Buildings dressed in blood red lighting; hipsters running around a rocky, pitch-black industrial playground ducking in and out of old warehouses with a hot toddy in hand; inverted polly waffles cooked over campfires and handed out to shamelessly salivating foodies; a single helicopter performing impressive choreography over Hobart’s spectacular waterfront while being blasted by an atmospheric and densely layered siren song; a legendary German band creating thick soundscapes with home-made instruments in one of the country’s coolest live music venues. This was – is – a tiny slice of Dark Mofo, now one of the most in-demand art festivals in the country – certainly the most unique – and I tried desperately to soak it up all during the two nights down in Hobart this year.
I ferried in on P&O’s debut Dark Mofo cruise (on Pacific Jewel) from Sydney during the second weekend of the festival, eager to experience what I haven’t been able to get out of my head since first heading down in 2015. This is a festival that sticks with you, haunts you, presents you with something you’ve never experienced before, exposing you to an untapped source of inspiration that just wouldn’t be possible in a city like Sydney – where it would be met with red tape instead of red light. It’s also a nice chance to explore Hobart, a city that’s increasingly becoming one of the country’s most interesting destinations.
Dark Mofo seems like one of those festivals that you need to take a holistic approach to; a 13-day event unconcerned with rules and timetables, refusing to hold your hand and guide you through the many happenings across art, music and food that hang off the edges of convention – rather leaving the exploration up to you, laughing as you swap stories with those who have had vastly different experiences of the whole thing, speaking to just how dynamic it is. There’s plenty that you could miss out on if you only breeze through it, demanding that you really immerse yourself in what David Walsh envisioned when he first started this ritualistic winter solstice festival, built around the longest night in the country’s calendar year.
With only two days, I tried to navigate as much as I could without darting from event to event, practicing a bit of restraint despite a need to truly sink my teeth into the fantastic program Dark Mofo had put together for this year. This is by no means a comprehensive recount of just how wonderfully diverse this festival was, but here’s a snapshot of what went down over it’s second and final weekend.
Taking over Princes Wharf 1 for a total of seven nights during the festival, Winter Feast remains one of the most recognisable and accessible elements of Dark Mofo. It’s a night market if you want to paint a less inspired picture, but really it’s so much more than that; an intoxicating (in more ways than one) medieval-inspired community feast with longer-than-long tables streaking from one end of the high-ceiling space to the other. Candles battle against an eery blood red glow that illuminates dozens upon dozens of hanging crosses – the festival’s most salient motif – while a band squeezes into a small alcove perched above a pop-up Asahi bar.
Okay maybe the more soulful textures that the band threw out on the nights I attended were kind of jarring to the atmosphere – as a means of comparison, two years ago the band played folksy Games of Thrones-esque jingles which, as you could imagine, sounded especially ominous when you’re enveloped in red lighting – but all the chit-chatter in the air was louder anyway. Aside from that niggling oversight, Winter Feast once again nailed its status as one of the most – probably the most – unique and exceptionally detailed food and drink events in the country.
Organisation was on point too. Yeah it was a bit frustrating waddling around given how incredibly busy it was – especially inside – but once you set your sights on a dish it’d be in your hands within a matter of minutes. Queues and shortened supply are often the main concerns with events like these; Winter Feast had no such logistical nightmares.
I’ll rewind to the entrance; the ostentatious gates with pillars of fire shooting up in a pattern, set against an enormous glowing red sign reading “DARK MOFO”. It’s a spectacular introduction to quite possibly the most dizzying array of food you’ve ever laid your eyes upon, showcasing just about every inch possible of Tasmania’s famously abundant produce and the vendors who use it so well. There were also a few guest chefs from the mainland, like Fred’s talented Danielle Alvarez who was doing up home-style plates of slow-roasted crispy-skin hogget with servings of wood-grilled potatoes slathered in wakame butter and chimichurri ($20 very, very well spent), or chefs from Sydney institution Chat Thai, collaborating with Matthew Evans and his popular Fat Pig Farm. Both were guests of the area that dominated the busy outside area, which was the most substantial improvement from my visit in 2015; this was of course alongside locals serving up everything from German-style pizza and Okonomiyaki to beef brisket and the absolutely divine campfire inverted polly waffle. The latter was a dessert cooked over fire, featuring toasted marshmallows sitting on an eclair that was full of creamy chocolate mousse, courtesy of the one and only Alistair Wise of Hobart’s famous Sweet Envy.
Of course Bruny Island Cheese Co. boasted one of the most popular stands inside, unsurprisingly attracting the masses with their menu that featured the likes of fondue and mac ‘n’ cheese, both given a kick-up with Tasmanian truffles. Then you had the muscle of hot gin punch with star anise from double-gold-winner Poltergeist, $2 freshly-shucked oysters from Get Shucked, mulled ginger beer spiked with vodka from Henry’s Ginger Beer, slow-cooked bulgogi beef rolls from Shoebox Cafe, and donuts from Lady Hester – my favourite flavour: chocolate, fennel seed and salted caramel.
