I don’t always wake in the morning on a backyard bench in West Hobart wearing a fur coat and sunglasses. It’s also rare I receive one-of-a-rumoured-88 white coins circulating at Faux Mo that allow me passage through a tunnel into the mirror room. And I almost never stand idle on salt rocks in a shipping container and interrupt a man in hiking boots stamping across them – a man I later learn is Mick Douglas, an artist, mid-performance. But when I do, it nearly always has something to do with MONA.
While the summer iteration of MONA’s two, seasonal arts festivals isn’t as transformative or demanding as winter’s Dark Mofo event, Mona Foma still offers a key to unwind life for a bit. Anyone who’s lost time wandering the subterranean loins of David Walsh’s museum will know it – you mince around, subtly detune, and return to the surface blinking, having gently shed some skin.
Unlike Dark Mofo’s Hobart-wide takeover, Mona Foma is based nearly entirely at the museum. With a few off-site exceptions, the curious can buy a single ticket and happily bump into whatever’s next on the program. Cue the “weekend at Walshy’s” vibe – lazing around on beanbags, drinking fine booze, grazing on share plates and browsing art as the outside world burns. The role of the performances, then, is to inject some dissonance.
Where last year’s festival took on a percussive bent, this year electronics, drones, tones and their scrambling were at the fore. Their promise and surprise was everywhere. At one point I stepped into the lift with a MONA employee and heard an angry, high-pitched whine. We looked up to see an array of dials installed in the roof, which you could turn to shift the pitch of the hum. “That’s new,” he said with some glee. Even him.
Tone Temple (Photo: MONA/Remi Chauvin)
A more in-your-face expression came via Robin Fox and Byron J Scullin from Melbourne’s M.E.S.S. collective, in town with a vast arrangement of impressive synths dotted around the museum. Most visible was the Tone Temple, a wall of exotic sonic machinery piled high on a table. As smoke filled the room, the pair twiddled until it all sizzled in a unique constellation of punishing bloops and blips, equal parts dance party and archaic flex of machine strength. More intimate was their Colonial Drone (Prison). Four cable jacks hung down from the ceiling in a caged room housing the museum’s air-conditioning units. Touching each triggered some powerfully garbled click or hum from one of several old synths placed in the dark between the museum’s machinery. The effect was like playing with lightning, or perhaps having an ancient chat with the building itself.
Some artists baulked at electronics and still came up with something like it. Outside, under the James Turrell Amarna roof, New Zealand musician Don McGlashan (The Mutton Birds) broke up gentle folk songs with odd sound effects using homemade instruments, dulcimers and a medieval-looking funnel drum thing. With time, you could believe his dreamy pastoral sounds were alone dragging the distant puffs of white cloud across the troughs in the mountains beyond.
Back inside the museum, American composer Ellen Fullman’s “long long-stringed instrument” was what it said it would be – an array of strings stretching 20 metres across the Nolan Gallery. As experimental cellist Theresa Wong played nearby, Fullman slowly crept the length of the contraption, rubbing her rosin-covered fingertips on the strings to elicit various tones and drones. At times it sounded like someone turning an oscillator on a whale song; at others, groans from the earth. Melodically unmemorable, but mesmerising all the same.
Up on the main-stage lawn, German musician Carolina Eyck played theramin alongside pianist Jennifer Marten-Smith and Midnight Oil guitarist Jim Moginie. Unfortunately it was right as my Espresso Martini was kicking in; also, it was raining a bit. I sunk back underground and into the MONA cinema for a screening of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. What felt like a breather turned into cognitive clicks between the museum’s goings on and Kubrick’s clean visuals, quiet dread and malevolent machines. These are the kind of connections MONA and its festivals afford; laying the tracks for your brain to be shuttled between stations, shunting it off to engage when ready.
Moses Sumney (Photo: MONA/Remi Chauvin)
Next stop was Moses Sumney and thank “God’s Plate” (smoked preserved mushrooms, pickled and fermented vegetables, mushroom pâté, cheese, olives, spiced cheese puffs, and sourdough – $32 at the Wine Bar). The LA singer has a pining, elastic voice that rang around the lawn like a brush on bells. Made solely via looped vocal effects, Sumney’s music touches on a low-res, intimate, future R’n’B vibe, and felt perfect for late afternoon. Between mournful tracks he was dryly funny, too. “This song’s about when someone close to you needs to die,” he said with a smirk before closer, Everlasting Sigh. “But you’re indecisive and you drag it on.” Then he played a beautiful song while I ate a doughnut.
