For a fortnight in June last year, more than 270,000 people descended on Hobart. In restless packs they wandered the city, ate food, drank merrily and submitted themselves to varying iterations of art. The average temperature during this time? Eight degrees.
Such is the draw of Dark Mofo. Since launching in 2013, Mona’s annual winter festival has become a must-do on the calendar. Not just for Tasmanians, but anyone remotely interested in the festival’s “dark” offerings.
“Parents are subjecting their children to a demonic and satanic culture that existed in the Dark Ages. At what cost this unexplained confused weirdness?”
“We were all thrilled with that letter,” says Duckpond. It’s not exactly clear what Duckpond – yes, that’s his name – does at Dark Mofo, he says he mainly operates as a producer and all-round fixer for the festival. “You can’t make stuff like that up,” he says. “That kind of response is the essence of what we’re about.”
Duckpond is a ubiquitous sight at Dark Mofo. The “fixer” has been there since day one, and can be spotted – usually dressed in a distinctive tailor-made suit – almost everywhere, and at any time. You might see him in the crowd, behind the DJ decks, or fixing the tail on a giant, cosmic, inflatable rabbit costume.
Duckpond says Dark Mofo was inspired by the ancient pagan celebration of Saturnalia, sort of an upside-down version of Christmas. For a few days masters became slaves. The courts were closed. Sacrifices were offered, and a glorious banquet was held in the darkness of the winter solstice.
“It’s an anti-festival in a way,” he says. “While everyone’s chasing the sun in the northern hemisphere, we’re putting on a festival in the middle of winter in one of the most isolated cities in the world. It’s a tall order, but it works.”
All this weirdness didn’t come out of nowhere. Tasmania may be increasingly known for the diversity and quality of its local produce – which Dark Mofo celebrates at its outlandish Winter Feast – but it’s long been a dark place of “weirdness”, too.
Duckpond says even while Tasmania is attracting more and more people to the island, some small towns and buildings have fallen by the wayside. “A lot of previously prosperous places have diminished,” says Duckpond. “Colonial architecture, Masonic halls, prisons – a lot has been forgotten.”
Dark Mofo makes a virtue of this by activating a maze of under-utilised spaces across Hobart. The recent inclusion of Dark Park, for example, sees a vast, underused industrial space on the fringes of Hobart’s waterfront transformed into a night gallery of sculpture and installation art. Debuting in 2015, the precinct has quickly become one of the most popular attractions of the festival. And incongruous. Fear Eats the Soul, loomed the enormous neon sign of last year’s standout installation by artist, Michaela Gleave, even as families below cheerily ate hot jam doughnuts and posed for selfies.
This kind of dissonance between challenging art and feel-good festival has long been the festival’s modus operandi. Dark Mofo wants to make people think. The recent outrage over Hermann Nitsch’s scheduled 150.ACTION performance, which includes 500 litres of blood, nudity, meat and strong adult themes, is the latest in a line of confronting works.
“We’re not actually Satanists,” says Duckpond. “We don’t go about on the weekends slaughtering goats. We like to challenge perceived values, and take risks with material others wouldn’t touch. Everyone has different beliefs and ideas, and we’re interested in getting them out there.”
The annual Ogoh-ogoh ritual is one of them. Hailing from Indonesia, festival-goers are asked to scribble their darkest fears on a scrap of paper to be stuffed into the belly of the Ogoh-ogoh beast, made from wood, wire and paper. After a procession through Hobart streets, it’s burnt in a ball of fire during an ear-splitting assault of noise art, taiko drumming and performance. A package of fears, burnt to embers, discharged into the cold black sky.
They may not be Satanists, but personal exorcism is absolutely encouraged.
“Days, nights, parties and pulled-pork share-plates later, at 7am on the final morning of Dark Mofo, I stood in the rain at Long Beach, watching 670 people strip off their clothes and run shrieking into the icy waters of the Derwent River. And I, with my thermals, gloves, umbrella, phone, costume on, thinking about something I mashed into my phone at some point in the early hours: “It’s only too late if you don’t do it now.” Six-hundred-and-seventy fleshy people giddily hugged each other on the wet sand having gallantly crossed that line together, rudely reborn. Some ran to fires on the beach, others lolled in the water chatting to lifeguards sat on paddleboards in the drizzle. I thought back to the previous night’s ritualistic parading and burning of the Ogoh-ogoh at Dark Park, a creature stuffed with the hand-written fears of anyone of us seeking exorcism at Dark Mofo – this compulsory, compulsive ritual. I envied them all.”
Here’s how to get the most out of your trip into the shadows.
What To Bring
You don’t want to bring too much baggage, literal or metaphorical. Essentials: a warm coat, a beanie, a scarf, thick socks, Panadol and an open mind. You’ll need some sturdy and practical shoes, too, because you never know where you’ll end up.
This glorious gothic banquet, which attracts upwards of 10,000 people, is as much about the atmosphere as it is the huge array of food.
Celebrate the dawn of the winter solstice by wearing nothing but a swimming cap and running into the Derwent River with 1000 naked maniacs before sunrise.
A dark all-ages theme park on the industrial waterfront, housing warehouse installations, fire, fog, food and drink.
Where to stay
The Alabama Hotel
Run by two local artists, the Alabama Hotel opened in 2013 and offers a cool and cosy place to stay with 17 private and uniquely decorated twin rooms featuring original art, and vintage furniture pieces. The Alabama also houses the city’s only publicly accessible balcony terrace bar.
MACq 01 is a new four-and-a-half-star hotel on Hobart’s waterfront that eschews your standard fit-out for unique individual designs – each of the hotel’s 114 distinct rooms reflects and tells the story of an icon from Tasmania’s history.
Montacute Boutique Bunkhouse
Where to eat and drink
Where to play
Tasmania has always had extraordinary food and wine options. To take in the state’s best whisky, cider, beer and wine, try a Drink Tasmania tour. Book in for a day of tastings across the south of the state.
While you’re in town, taking a trip up nearby Kunanyi (aka Mount Wellington) is essential. The view over Hobart is unparalleled, and if you’re lucky, there’ll be enough ammunition to get into a snowball fight.
For a day trip drive to the Derwent Valley, see spectacular Russell Falls in flood at Mount Field National Park and fossick for antiques at New Norfolk on the way.