Written by Helen Sweatman
In the dead of Winter, on an island at the southernmost tip of Australia, there is a festival that conflates ancient and contemporary mythology. Humans and nature, religious and secular, darkness and light, birth and death are all mixed into a sensual gothic cauldron that bubbles and overflows on the eve of the (Southern) Winter Solstice. This alluring concoction is Dark Mofo.
The festival was realized in 2013 by David Walsh, the founder of the Museum of Old and New Art (MoNA). Through art, live performance, booze, and food, participants are encouraged to scuttle through the streets of Hobart, Tasmania, to discover exotic, exuberant pleasures.
This year, many of Dark Mofo’s delights didn’t reveal themselves until after nightfall. With the setting of the sun, the city’s harbor was emblazoned with red light. Hotel windows, street lamps, and pub doors were awash with the satanic hue. Large inverted Christian crosses were posted around the harbor, mapping the pathway to debauchery – starting with a dramatic work by fire artist Alex Podger. On a vacant parking lot, kerosene-fueled flames from 1,100 tin cans outlined Podger’s Celtic cross. Participating pilgrims followed the fiery path to a cluster of warehouses where the light works continued.
Inside one of the warehouses was Leviathan (2017), a giant geometric light sculpture by the Brooklyn-based artist Matthew Schreiber, who filled the space with strands of red laser beams that twisted, overlapped, and enveloped audiences in intricate gridded structures. As people moved in and out of light and darkness, a surreal spectacle unfolded, playfully suspending them between wakefulness and dreams.
Installed in another warehouse was Musica Universalis, a work by the UK collective United Visual Artists. Musica Universalis was a series of kinetic physical sculptures, inspired by Pythagoras' Harmony of the Spheres. Each sculpture contained a spherical form and a mechanism driving a rotating light source and speaker. As an unsettling electronic sound reverberated throughout the warehouse, cylinder-shaped beam of light orbited the darkened space, creating a hypnotic celestial experience.
Beyond the warehouses and moving toward the water were concert halls thudding with the sounds of live acts by such artists as St. Vincent, Laurie Anderson, Electric Wizard, and Einstürzende Neubaute. The music and the spectacle continued across the shore to the Winter Feast, featuring a large dining hall filled with food and wine vendors, rows of tables lined with melted-down candles, and suspended red neon crosses.
Festival-goers, craving more curiosities, were ferried across to MoNA. The three-story subterranean museum recently completed its Pharos wing, designed by Fender Katsalidis Architects and named after the famous lighthouse of ancient Alexandria. Tunnels, bridges, man-made grottos, and mazes, led visitors on a ritualistic procession through more light-based works.
Four site-specific pieces by James Turrell punctuated the pilgrimage. Among them was Event Horizon (2017), a cathedral of light that immersed worshipers in vibrant colors - creating a Ganzfeld effect that obliterated any sense of structure in the surrounding space. Turrell’s “religious” experiences could also be explored in Beside Myself (2017), where a black reflective pathway ran down a long corridor. Its entrance and exit were framed by illuminated squares that, viewed as a whole, formed another Christian cross.
Hidden behind Turrell's work was an open chamber in which crosses multiplied across the floor and ceiling, forming an illuminated gridded structure that continued up the incised concrete walls. Cutting across the room diagonally was a narrow walkway that tapered into an installation by Richard Wilson, titled 20:50 (1987). Within, a waist-high reservoir filled with the smooth ebony of recycled engine oil dragged the surrounding structure downward into a bottomless abyss. Following the magical oil slick was Jean Tinguely’s elaborate machine Memorial to the Sacred Wind or Tomb of a Kamikaze (1969) futilely jerking back and forth on one meter of rusted tracks.
Above the chamber and burrowed into another wall of the gallery was Randy Polumbo’s titillating Grotto (2017), a cave of wonder whose mirrored walls glistened and twinkled with illuminated colorful glass dildos. Beneath the dildos lay a bed of silver cushions luring visitors into a den of sex and selfies, while, from above, a soft white light beamed down enabling the viewer to focus - if only for a second - on something beyond the spectacle.
Like Heaven peeping through the blanket of darkness, the illuminating experience of Pharos contrasted with the cacophony of central Hobart, where shadows stretched out along the sidewalks and the festivities seemed endless.
This year’s edition of Dark Mofo encouraged us to see humor and hope within the dimmer reaches of society, reminding us of how our existence is ephemeral and, like the rising and setting of the sun, remains in continual flux - and that, God willing, light will always follow the darkness.