More dissonance: the entrance to MONA’s current exhibition, On the Origin of Art, is accessed by four doorways into four different galleries. Each is curated by a person who is not an artist or curator – cognitive scientist Steven Pinker, evolutionary neurobiologist Mark Changizi, evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller and professor of literature Brian Boyd – in response to the question, “We need art – but for what?”
There’s no immediate signifier as to which door is which, but I felt calmed the moment I entered one to overhear a woman say to young children, "I don't want you going in the pink room, OK guys? Do NOT go in the pink room."
I went into the pink room. Inside were several evocations of sexually explicit activity, including a photo of Jeff Koons performing cunnilingus, Japanese shunga art (woodblock prints of erotic art), and Takashi Murakami’s My Lonesome Cowboy – a life-size sculpture of an anime figure proudly grasping the thick lasso of ejaculate extending from his erect penis. If answers to the exhibition’s fundamental question lay in here, it would remain undiscovered by minors.
It’s not all pink rooms. The show offers an overwhelming display of objects and invitations, from stone coins, music videos and stunning photos of flowers made from discarded meat, to responsive light installations, mind-bending zoetropes, and street-smart takeaways on the mating habits of spiders ("In these genes, aesthetic failure is death"). You could spend days, months, stitching together the exhibition’s clues for an insight. And you can. It runs until April 17.
I could only indulge in Mona Foma for its first 48 hours this year, a comparative blip across a three-and-a-bit-day festival. This means I wasn’t around to see Mike Patton (Faith No More, Mr. Bungle, dozens of others) perform with Australian composer Anthony Pateras as tētēma on Saturday, or Regurgitator have a go at The Velvet Underground and Nico on Sunday. But I did see two other big names test ulterior modes.
Peaches played at Theatre Royal on Thursday night. I didn’t love it. But I love Peaches, aka Canadian electro titan Merrill Nisker. Her most recent album, Rub, was one of her best. It was also one of her most lyrically outlandish, couching jarring lines such as, “Can’t talk right now, this chick’s dick is in my mouth” and “I’m in so much pain right now I want you to feel it” in super fun, trap-fuelled bangers.
But Peaches was here to perform Peaches Christ Superstar, her DIY take on Andrew Lloyd Webber’s famous ’70s rock opera, and next to her X-rated solo material it felt PG. Accompanied by a pianist, Nisker played every role of the opera’s nine-characters. She committed to each part – her voice surprisingly versatile – and there was sly comedy in her switching between characters. But not being intimate with the opera was a barrier, as was the daggy dilution of Peaches’ innate lechery. By the time she was “crucified” and hung above the stage over a gaggle of dancing audience members, Peaches Christ Superstar did at least feel fun. Peaches is way funner.
Puscifer felt similarly diluted, at least musically. A side-project of Maynard James Keenan of Tool fame, Puscifier’s serious-’90s-rock-exhuming set included four masked wrestlers belting each other on a life-size wrestling ring mounted behind the band. As the band theatrically gurned around them – Keenan in a leather gimp mask, his voice supernatural as ever – the thing felt more like spectacular cabaret than show. While that had its own perks, like Peaches Christ Superstar, the lingering revelation was having seen a superhero in street clothes.
Faux Mo (Photo: MONA/Remi Chauvin)
MONA and its festivals reliably offer a labyrinthine journey in any direction. But some of my highlights this year felt simple. German producer Pantha du Prince turned the lawn into a dance party as the sun broke through the clouds for the first time that day. US artist Ruth West took over the Barrel Room and led small groups of people wearing 3D glasses through ATLAS (In Silico), a confounding, impressive performance that had us standing in front of a large screen and waving a hand-held remote control around to – I think – spatially arrange live ocean data to create a unique graphic image. I just liked the bit where, after finishing, you could seemingly whoosh it away over your head and begin again.
At Faux Mo, the reliably garish after party held in an old office block in the Hobart CBD, I bumbled around rooms until stumbling on two teenage boys facing each other over a school desk, furiously wringing sounds from toy synthesisers. Another boy pounded jungle beats on a sample pad behind them. Not sure what it meant. Not sure who they were. Still not exactly sure whose fur coat it was. But for a bit it was mine.