The Aesthetic of Dark Mofo: Emotion, Darkness and the Tasmanian Gothic

By Alicia Marchant and Penelope Edmonds,

History, The University of Tasmania

Dark Mofo 2015 Fire Twirlers. Photo credit: Derek Tickner, courtesy of Dark Mofo
Dark Mofo 2015 Fire Twirlers. Photo credit: Derek Tickner, courtesy of Dark Mofo.

It cannot be seen, cannot be felt,

Cannot be heard, cannot be smelt,

It lies behind stars and under hills,

And empty holes it fills,

It comes first and follows after,

Ends life, kills laughter.

J.R.R Tolkien, The Hobbit

 

The melancholic shadow that encases Tasmania during the long winter is the focus of Dark Mofo celebrations. Timed to mark the Winter Solstice, Dark Mofo entices people out into the night air, and for eleven consecutive nights in later June, a cold Hobart is illuminated. This year the dark was kept at bay by a spotlight streaming sky-wards (Pulse Column by Rafael Lozano-Hemmer), and another circling from a boat to light the River Derwent’s shoreline complete with foghorn sounding (Night Ship by Anthony McCall). Flames jump out of metal structures and signs, and fires in forty-four gallon drums are scattered around the Hobart docks.

Pulse Column  Photo credit: MONA/Rémi Chauvin Image Courtesy of Mona (Museum of Old and New Art)
Pulse Column. Photo credit: MONA/Rémi Chauvin. Image Courtesy of Mona (Museum of Old and New Art)

Celebrations continued over the weekend with the Huon Valley’s Mid-Winter Festival (17th-19th July). The program included nocturnal feasting, bonfires, the burning of a Mid-Winter Man (a five metre-tall effigy), storytelling, folk music and of course sampling the cider for which the region is famous. The central event to the Mid-Winter Festival is a ‘wassailing’ ceremony performed to awaken the apple trees and encourage autumn growth. Drawing on traditions practiced in the south-west of the British Isles in the early modern era and even earlier, wassailing in the Huon includes singing and banging on pots and pans, and a volley of guns, so as to create enough noise to scare away the evil spirits that could lurk and do damage to the precious apple trees.

The ‘dark’ that the festival draws upon is both literal and metaphoric. It is not only a celebration of the pitch-black winter night, but also the ‘dark’ shadows: the macabre, gruesome, quirky, grim, unenlightened and savage. The term ‘dark’ has been used historically to refer both to the abnormal and the ways in which humanity knows of and engages with this abnormal. In religious contexts, ‘darkness’ has long been associated with evil and the devil, but also with ignorance: the ‘Dark Ages’ were named by renaissance scholars to contrast them with their own perceived enlightenment. Yet darkness could also be used to obscure those elements of society that were ‘to be kept in the dark’ and hidden; the ‘dark house’ denoted a mental asylum, as Shakespeare uses it in As you Like It (Act III. Ii. 387): ‘Loue is meerely a madnesse, and … deserues as wel a darke house, and a whip, as madmen do.’ Recent bourgeoning scholarship in tourism studies uses the term ‘dark tourism’ to refer to people’s fascination for visiting sites associated with death, massacre, torture and the like. Although the term ‘dark tourism’ was coined in 1996, since time immemorial people have engaged with and actively sought out the shocking, the alienating and the ‘dark’. The well-attended violent spectacles of execution in public spaces in medieval and early modern Europe, for instance, as well as the practice of exhibiting and sometimes dissecting the dead body post-mortem, have been well documented. More recently, areas hit by the 2004 Tsunami, Nazi Concentration Camps and gulags, for instance, as places of persecution with a ‘heritage that hurts’, have attracted visitors. The raison d’être of dark tourism is emotion: dark tourists commonly wish to experience heightened emotions such as fear, disgust, shame and pain, both emotional and physical.

The Body. Image credit: Kara Healey. Image courtesy of the artists and Dark Mofo 2015.
The Body. Image credit: Kara Healey. Image courtesy of the artists and Dark Mofo 2015.

Dark tourism appears to satisfy some people’s curiosity about the processes of death and humanity’s mechanisms for coping with it, and even inflicting it. At Dark Mofo, death and the performances and rituals associated with death are front and centre, along with the cycles of nature and seasonal decay. Dark Mofo celebrates the transitional moments and transformations of the universe and of humanity. The programme for 2015 included the participatory theatrical performance Funeral, and music performed by bands named the Pallbearer and the Body. The Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra and chorus performed a series of requiems, while the festival films had bloody overtones. After watching the film The Kettering Incident, a friend reported: ‘now I am scared of Tasmania’.

Funeral. Image courtesy of the Guerrilla Museum and Dark Mofo 2015.
Funeral. Image courtesy of the Guerrilla Museum and Dark Mofo 2015.

One of the centre-pieces of Dark Mofo, the Ogoh-Ogoh, three monsters built in the Balinese Hindu tradition, highlights the relationship between the emotions and the ‘dark’.[1] Throughout the festival people wrote their ‘darkest’ fears privately on a piece of paper and placed them onto or inside one of the giant monsters. ‘Deep water’, ‘enclosed spaces’ and, oddly, ‘trampolines’ were some of the fears that we noticed recorded (Alicia’s six-year-old wrote ‘big teeth’; Penny’s seven-year-old wrote ‘fires’). On the night of the Solstice the Ogoh-Ogoh monsters were carried in procession to the docks, where one of them (Jessica the Handfish) was set alight, sending peoples’ fears up in smoke. The ritual incineration of the monsters was deeply grounded in anxieties about the unknown, and particularly fears of a violent and untimely death, like drowning (‘deep water’) and suffocating (‘enclosed spaces.’) Sometimes, however, fears and memories of past events are too uncomfortable and immediate; in Dark Mofo 2014, Articulated Intersect (Rafael Lozano-Hemmer), an installation of eighteen powerful spotlights pointing sky-wards that could be moved around by the public, prompted terror in several older Hobart residents who were survivors of the Blitz in London or bombing elsewhere in Europe. For these viewers, the sight of the search-lights roused unwanted emotions and memories.

