It’s early Saturday morning. In four hours I’m expected to be in a cold warehouse watching nude people strapped to wooden crosses have blood poured in their mouths. But I’ve been drinking cocktails around a massive worm in the Masonic temple and then dancing under a forest of lasers at the makeshift rave at City Hall. Now I’m lying on my bed listening to a helicopter sing at buildings as the sun rises. It is not right.
But if I’ve resolved anything from my first week at Dark Mofo – or any of this wonderful festival’s four iterations since it debuted in 2013 – it’s persist.
I see the nudes. They’re actors in 150.Action, a performance by Austrian artist Hermann Nitsch. The media-furore preceding 150.Action has decried its liberal use of slaughtered animals. Which has been excellent business for media-furores – more than 2500 people registered for the performance’s 1000 tickets. At one point organisers had to redistribute them following intel on protesters planning their own action.
A group do stand in silent protest at the entrance to the Dark Park warehouse where the performance takes place today, but none are here to prevent anything. No animals are slaughtered during 150.Action. The carcasses of six dead fish and a cow are used as symbolic props, but they’ve been supplied pre-slaughtered by traditional commercial dead-animal outlets. Perhaps the same ones supplying the professionally drained carcasses to the Winter Feast each night. Where there are no protesters. Who can say?
Nitsch is here, sitting at one end of the long white performance space in the centre of the room. But like the dead beasts and crowd craning to see, the hulking 78-year-old Austrian is mute witness to the events that unfold over the next three hours. As the moans of a loitering brass band mingle with a droning organ, 30 or so white-clad performers slowly begin to construct sequences of his action.
What follows is roughly: naked men and women bound to crosses have jugs of blood and milk poured into their mouths; a cow carcass is hoisted onto a wooden frame and has its intestines disentangled; scenes of mock religious iconography – blood-stained figures on a crucifix against the splayed angel-like wings of meat – are carted around the space on a large wooden frame; and finally, the carcass is placed on the ground and filled with fruit and blood, for the performers to leap on, in and out of the mess until exhausted.
Sounds and looks obscene. But in person the gore is quiet and secondary to the painstaking marvel 150.Action is to see unfold. With directors consulting manuals and constantly communicating orders to actors – some of who have travelled internationally on their own ticket to participate – it’s more intense, ritualistic play than bloodfest. Though there is a lot of blood. Constantly poured from jugs, it eventually leaks off the performance space and trickles through the feet of the crowd. Beyond a few curled lips, no one seems to mind.
In conversation the next day at Federation Concert Hall, Nitsch explains via translator and halting English that his “action paintings” are only as strong as his volunteer performers. “I rehearse with my actors for three or four weeks beforehand,” he says. "It's important to see how much they want to work. They need to feel what's going on, so [it becomes] a release.” When asked about the protests Nitsch is blasé. “Many people are sad and many are not,” he says. “Blood is in my work. You must be able to smell it and taste it and see the colours. If you don't want to see my work, don't go.”
Scenes from 150.Action will stay with me for a long time. But they won’t dislodge the effect Einstürzende Neubauten had on me the night prior. Playing at The Odeon, the legendary German experimental outfit only rattled off one of the most beautiful and profound sets of music I’ve ever seen.
Homemade industrial instruments are still the backbone of the nearly 40-year-old collective – the brightly lit stage looked like a used car parts dealership, with sheets of metal, an upturned hot water unit, drills, springs, air compressors and plastic tubing. At one point Jochen Arbeit played his guitar with a chrome dildo. Frontman Blixa Bargeld, in a sparkly black three-piece suit, told us they were bummed they couldn’t bring their jet engine to Hobart. At the climax of a brooding Unvollständigkeit, percussionist N. U. Unruh climbed up a ladder and sent a garbage bin of metal rods crashing onto the floor.
