quickly snapped up, and several other events have already sold out.
The wintry sibling of MONA’s highly successful Mofo summer festival of music and art curated by Brian Ritchie, Dark Mofo, curated by Leigh Carmichael, has clearly struck a chord with Tasmanians, and increasingly with others.
Breathing life into the darker places
Over 11 days, from June 12 to the winter solstice climax on June 22, audiences will have the opportunity to see artists from around the world bringing some unlikely venues to life.
The biggest international acts include Antony and the Johnsons, American rock spiritualist King Dude, the American doom metal outfit Pallbearer, and the British indie art-pop collective The Irrepressibles, who will be performing at the historic Odeon Theatre.
Dark Mofo has each year enticed festival-goers into little-known venues and rarely visited parts of the city, and it again looks set to attract people in their thousands away from their cosy hearths and out into the wintry nights.
In St David’s Cathedral there is a midnight performance by Belgian cellist, composer, and singer Helen Gillet. The Rabble theatre company will offer a cosmic, theatrical take on Virginia Woolf’s Orlando at the Theatre Royal.
And the old Mercury building will be taken over by Patricia Piccinini and Peter Hennessey’s The Shadows Coming.
The allure of the disturbing
Dark Mofo Films includes the world premiere of Foxtel’s The Kettering Incident, shot entirely in Tasmania, alongside a line-up of Nordic darkness and two films by British director Ben Wheatley.
This year the usually inaccessible Macquarie Point harbour-front site will be unlocked and opened up to the public. The vast, industrial precinct, dubbed the Dark Park, is likely to be an attraction in itself.
But it will be brought to eerie life by two installations by the avant-garde artist Anthony McCall, the light show Solid Light Works, and the fire performance Landscape for Fire, and by Fire Organ, a massive structure created by Dutch chemo-acoustic engineer and sound artist Bastiaan Maris.
Nightly for 10 nights McCall’s Night Ship will sail up the Derwent River from Tinderbox to the city harbour, at regular intervals directing its powerful searchlight onto the shore. You will see it coming, and you will hear it coming.
The success of Dark Mofo is partly down to the way it pushes boundaries and offers people new experiences every year. It’s due in no small part to the brilliant vision of its Creative Director, Leigh Carmichael, supported, of course, by David Walsh, and both the State government and the Hobart City Council.
It is also due to its setting.
The gothic state
Hobart is Australia’s darkest capital city. Dark Mofo tunes in to the dark aesthetic borne of the state’s isolated geography and troubled colonial past.
It embraces the Tasmanian gothic that permeates the creative industries and is the cornerstone of our tourism industry — from Roger Scholes’s The Tale of Ruby Rose, to – of course – David Walsh’s MONA, to the Female Factories that bear witness to the horrors of our convict history.
Winter festivals are thick on the ground. Dark Mofo works where others are less successful not only because it adopts this aesthetic of darkness, but because of the way Hobart, the place and the people, adopts the event.
It’s not just that Leigh Carmichael has made great use of some unusual locations, but because the distance between them is never too great, and with so many people moving around the waterfront, the party atmosphere encompasses the whole area transforming it into one big de-facto art space.
This isn’t true of similar events in larger capital cities here or elsewhere. My experience of Paris’s celebrated all-night arts festival, Nuit Blanche, last October was that the festival fever fizzled during the lengthy treks between sets of curated installations.
The Nuit Blanche concept has been around for about three decades now, and it continues to gather pace. In 2013 Melbourne followed cities such as St Petersburg and Helsinki with a highly successful White Night event, which has run again both years since. And there are many other winter festivals around Australia.
By replacing the light with the dark, Carmichael and company have made Dark Mofo different.
As Leonard Cohen tells us, there is a crack in everything. In Hobart, that’s how the dark gets in, and it seems that’s what people want.
Dark Mofo runs from June 12 to 22. Details here.
Article published: 4 June 2015