Ogoh Ogoh - The Burningx Photo credit: MONA/Rémi Chauvin. Image Courtesy of Mona (Museum of Old and New Art).
Ogoh Ogoh – The Burningx. Photo credit: MONA/Rémi Chauvin. Image Courtesy of Mona (Museum of Old and New Art).
Ogoh Ogoh – The Burningx. Photo credit: MONA/Rémi Chauvin Image Courtesy of Mona (Museum of Old and New Art)
Dark Mofo 2015. Picture: Derek Tickner, courtesy of MONA Museum of Old and New Art
Dark Mofo 2015. Picture: Derek Tickner, courtesy of MONA Museum of Old and New Art

During this year’s Dark Mofo, the Narryna Heritage Museum, a colonial mansion built in Battery Point in 1836, was transformed into a Georgian house in mourning with the exhibition Ashes to Ashes (Curated by Scott Carlin and Lana Nelson with photography by Angela Waterson). Visitors were given undertakers’ hats and mourning veils on entering the house, and engaged in past mourning rituals, filing past a coffin laid out in the front room. Female manikins in ornate, nineteenth-century mourning dresses stood in attendance. In another room, a four-poster deathbed was draped with interpretative posters describing causes of death in the early days of the Hobart settlement: by diseases, lightning, fire and crushing by log wagons. On the upper floor of the house were objects associated with mourning practices of the past, including jewellery made from deceased loved-ones’ hair. Ashes to Ashes embodied the duality characterising so much of Dark Mofo: the conflicting feelings of alienation and familiarity, a Freudian ‘uncanniness’. As well as evoking the horrors of the relatively recent past, the exhibition was also a reminder that while rituals and practices might change, powerful emotions like grief and melancholy are common to people across time.

With the billing, ‘Something strange has taken over the industrial guts of the Old Mercury Building,’ artists Patricia Piccinini and Peter Hennessey’s bizarre, hybrid couplings of plants and animals, and uncanny creatures jarringly malformed were shown in the basement of a heritage city building. The Shadows Calling provides an interesting contemporary counterpoint to popular ideas of a 19th century gothic Tasmania. The reconfigured and monstrous beings are suggestive of a dark alien crop invigilating the urban spaces of the Apple Isle.

The Shadows Calling, Patricia Piccinini + Peter Hennessey  'The Bridge' Patricia Piccinini Silicone, Fibreglass, auto paint, clothing, human hair Ed 3 + 1 AP The Shadows Calling, Patricia Piccinini + Peter Hennessey  'The Bridge' Patricia Piccinini Silicone, Fibreglass, auto paint, clothing, human hair Ed 3 + 1 AP Photo credit: MONA/Rémi Chauvin Image Courtesy of the artists and Detached gallery, Hobart, Tasmania
The Shadows Calling, Patricia Piccinini + Peter Hennessey
‘The Bridge’
Patricia Piccinini
Silicone, Fibreglass, auto paint, clothing, human hair
Ed 3 + 1 AP
Photo credit: MONA/Rémi Chauvin
Image Courtesy of the artists and Detached gallery, Hobart, Tasmania

Giidanyba, a series of seven sculptures by Tyrone Sheather depicting spirits from Aboriginal mythology, was captivating and nostalgic. In a very different way to Ashes to Ashes, it too is a work of ritual, using luminous images in darkness to create an initiatory impression. Hovering above the ground, each spirit appears to move when approached, glowing, with heart palpitating. They recall a lost ancestral place and a heritage destroyed by the cultivation of another; positioned within the old walls of the Royal Tasmanian Botanic Gardens, now a landscaped parkland, the seven figures reclaim a space of aboriginal importance. They mourn the loss of the middens upon which the garden was built, as well as the deaths and dispossession of Aboriginal peoples that occurred throughout Tasmania. Yet such pre-contact spiritual entities were also entirely palatable for non-indigenous attendees and offshore visitors – these installations were not darkly unsettling, but recuperative of an Aboriginal spirituality. Such a display prompts us to ponder: what is the ‘dark’ in Dark Mofo, and in what ways might it privilege some forms of ‘darkness’ over others? What must remain unspoken?

Giidanyba  (Tyrone Sheather), Image by Ali Marchant
Giidanyba. (Tyrone Sheather), Image by Ali Marchant

Dark Mofo’s aesthetic gels with other shades of ‘dark’ in the Tasmanian background. With its wealth of historic places associated with crime and punishment, imprisonment, pain, Aboriginal dispossession and massacre, Tasmania is particularly conducive to examinations of the ‘dark’. The twin forces of convictism and colonisation have made Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) notorious in the global historical imagination, and continue to resonate in Tasmania’s present, in popular culture, visual art and literature, and in haunted places of pain, shame, and unsettlement. Dark Mofo draws upon the Tasmanian dark and gothic, and challenges notions of the normal and abnormal. Though its aesthetic is archetypal, at times primordial, and so universalising, it works so well because Tasmania has long held a prime vantage point for looking into the dark.

The Fire Organ (Bastiaan Maris), Photo by Penny Edmonds.
The Fire Organ.(Bastiaan Maris), Photo by Penny Edmonds.

[1] The Oogh-Oogh was a collaboration between Dark Mofo, Balinese artists, The University of Tasmania Centre for Asian Studies and the University of Tasmania Centre of the Arts.

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