“There were 150 men and 150 women naked on stage at a secret location,” said DJ Dave across the table at the Winter Feast. “It was basically a big orgy.”
I spooned more salted caramel crème brûlée pavlova into my mouth. Dave’s rumour sounded like the kind of thing Dark Mofo just might do. And the friendly fifty-something local I’d just met with his pal Tony, did seem genuine behind his LED sunglasses flashing hectic scrolling lights across their lenses.
But I’d just seen the maximalist NSFW spectacle only a few hours earlier at MyState Bank Arena, on my sixth and final afternoon at this year’s Mofo. DJ Dave was wrong. Austrian artist Florentina Holzinger’s A Divine Comedy wasn’t an orgy, and it didn’t feature any men. What actually happened might’ve flipped his lid.
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Based on Dante's journey through hell, purgatory, and paradise, A Divine Comedy was loosely arranged around a flashback narrative of an older dancer on death’s door. It also saw the very naked, female-identifying cast of 22 perform an explosive orgasm, strap-on penetrative sex, synchronised crapping on painting palettes, dirt bike jumping, woodchopping, genuine hypnosis, a piano played upside down between two cars dangling from the ceiling, blood drawn and squirted on canvas, and a freshly dissected rat stuffed in a bound performer’s mouth.
It was such a visual onslaught that by the time one performer shrouded in flames walked calmly to centre stage, I barely noticed. Some hated it. Many walked out. “About 100 a night,” both a paramedic and outgoing creative director Leigh Carmichael told me. I stayed and collected enough memetic mise-en-scènes of raw wonder from the athletic blitzkrieg of physical theatre to keep my memory whirring for weeks.
“If you feel you need to take time out,” stated the program for the show, “please let our ushers know and they will guide you to a specially set up quiet area. In the quiet area we will have water available and a trained health professional to assist you.”
A Divine Comedy
People don’t flock to Dark Mofo for the quiet areas. Over its 10-year run, the festival – long based primarily in nipaluna/Hobart – has invariably been accused of satanism, cruelty to animals, for shock value only and plain offensive. (In its first year, local police threatened to arrest anyone participating in Mofo’s now iconic Nude Swim). And yet it's grown into a singularly essential celebration of art, music, ideas and performances, unrivalled in Australia. Judging from the queue of international artists I saw this week gushing, “I can’t believe we’re at Dark Mofo”, that reputation now travels far beyond the local letters section.
What I didn’t tell DJ Dave is I started Dark Mofo 2023 with my own pants off.
German-British composer Max Richter’s Sleep is an eight-hour composition released in 2015, that’s only been performed live a handful of times. Running unbroken between midnight and 8am, the idea is simple, stupid: you go to sleep during it. Which is why on Wednesday night, the line to get into the cavernous Mac2 warehouse was strewn with Uggs, pyjamas and sleeping bags. Once inside we selected a blanket, heat bag and one of the 240 camping beds lined up like a natural disaster just went down. Some climbed into bed with books, others strolled around chatting quietly. Most everyone scrolled their phone.
“This was written as a protest,” said Richter as if on cue, arriving at his piano alongside a string quintet and soprano vocalist. “An invitation to disconnect and slow down. That’s Sleep. We’re going to play it for you now.”
As lights dimmed, a scattered few sat up watching. A few snores soon drifted under the lonesome piano notes. I fought it off until 1.30am, eventually succumbing to the music's surprisingly loud wash. I woke a couple times in the night at the disturbance, peeking through bleary eyes to see Richter and co on stage before sinking away again.
This odd dynamic made it feel like we were the ones on show: the musicians’ always there stoic and steady, us in and out of both sleep and Sleep, our bodies quietly performing their own little theatre of thoughts and dreams.
Max Richter, Sleep
At 7.26am I opened my eyes to a growing golden light. Curtains were pulled back and the grey Derwent River sat plain through the windows. Mounds of people in beanies and scarves slowly arched up on their cots, like op shop pupae emerging from their chrysalis. As Richter dreamily played out the final half hour, this was the moment it all clicked, as if we’d collectively arrived at a clearing in the woods from hidden individual paths. It was so simple and so beautiful. Afterwards walking for coffee and a basque tart, my friends and I failed to adequately explain any of it.
Between that hug of Sleep and the hard slap of A Divine Comedy, Dark Mofo was the reliably nocturnal sinkhole of gigs, parties, performances and hangovers we hanker for.
Chief among them, Night Mass. This year’s late-night party series echoed 2018’s three-precinct CBD sprawl, though unlike 2018, it was blissfully free of queues. The sets were excellent – Simona Castricum, Our Carlson and the exultant pounding techno of Sydney’s DJ Sveta, my picks. But the funnest part of any Mofo party is ducking through a door into an unexpected universe. Cue a string ensemble responding to tarot cards; a level spanning noir porn videos, a man tied in knots trying to paint the walls, and the literal cooking of flapjacks; a hilarious drag show Wheel of Fortune; a seven-metre teddy shooting lasers from its eyes; and – my favourite escape – an underground cinema of half-naked hosts dripping wax on guests, mournful synths and, naturally, the dispensing of sweet biscuits. A hazy rabbit warren in which to forget the world.
