Halfway through the Marina Abramović road-trip documentary, The Space In Between – which had its Australian premiere at Mona in Hobart last week – the Serbian performance artist stands by the side of a road in rural Brazil holding a garlic and an onion. Already we’ve seen her witness gruesome surgeries by a faith healer (including a scene involving a man having his eyeball squeezed and scraped with a knife) and participate in cultish local dances. Later she’ll strip naked in a forest and take ayahuasca, all in a search for meaning that occupies the divide and overlap between ritual and performance.
But here on the roadside she removes the garlic and onion from a plastic ziplock bag. She chews up a whole clove, then bites into the onion. This one’s not a performance. It’s an uncharacteristically revealing demonstration of how she tries to stay healthy when travelling the world: by routinely forcing herself to absorb a couple of nature’s humble extremes. She nearly chokes as it goes down, but she laughs as she winces.
I like to think regularly visiting Mona and its festivals does something similar – a reliable tour of innocuous playthings that both trouble and please long after the lights go down. On the ferry over there, a woman sitting beside me in the Posh Pit embodies it – quaffing her bubbles and hors d'oeuvres, she turns to her friend: “I really should be sorting my life out.” Mona is good, at least, at inviting you to think about what kind of life you have to sort.
At least when not dilating your pupils in hilariously extreme fashion. That’s what happens in the incredible strobing domed cocoon of new Mona installation, Unseen Seen, by American artist James Turrell. It’s a centrepiece of Pharos, the incredible new wing at David Walsh’s museum. Having only had a soft launch back in December, this deliriously ambitious new section of the gallery felt like the real headliner of this year’s Mofo.
Jutting out over the Derwent, Pharos houses four major works by Turrell, along with a quiver of eye-popping installations that feel either contemplative or brutally orgiastic. These include a crude metal “thrashing machine” from Jean Tinguely that judders like armour being shredded; Richard Wilson’s unnerving 20:50, which floods a room with sump oil; and a silvery coral-like grotto by Randy Polumbo replete with jubilant glass dildos. There’s also a stunning new light-drenched bar, Faro Tapas, which offers both intimate views of the river and – as the official literature goes – a place to finally let people sit down at Mona.
I was enamoured with all of it. Back up on green grass, the museum’s grounds whirred to life for the genteel garden party summer Mofo reliably promises – at least until next year, when the festival moves to Launceston, up north, for good. Early highlights included a dozy stint in the Unconscious Collective's Hypnapod installation of cosy pink hammocks that synch to your heartbeat; The Green Brain Cycle, a nutty, 20-part keyboard improvisation by pianist Kieran Harvey in collaboration with poet Arjun von Caemmerer and artist Brigita Ozolinswill, in a room of leaves, gold beanbags and a giant green orb; Argentian folk trio Femina playing a blend of traditional instruments while singing and not-quite-rapping; the airy nu-soul of Jamila Woods; and a woman who offered me helium-filled taffy sprinkled with red sugar. It was only afterwards I noticed above her head on the roof the goopy stalactites of taffy balloons diners hadn’t been quick enough to catch off the helium tank’s nozzle.
Godspeed You! Black Emperor finally ushered away the summery show, blossoming in strength across their hour and a half-long headline timeslot on Friday night. The juxtaposition of the Canadian post-rock band’s apocalyptic imagery of riots and aeroplanes in death spirals initially struck as unfairly comedic against the surrounding crowd resting on pink bean bags and $18 pad thai. But as the dark crept across the Derwent, so too did the sextet’s grim power, cresting in the furious late-set crescendos of Blaise Bailey Finnegan III and Sleep. Their music (and cinematic visuals) might blister and bluster on mankind’s failings, but Godspeed’s heft comes from managing to unearth and preserve at least a nugget of hope.
That heady set could have sent you to bed cowering under the covers were it not for the promise of festival after-party Faux Mo somewhere out there. This year it ditched the rabbit warren vibes of previous spaces for an all-in-this-together party at the Mac 1 shed on Hobart’s wharf. It made for a unified gathering that slowly ramped into a late-night, all-out rave, but compared to the grotty labyrinths of Faux Mo’s past, it lacked an element of surprise and self-discovery.
At least until a moment near 1am when a cruise ship appeared out of the gloom alongside the waterside drinking section, rainbow flags fluttering from its top deck. There, standing on its bow, a spotlit Paul Capsis sparkled in a glittery suit. The cabaret maven belted out a number through loudspeakers to the befuddled onlookers, before the boat just reversed and disappeared back into the night. Did you see it? Where you there? Did you hear about the choir? They were just after the punk band and drag queens singing Marilyn Manson at half-speed? At its best Mofo can be like this: trying to explain a dream.
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