“I hear The Odeon 11.15pm-1am is good,” read the text from a friend during my second Saturday night at Dark Mofo. “Dunno why.”
The reasons why people like coming to Dark Mofo are evident in this text:
- Midnight is a perfectly reasonable time for something good to happen.
- But it can’t be confirmed.
- Nor what will happen.
- So we should go.
I went and stood on the floor of the Odeon Theatre at 11.15pm. Soon a procession of po-faced performers in glitter bodysuits snaked through the crowd handing out paper bags, which we were instructed to put over our heads and make eyeholes. They then clambered on stage and began inflating three enormous balloons, which wobbled into the boundaries of the performance space, the surreal scene soundtracked by belly-churning sub-bass frequencies. Finally the balloons popped, another two dozen people dressed like silver condoms swarmed on stage with a cascade of white balloons, and we all began hopping up and down to minimal techno.
“Good,” then. This was the kind of trip I’d been missing from Dark Mofo’s Night Mass after-party. (Thanks Discordia.) The previous weekend’s hijinks had included a nude performer bouncing on a rubber dinghy drenching herself in milk, an adjacent room featuring live vagina painting and some kind of bare-flesh karaoke situation. It had also hosted a fine array of gigs at one of the four main venues that made up Night Mass. But first you had to get in.
Bang Bang Bar, Night Mass
Night Mass was a congregation of queues, often so long that once inside one of the four main venues – the thoroughly realised Twin Peaks-themed Bang Bang Bar, graceful faithful the Odeon Theatre, long-running loose club The Grand Poobah, and a dilapidated underground cinema and sweaty club space – you dare not exit for fear of the 45-minute wait to see what’s happening in another. The festival’s series of after-parties is rightly considered one of its main attractions – its inviting labyrinthian shadows where the program’s inherent tensions can be released. Last year it appeared as Welcome Stranger, a rabbit warren of weird spread over three distinct city precincts, each with singular personalities. But this year’s expanded capacity caused long lines in the cold and stripped the feeling of ownership it’s always been so cunning at granting. Saying that something at Dark Mofo didn’t work that well is still saying it’s better than nearly anything else. But “sobering” is not a word familiar to its siren call.
In a festival built from the ground up on outré acts, maybe the oddest name on the bill this year was ... Tim Minchin? After a debauched week of fire, basement clubbing, gruff German industrial bands and artisanal doughnuts, it was almost shocking to watch a pro purr through his paces.
The comedian, composer and lyricist is in a funny spot, having recently returned to Australia following years working on a big-budget Hollywood animated feature only to have it canned before completion. On Monday night in the Odeon he riffed on that ejection and personal rejection with new tunes that seemed to genuinely connect with the subsequent trauma. Minchin's expletive-laden takedown of Cardinal Pell, Pope Song, got a rise, but if anything provoked it was his masterful piano playing, the American accent that appears when he sings and an anecdote about David Walsh helping fund Minchin’s musical Groundhog Day, which flamed out on Broadway and lost Walsh money. “So when he asked me to play here,” joked Minchin, “I said: Yes boss.”
There's so much on the program at Dark Mofo it can feel purposely designed to instil a perpetual anxiety: even when you’re at a gig, show, drinks, boat cruise, you’re undoubtedly missing out on something else. The festival’s distinctive crimson-red logo begins to stain your vision. Awnings, flags, spotlights, people’s clothing, ship lights in the harbour, even the ribbon of car tail lights down Macquarie Street, all begin to seem part of the festival’s branding. Bunnings must do a roaring trade on red globes through May. Outside my hotel room door, red cellophane was sticky taped over a single down light. None of the others in the hall, just the one. I took this as liberation – that after a week with my back on the mat, I remained open for business.
Highlights before the final weekend swung back to the top of the Faraway Tree included Journey to Freedom at TMAG, a collaborative rumination on imprisonment and its psychological weight, led by Sam Wallman's clever cartoons that balanced melancholy with education; an underground screening of Terror Nullius, the punk Australian film mash-up by art duo Soda Jerk, which, in one delicious section, recasts Nicole Kidman’s character in BMX Bandits as part of the gang assaulting Mel Gibson’s Mad Max; and The Pink Palace, a collection of four mixed-media artworks stemming from interaction with Risdon Prison inmates and how “time moves differently on the inside”. Presented in an icy deserted building once housing a Bob Jane T-Mart, its subtle side effect was thinking about how on the outside I still need to go to work every day.
