Australia’s festival of death and darkness

Photo of the Dark Mofo festival in Hobart, the capital of TasmaniaImage copyright
MONA/Rémi Chauvin

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The 12-day festival attracts more than 270,000 visitors to various performance precincts in Hobart, the Tasmanian capital

When winter comes and the longest night of the year draws near, Australia’s most intense public art festival makes the most of the darkness.

An offshoot of Hobart’s lauded Museum of Old and New Art (MONA), the Dark Mofo festival uses the winter solstice to explore ancient and contemporary mythologies around death.

Its programme of art, theatre, music, film and food stretches across 12 days. Key events include the Funeral Party, a gothic ball held in a funeral parlour, and Hymns to the Dead, a concert featuring some of the world’s heaviest black and death metal bands.

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MONA/Rémi Chauvin

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The end of the festival will be marked when more than 700 swimmers join the Nude Solstice Swim

The festival is capped off on the morning of the winter solstice, when more than 700 souls will plunge naked into icy water at first light.

‘Criminally insane’

One of the festival’s most challenging works is the one-off installation Asylum by Australian artist Mike Parr, which opens with a continuous 72-hour performance entitled Entry by Mirror Only.

Parr’s performances typically explore physical limits, memory and subjectivity, often with self-mutilation or extreme physical feats.

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Moorilla Gallery

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Artist Mike Parr will explore his brother’s death through a marathon performance piece in a former asylum

He will occupy the darkest parts of Australia’s oldest continually run “insane asylum”, Willow Court at New Norfolk near Hobart.

For most of the three days, or as much as possible, Parr will draw while thinking about his role in the 2009 alcohol-poisoning death of his schizophrenic brother Tim.

He’ll respond to the asylum and the issue of mental health with video, sound, photos, objects and an interactive piece in its wards for the “criminally insane”.

Willow Court’s ran from 1827 to 2001. Isolation has left the buildings largely intact.

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MONA/Rémi Chauvin

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The alcohol-related death of the artist’s brother will have a huge influence on his exhibition entitled Entry by Mirror Only

“What I am doing here is recalling that Tim in 2008 went out to (Sydney’s) Cockatoo Island to this monumental installation of mine,” Parr said.

The 2008 Sydney Biennale Mirror/Arse installation at Cockatoo Island included images from Parr’s past works, where he hacks off a fake arm, pushes tacks into one of his legs, slaughters chickens and has his face stitched.

“Tim wasn’t invited by me because I felt quite strongly that it was something that would have disturbed him,” Parr said.

“He heard about it, and went out there and saw it. How I feel is that in the wake of that experience Tim went into a decline.”

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MONA/Rémi Chauvin

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The Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) has established itself as one of Australia’s most challenging cultural institutions

Leaving something behind

Parr also has a performance where he dresses as a bride.

Tim made a video shortly before his death. Parr has never watched the video, but understands that Tim is dressed as a bride in it.

“There’s a strange reciprocity I feel with Tim’s disturbed video. Which I may not even be able to look at, it may not be in the show,” Parr said.

“But it is certainly driving a good deal of how I’m thinking. People have a remarkable capacity to feel the need in a situation.”

Asylum and Entry by Mirror Only can be viewed by the public at any time, 24 hours a day, during the festival.

Entry really is by mirror only. Viewers must bring a mirror and leave it at Willow Court. “I am performing in extremis for three days … it’s a fair exchange,” Parr said.

Dark Mofo creative director Leigh Carmichael said Parr was a perfect choice for the festival.

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MONA/Rémi Chauvin

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The festival’s popularity is fascinating given its focus, says creative director Leigh Carmichael

“Mike Parr deals with dark ideas and painful concepts that sit within us all at times,” Carmichael said.

“The subconscious is also a kind of dark place and that fits beautifully with what Dark Mofo is trying to explore.”

Solstice swim

At the festival’s final event, nude swimmers plunge into the Derwent River. The water temperature will be about 10C and the air temperature could be half that.

Swimmers wearing only red rubber caps are urged to put their heads under the water and stay in for at least two minutes. Thirty surf lifesavers are on hand.

It’s a cheeky moment of rebirth and renewal, the flipside of the festival’s exploration of morbid themes.

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Mona/Phil Kitt

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The festival won a prestigious Sidney Myer Performing Arts Award in 2015

Dark Mofo is in its fourth year and has captured popular and critical acclaim, winning prestigious performing arts awards and government funding.

It attracts more than 270,000 visitors to various performance precincts in Hobart, the Tasmanian capital, which has a population of 210,000.

Carmichael said the festival’s popularity was fascinating, given its focus.

“Who would have really anticipated that a festival that explores death and darkness could become a popular event?” he said.

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