Gone are the artists dressed as life-sized carrion crows running around scaring diners – perhaps it was too much for children – but that doesn’t mean much when you’re devouring an enormous Chinese-style pancake and washing it down with a mulled cider. Simply put: Winter Feast is rightfully one of Dark Mofo’s biggest draw-cards, and multiple visits are a must.
Think of Dark Park is an pop-up open-air museum set in and around old warehouses with patches of darkness and paths of intense red lights in between. If you’re from Sydney, think of it as the anti-Vivid – patient, frugal and ambitious all at the same time, replacing hyper-bright candy-coloured projections and rapid succession with sparseness and freedom. There were very few supervisors carefully micromanaging the calm crowds of people as they stumbled over rocky, barely visible ground; there were no protective barriers separating us from the barrels of fire which protected us from the cold. This enormous industrial wasteland felt like a post-apocalyptic playground, filled with oddities, lit by lasers and given meaning by various artists working with various expressions.
The furthermost warehouse contained “iy_project 136.1 Hz”, a large-scale work of lasers and religious undertones by legendary UK-based light artist Chris Levine, scored by muffled rave-like bass and hypnotic chants. Meticulous construction focuses on precise angles and, as Levine himself regularly puts it, “sacred geometry”. It’s a companion piece to the outdoor “iy_project”, an iteration of an ongoing work which also includes Robert Del Naja of Massive Attack; this one was even more spectacular, taken out of the confines on a dusty old warehouse and unleashed upon the night sky, with ambient music echoing across Hobart’s waterfront. Step into the the centre of the laser show and you’d feel like Tron, trapped in a make-believe cage of high-powered interlocking lasers.
The longest queue was reserved for “Sound of Silence” by Alfredo Jaar, a confronting, wordless expression on photojournalist Kevin Carter, the man behind the iconic and devastating “the vulture and the little girl” image. The second longest queue was found at the pop-up bar from Talisker Whisky, in which the ever-dapper Sean Baxter was leading free whisky appreciation classes while nearby people sipped on cups of hot toddies and other whisky concoctions.
The bar reserved the biggest space in the Park, a long stretchy warehouse with the other end occupied by this year’s ogoh-ogoh, the illogically feared Tasmanian Devil. Displayed in an idolatrous fashion, the impressive replica of the native creature welcomed people’s written fears and regrets, all of which were to be thrown under the effigy which was to be, on the festival’s final day, marched through the streets of Hobart and set alight and turned into ash. This of course was called “The Purging”.
Dark Mofo puts the majority of music festival’s to shame with their openness and range when it comes to their program of live acts each year. For 2017 everyone from Pussy Riot and A.B Original to Nai Palm and Le1f would be down, but one of the most interesting appearances on the list was 80s German band Einstürzende Neubauten. Playing a one-off show at the Odeon Theatre, the band fronted by slick-haired eccentric Blixa Bargeld put on a complex and perplexing performance defined by various hand-made instruments. The result was ambitious, throwing many different textures together in one big pot and making it sound coherent, a feat you don’t often see musicians pull off even half as well.
A six-hour party of art and live music with absolutely no direction, encouraging spontaneity and self-sufficiency? Sure. Welcome Stranger may have been a confusing disappointment for some, and it may have been one of the greatest nights of all time for others, it all really depended on your sense of timing as you’d bounce between four Hobart venues, from just a regular RSL to an underground tennis court to a Freemason lodge. No set times were displayed and artists would perform multiple times throughout the night, touting various experiences like a Pussy Riot DJ set with free balaclavas and a ska-like dance-off in an ambient yellow room by Khun Narin, or a spasmodic rhyme-fest by New York emcee Le1f in a blue-lit congregation church. Elsewhere contemporary dancer Amrita Hepi occupied the top floor of a Masonic church with a thick serpentine monstrosity that reflected an entire galaxy while downstairs people sat around a projector hypnotised by moving imagery.
“Spend at least 1.5 hours in each zone” read a pamphlet given to you and your designated meeting point at the beginning of the party. Those who chose to ignore would end up missing most of the above and relying on just being in the right place at the right time, but those who patiently moved through to multi-venue party were rewarded with a multitude of performance, both entertaining and provocative.
The Red Bull Music Academy is a perfect fit for Dark Mofo’s aesthetic, skirting on the edges of art, music and film constantly on a global scale. Of course they’d return to the Winter solstice festival, after successful entries in previous years which has included bringing down Japanese artist Yamantaka Eye for an ambitious audio experiment. For 2017, RMA took over the enormous City Hall for a “transcendental warehouse rave”, an epic all-or-nothing immersive club night that was stretched over both of the festival’s weekend. Banging on until 5am, each night of Transliminal carved a sweet spot for the more party-minded festival-goers to freely express themselves, hosting a large dancefloor that was contained by blood red laser installations designed by Robin Fox, cage-like and disorientating installations which would change throughout the night as the DJ booth switched between the like of DJ Harvey and Juliana Huxtable, all of whom kept the pace locked in with deep bass and sharp, forward-thinking electronica.
The writer traveled to Hobart as a guest of Dark Mofo and P&O Cruises, who are setting sail for the festival once again next year. More details can be found HERE.
Feature image: Dark Mofo/Lusy Productions, 2017.