Brief days and long nights blend and the constellation of treats merge. New York-based composer Charlemagne Palestine is in his seventies. On Friday afternoon, as the grey light eking through the grand windows of the town hall darkened, the eccentric played a piano draped in colourful rags, before pushing the room’s resident pipe organ – circa late 1800s – into actions for which it was never intended, in a set that began mournful and melancholy before devolving into thunderous mashes of notes.
Nobody, ie. American Willis Earl Beal, who presents as a wilfully obscure performer, appeared as a masked silhouette at the Avalon Theatre to rasp through blue light over tunes he played off an iPod nano. Beal’s abrasive onstage demeanour seemed to be shooting for something befitting his outsider status, but scanned as contrived. When a standard gig at Dark Mofo is a guy hunched over six of the late Lou Reed’s squalling guitars for days on end creating a wall of droning feedback (for a lazy 110 hours total across the whole festival), some personas get cast a little cartoonish. So it was for Zola Jesus and Alice Glass, who tag-teamed for a night of gothic-pop in The Odeon that was fun, but in the context of the event removed their character's moody fangs.
The last night of Dark Mofo finished as you’d imagine it might: eating the most incredible sushi, homemade wasabi and miso I’ve ever tasted in my life, from sushi master Masaaki Koyama’s stall at the Winter Feast, jumping a taxi to two gorgeous orchestral movements from avant-garde NYC composer William Basinski’s career-defining The Disintegration Loops – introduced by the man himself – before a run across town to slide under the spell of Chrysta Bell. A muse of David Lynch (she plays FBI Agent Tammy Preston in Twin Peaks: The Return), Bell and her backing trio of severe-looking, sharp-cheek-boned dudes pulled off the trick of making the Avalon feel like standing in the Bang Bang Bar of the TV series – a motley assortment of glaze-eyed loners watching a hypnotic and eerily tough set of songs of sex, love and longing, sung by a slinky alien beauty and fair wondering what it’s all about.
The nail came when Bell finished and Rebekah Del Rio appeared on stage to close the festival. She whispered “silencio” twice then belted out Llorando a cappella to a silent room, just like she does in Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. I can see how this lip service to Twin Peaks might seem mawkish on paper. (Hobart band Bi-Hour even joked about such a thing happening well before it was announced.) But in the moment it was transcendental, making that romantic, unsettling universe of Lynch’s feel parallel for a moment. Dark Mofo (and its behind-the-scenes team of star producers, designers, curators, creators, builders and other people wearing black hoodies) doesn’t just allow this, but seems to effortlessly wave its wand and create it for us every June.
In the bar of Hadley’s Orient Hotel after the show, William Basinski plopped down on the couch next to me and told me about the lemon myrtle trees in the backyard of the house he’d just bought in LA. His pool cleaner was putting two kids through university. He loved it here but he couldn’t wait to get home and dive in. Chrysta Bell’s band showed up – tonight was Basinski’s birthday. It was mine too and we hugged. Another round of Negronis then and – bing bong, time to wake up.
Dark Mofo remains Australia’s best festival, and there’s nothing close. But it’s at a turning point. Creative director Leigh Carmichael told the ABC, "We may have reached the limit of what our venues can cope with," and that felt true on the ground. Box office has nearly tripled in last three years, from $1.2 million to $3.3 million. Dark Park alone this year drew a staggering 98,000 people, but with the loss of its central cold store building, thanks to Macquarie Park’s slow redevelopment, featured only three artworks.
Six years in, the festival’s hard-won allure is now a problem to solve in 2019. Because now everyone knows – midnight is a perfectly reasonable time for something good to happen. But it can’t be confirmed. Nor what will happen. So we should go.
Marcus Teague travelled to Dark Mofo as a guest of the festival and Tourism Tasmania