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During winter solstice, Persians traditionally stay up late into the night feasting and reciting poetry. The Japanese bathe in yuzu-scented hot springs to ward off illness in the coming year. In Hobart, Tasmania, Australians strip naked, burn effigies and bury people alive as part of Dark Mofo, a two-and-a-half-week arts festival dedicated to the weird, dark and esoteric.
The event's provocative nature makes sense when you consider the organization that produces and helps host it. The seven-year-old Museum of Old and New Art — colloquially referred to as MONA, or more irreverently as the “museum of sex and death” — initially made a name for itself with its unusual underground architecture and anti-establishment attitude. But beyond its eccentric permanent collection, which includes 150 porcelain vulvas, MONA has bolstered its reputation with two annual festivals: Dark Mofo and its summer counterpart Mofo, a contraction of MONA FOMA, which itself is short for the MONA Festival of Music and Art.
Both Mofo and Dark Mofo champion experimental and subversive art and music. But the winter fest — with its themes of light and dark, life and death — has historically been the more controversial of the two. To wit, last year organizers received more than 100 death threats over a performance piece by Hermann Nitsch which involved a freshly slaughtered bull carcass and 500 liters of animal blood. Yet the festival thrives off infamy. Over the last six years, it's helped turn Tasmania, Australia’s smallest and poorest state, into the country’s fastest growing tourist destination and a hotbed of avant-garde culture. Festival attendance jumped from 297,000 in 2016 to 427,000 in 2017, almost double the population of Hobart. And this year Dark Mofo expanded to include an extra weekend of programming, featuring a sold-out talkfest dubbed Dark and Dangerous Ideas. Among the topics to be discussed are religion, sanctioned killing, and whether it’s justifiable to harm an animal in the name of culture.
This year, in the name of culture, performance artist Mike Parr will be entombed in a metal box for three days underneath a busy main road; in other words, he’ll be buried alive for an artwork that no one can see. There will be screenings of the Australian political satire film Terror Nullius, whose principal funder called it “a very controversial piece of art” before withdrawing support the day before it premiered. Musical performances range from industrial noise and doom metal, to Canadian Inuk throat singing, to the avant-pop stylings of St. Vincent and Laurie Anderson. (A sound installation by Anderson’s late husband, Lou Reed, is also on the bill.) Benjamin Britten’s opera The Rape of Lucretia will be staged at the Theatre Royal, while DJs and bands set up in various inner city laneways.
Although much of the festival is designed to provoke, it is also meant to be fun and convivial. Groups of friends snap selfies at Dark Park, the nighttime art precinct that transforms Hobart’s industrial waterfront into a wonderland of interactive sculpture and immersive installations. Tasmania’s renowned culinary scene is in full force at the Winter Feast food festival, where punters sit shoulder to shoulder at long communal tables or are lured to large outdoor bonfires by the smell of barbecuing meat. (For visitors, this is an excellent opportunity to sample the island’s superlative cheeses, wild salmon, cider and world-class whiskey.)
In the ruckus of the Balinese-inspired Ogoh Ogoh ritual, attendees write down their fears and deposit them into wooden effigies. At the end of the festival, the wooden Ogoh Ogoh beasts are paraded through the streets and set alight amid a cacophony of taiko drumming and noise art. Traditionally this rite is meant to expel evil spirits; in this iteration, it’s an exorcism of inner demons, a mass purging of a city’s anxieties, neuroses and inhibitions.
That is, if there are any inhibitions left after the Nude Solstice Swim, when more than one thousand intrepid bathers plunge into the Derwent River at dawn on the shortest day of the year. It’s a cheeky riposte, if you’ll excuse the pun, to the cold dreariness of midwinter. Other cultures may have sacred solstice rituals dating back to ancient times. But this is how they do it Down Under: a mass skinny dip, and a festival that is unapologetically weird, gleefully disconcerting and totally worth attending in person.
Dark Mofo takes place June 7-24 in Hobart, Tasmania. Many events are free but some are ticketed. Hobart is just over an hour’s flight from Melbourne, and a two hour flight or six-day cruise from Sydney.