But it’s all in servitude to the band’s dramatic, tense, and incredibly sexy songs, anchored by Alexander Hacke’s sultry basslines and Bargeld’s croons, shrieks and cool charisma. A towering How Did I Die? closed the main set, and they returned for several rabid encores, finishing with elegant slow-burner Redukt. “When you die,” says Bargeld through the final applause, “if you meet your creator, at least you can say you saw their favourite band.”
I like Dark Mofo. It’s good. Fun. You should go. You’ve probably seen pictures. See any from Welcome Stranger? Would have been hard to tell what was going on.
The late-night party replacement of previous years’ Blacklist and Dark Faux Mo, Welcome Stranger tied together three separate venues in the CBD, stuffing them with bands, films, installations, drinks, food and weird shit over three nights. Someone told me they didn’t think it was that special. They must know of other venues with giant slot-car racing tracks, ad hoc-karaoke booths and Pussy Riot playing casual DJ sets; be familiar with seven-piece Thai bands wearing orange smocks and ripping through psychedelic wedding-band sets; rooms of pillowy beds and palm fronds wrapped in fairy-lights, which when viewed through special glasses turned each light into a glimmering love heart; “bass baths” of big black speakers blasting intense sub-frequencies through prone punters. Of Masonic temples hosting inflatable worms under projected galaxies in shadowy ceremonial rooms. Of a Royal Tennis club repurposed into a UV-lit performance space, clubhouse party and ice-cream-truck disco. Tell me of these places. At once.
Welcome Stranger was this and more, a dense funhouse where no two people have the same experience. If you paired it with Red Bull Music Academy’s Transliminal (included in the ticket to Welcome Stranger), the throbbing dance club cloaked in giant black curtains and lasers down at City Hall, you could find yourself unfastening with the intoxicating rush of free will. This kind of personal discovery has always been key to Dark Mofo’s Blacklist and Dark Faux Mo parties. But with last year’s Blacklist struggling to balance both dance floor and experiential offerings, this year’s reboot was welcome. Static states are anathema to Dark Mofo.
So much more, too. A screening of a new documentary on political provocateurs Pussy Riot, Act and Punishment, was an unhinged mess, but at least captured a moment when art gained a velocity well beyond arts festivals. Norwegian experimental prog-rock-electro band Ulver were a guilty po-faced pleasure at their own show at The Odeon, but out-of-depth when paired with the firepower of the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra a few nights later for Messe IX-VI.X. MONA's sprawling new exhibition The Museum of Everything is an endless rabbit warren of "non-academic", folk-art pieces that veer between stunning and impenetrable and will take several return trips to absorb. And as Dark Mofo wound down, US art-rock trio Xiu Xiu played "the music of Twin Peaks" in a set that aligned the band's eccentricities with the world of David Lynch, without ever compromising either universe. I didn't see Nat Randall perform The Second Woman, a twenty-four-hour performance in which the Sydney artist invited one hundred men to star opposite her in a scene adapted from John Cassavetes’ film, Opening Night, but every single damn person I spoke to who saw it said it was the best thing at the festival.
All this becomes a single woozy organism over several days. Memories of a song fuse with a dancefloor conversation about an artwork someone grappled with over drinks. On Sunday night we watched the helicopter at the heart of Siren Song mosey through the pink sky above the harbour like a cautious bird, pausing every so often to dip its nose and pirouette gracefully. Pilot Roger Corbin did time as a stunt-pilot on Mission Impossible y’know. As the 400 speakers on the city towers behind us sang out in sympathy, the helicopter replied a hurt response, as if to concede a goodbye. When it took off into the growing dark, the crowd on the harbour broke into applause at the spell lifting.
I’ve been to all five of these things now. Returning to see how they keep the spells coming. Pretty lucky. Since I got back from this one people have been saying all the same things to me. “Coffee?” “Why can't you commit?” “I got an invite to Lily’s treehouse party.” “Miss you.” “Was it good?” Yes. And just when you acclimatise it slips away again. Dark Mofo makes the world a bit wider.
Broadsheet is a proud media partner of Dark Mofo. Read about the black magic here.
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