Day or night, Dark Mofo makes that easy. In the domed room of the Baha’i Learning Centre, traditionally used for the Middle Eastern faith’s teachings of unity and equality (wi-fi password: “Radiance”), Jason Phu’s Without Us You Would Have Never Learned About Love gathered a grubby bunch of repurposed toys to squeal and rattle in garish delight. In TMAG’s Twist exhibition, I learned I loved Mish Meijers and Tricky Walsh’s dinky sculptures and contraptions that made the underground Bond Gallery feel like a rejected inventor’s lair. And inside a pitch-black City Hall, United Visual Artists’ Silent Symphony was a striking ghostly garrison of sentinel-like machines, swinging in and out of synchronicity and synth hums. It was labelled “a series of kinetic light and sound instruments [that] mimic planetary orbit”; instead I saw in its hypnotic light trails, snapshots of searchlights, fireworks over water, red-eye camera flashes, aeroplanes at night.
Silent Symphony, UVA
Sydney film mash-up rascals Soda Jerk are also experts at evoking something that isn’t there. A hungover Saturday afternoon in The Odeon provided an ideal escape hatch into Hello Dankness, their psychedelic fever dream about the Trump-laced lockdown years, created using stitched-together scenes from movies like Wayne's World and This Is the End. “We made this film so all the weirdness and dankness would not be lost to time,” the duo said introducing the screening, “like memes in rain”. Soon after, in the same room, local First Nations filmmakers Nathan Maynard and Adam Thompson sat alongside actor Kerri Gay, to discuss their short film My Journey – a hilariously squeamish 10-minute portrayal of Aunty Judy (played by the non-Indigenous Gay), a woman on a path to mistakenly claiming First Nations heritage. “It’s about Palawa authorship for Palawa stories,” said Maynard in the energetic Q&A that followed.
Then there was the music.
I’m no black metal truther, but San Diego band Deafheaven were colossal. Here to perform 2013 breakthrough LP Sunbather, they hinge on the scene-chewing of incongruous frontman George Clarke. In a button-down shirt and dress shoes, Clarke minced and shimmied across the stage of The Odeon on Thursday night like he was fronting a furious edition of Phantom of the Opera, rather than hissing out front of a blistering quartet who squeeze screamo, shoegaze and post-rock through their black metal juicer. By the time they finished with absorbing, escalating closer The Pecan Tree, I felt cheated – like I needed to run back to the start, catch my breath and do it over again.
That rush didn’t transfer to Molchat Doma, the meme-famous dark synth-pop trio from Minsk. Their slick set of attractive new wave bangers on Friday night at a packed Mac2 was super fun to nod to, but absent of the sticky hooks and dynamics of the ’80s titans like Depeche Mode and New Order they emulate. The emotional heft they lack unspooled on the same stage the following night, when Italian composer Caterina Barbieri – wearing a cool glinting armoured arm-piece – played a grand set of blooming modular synth at Laterne by Berlin Atonal. Paired with a stunning backdrop of shifting fog and blurry clouds saturated with colour, Barbieri’s rippling arpeggios conjured something spiritual. And playing Sunday night after 48 hours of Night Mass parties felt like a cruel slot for Melbourne’s RVG, but the ace, gloomy new wave-tinged indie band’s nervy set at In The Hanging Garden felt like a safe haven: both against the chill and in Romy Vager’s lyrics that flip tension and longing into yelps of defiance and valour.
There’s so much to take in at Mofo that otherwise sharp moments get swept to the back of the memory: Lee Ranaldo hooking his feedbacking Fender Jazzblaster onto a rope and swinging it out over the audience’s heads at Borderlands; the chore of sitting through Community of Grieving, a “shared mourning experience incorporating sonic meditation, dance and dialogue,” that felt like an amateurish satire of Mofo’s mood board; two guys overheard in a guitar shop talking about how they used to go to all the Hymns to the Dead metal nights when it was cheap, but can’t now it’s $90. "Remember the first few years when it was all free?"
I wasn’t the only one to wonder if Mofo might wilt under the weight of price creep, Covid cancellations and controversies. But this year's last hurrah for the outgoing Carmichael was a clear victory lap – a fitting cap on a decade of curated chaos like no other.
Punters agreed. Organisers reported an estimated $5.5 million at the box office, with more than 100,000 tickets sold. The eight-day Winter Feast alone drew more than 110,000 people and the Dark Park precinct – despite it not holding much more than food trucks, bars and Ryoji Ikeda’s Spectra beam this year – drew 90,000 over the course of the two weeks.
“More than ten years ago (apparently) Leigh Carmichael thought we should try and activate Hobart’s winter,” wrote David Walsh before this year's Mofo. “I thought it unlikely to work. Nearly ten Dark Mofos later Leigh has thoroughly proved me wrong, and he deserves a break. We’ll have someone new battling Hobart’s winter next year, but Leigh will still be trying to drag the tourists in.”
Back at the Winter Feast on the last night, I was slurping my second salted caramel crème brûlée from Woofee Cake Lab like a giddy toddler. DJ Dave had now ceded the table to Tony, who looked a lot like Tim Winton cosplaying as a life-long Tassie tradie who didn't give a shit if A Divine Comedy was an orgy, artistic triumph or existed at all.
“I just love it,” said Tony, happily. “It’s transformed the city. Look around tonight. So many people here. It’s Sunday and it’s bigger than New Year’s. How good is this?”
Marcus Teague travelled to Hobart as a guest of Dark Mofo.