I’m standing in a field on Bruny Island, Tasmania. It’s 4am on a Monday morning. The moon is high and clear, casting a halo through the mist. Maybe 200 of us stand quietly on a slope, facing an assignment of 70 empty chairs arranged in a grid. Eventually, the voice of artist Mike Parr drifts into earshot. “One, two, three, four, one, two, three, four” it barks through a tinny megaphone. Parr soon materialises in the dark distance, leading a parade of figures dangling torches. Dressed in striped pyjamas and dressing gowns, the gang of uniformly senior performers takes its place on the chairs and begins striking quartz rocks. Parr stands watch. For the next 45 minutes, that’s about it. The rocks clanking. The ocean. Us standing in the quiet cold trying to stay awake long enough to figure it out.
The next night in a bar someone tells me the Parr work, Empty Ocean, is a meditation on ageing. At the time it felt arduous. A challenge, and maybe a waste of time. Even worse, a waste of the precious hours between 1am and 5am when our bodies should be recuperating. In part, I’m told, that’s the point; it’s an early invitation to sample the dozy fugue that lies in wait for us as we age. Should this new information matter? Is a performance as successful without context? There sure was beauty in being in a moonlit field on Bruny Island at 4am watching flinting sparks in the dark. And each time I tell someone what happened I notice my story gets longer and more impressive. Dark Mofo is here again and that means so am I.
I was lucky to make it to Bruny Island. On the flight to Hobart Saturday morning, a dormant head cold blossomed into an earache so intense I couldn’t hear out of my left ear. (This year’s festival theme is “silence”, but c’mon.) It meant I lasted three songs of celestial Scottish noise-wringers Mogwai that night before cabbing to a chemist for relief, missing Gold Class at the Odeon and DJ Harvey at the Red Bull Academy Transliminal rave party in City Hall. So far, so mofo’n dark.
While potential hearing damage at Mofo is near calamitous, it’s not everything. “I’m travelling in spaaaace,” yells a little kid next to me out at Dark Park on Sunday night. We’re at the Macquarie Point precinct gawking up at iy_project, a large-scale outdoor collaboration from Chris Levine, Marco Perry and Massive Attack’s Robert Del Naja. It’s a Kubrick-ian structure using lasers to shoot out triangular motifs, waves and other light trickery through fog to electronic flutters and drones. It’s a graceful thing. Not the fire-blasting primitivity seen on the same site last year, but a more intimate meditation.
That’s true of most of the artworks of Dark Park this year. With the exception of a fog-filled shed shrouding several upturned cars and the bellowing guitar-distortion of Marco Fusinato and local cult-metal hero Striborg (a first-weekend performance only), the collection is light on awe. There’s also just less work on display, lending the space a timidity that almost feels antithetical to Dark Park of previous years.
In one shed, Daniel Boyd’s Hello Darkness is touted as “a body of multimedia work that smashes the racist lens of Australian history.” Presumably that’s a concession the pointillist, abstract Indigenous characters that form part of his work, but in practice it’s several rooms of pretty coloured lights people stand in front of to take selfies. At least the absence in Alfredo Jaar’s short film The Sound of Silence is profound. Viewers are led to a big silver box inside a large empty warehouse where a theatrette shows Jaar’s eight-minute movie. The text-based piece employs silence as a tool to tamp down the emotional content until it erupts in a flash. There’s a wait to get in but this one’s worth it to leave a little altered.
Roger Corbin started learning how to fly planes when he was 15. He eventually shifted to helicopters and rescue work, including stints in Burma, Sydney and New Zealand. He even worked with Tom Cruise on Mission Impossible for sixth months. Corbin tells me all this on the tarmac of Rotor-Lift, his helicopter business based at Hobart Airport. The managing director and pilot is a behind-the-scenes performer in Siren Song, one of this year’s best experiential offerings.
A collaboration between artists Hannah Fox and Thomas Supple (ie: Supple Fox) and sound artist Byron J Scullin – and, by default, Corbin – Siren Song is a sound installation occurring each day of Dark Mofo. At sunrise and sunset, 400 loudspeakers affixed to rooftops around the Hobart CBD amplify the droning, modified voices of singers Carolyn Connors, Deborah Cheetham and Tanya Tagaq. Two loudspeakers are also attached to one of Corbin’s helicopters. “They used to be on the Civil Defence helicopter in Japan,” he tells me Monday evening as he prepares to take Fox on her debut flight. “They had them on the side for doing announcements – earthquakes, tsunami warnings, things like that. Now we use it to make noise.”
When Corbin arrives in town each morning and night, Scullin remotely controls the audio connected to an enormous amp installed in the helicopter. Fox directs Corbin’s flight path from the ground. In the evening crowds have been gathering on the harbour to watch. “I come in low over the water then rise to a thousand feet above the city,” says Corbin. “I circle a few times and then see the sunset go behind the mountains. I can see people’s faces and them pointing up at me. It's great."
“You got a round of applause the other day,” says Fox. “People have started to come and watch me talking on the radio. ‘Look at the crazy lady who thinks she’s controlling the helicopter’.”
Performing Siren Song is similar to an idea Corbin has toyed with before. As well as relief from his weekly tasks of winching out stranded bushwalkers and capsized seafarers. “I’d like to dress up the helicopter for Christmas,” he says. “We could play carols from the speakers and run lights along the landing rails so it looked like a sleigh in the sky. It’s all good fun. It’s good to do something different.”
Tonight will be the first time Fox experiences Siren Song from the air. After safety checks, Corbin straps her in and starts the engine. They gracefully lift off into the darkening rose sky to spook the city. On their return flight, Fox says, they chatted mostly about what pasta Corbin might have for dinner.
A two-and-a-half-hour drive up through the midlands on Tuesday evening puts us in Launceston for the first night of The Crossing. Over six nights during Mofo, The Crossing will see theremin player Miles Brown and organist JP Shilo play small regional churches dotted through the heart of Tasmania, inviting people to “worship at altars of sound, light and olfactory art.” Judging from the mist-filled annexe of Launceston’s Pilgrim Uniting Church, the smell of art is aniseed.
There’s been some local grumblings about The Crossing’s reappropriation of houses of worship – Brown has been labelled a Satanist in some corners of YouTube, much to his probable delight – resulting in two of the venues being shifted. Tonight there’s no angry villagers in the building. If there were they might well have read Brown and Shilo’s gorgeously lit performance of goth-tinged, spectral electro as moving tribute to the hallowed space. I did. After an intermission, special guests Danielle de Picciotto and Alexander Hacke from band Einstürzende Neubauten play a set of primal, medieval-style thumps and groans at the opposite end of the cathedral. They have their moments, but after Brown’s ethereal theremin, it’s a heavy kind of comedown.
On the long drive through the midlands back to Hobart in the early hours we pass by vast fog-filled valleys illuminated by the moon. It’s late, the stereo doesn’t work, and there’s still so much to do. With the Red Bull Academy Transliminal party returning this coming weekend, the Winter Feast, as well as the Welcome Stranger event promising “an intimate, travelling, temporary community of late-night live music, optional sports and non-optional art,” there is but one directive left: get healthy for hedonism.
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