Everything We Learned At Dark Mofo, Australia’s Most Fucked Up (And Glorious) Festival

Mainland cities, take note: This is how you run a festival.

Dark Mofo review photo

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We’re one of tens of thousands of mainlanders arriving in Hobart on a chilly June evening for Dark Mofo 2019. The moment we all arrive, we can already see the town painted red — a citywide celebration of the best and most innovative music, arts, food and cultural event.

When I say immediately, I mean it. The moment we all stepped off the plane, we are greeted by a huge neon red sign looming above the airport terminal: INTO THE TREES.

Office buildings, retail storefronts, hotels and residential properties all join in the fun. There’s an intentionally eerie redness to the entire city throughout our stay — even the dentist we walked past each day had covered its lights in red cellophane, and clothing stores known for innocuous, pastel mum clothes dress up window mannequins in their finest gothic blacks and reds.

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It’s So Much More Than Just Music… But The Music Is Spectacular.

Considering that art and music are equally important down here, it’s no surprise that the festival’s big performances were as visually and experientially exhilarating as the music itself.

It was never clearer than at FKA Twigs’ performance at waterfront venue MAC02. Starting her performance with a tap dance in front of a beautiful red curtain, Twigs’ set evolved across a handful of elaborate costumes, set changes and dance routines, as well as back-up dancers, live musicians and genuine tears from the talented multi-hyphenate. The performance was so highly produced that it carried her music along, not the other way around.

Likewise, Nicolas Jaar’s two vastly different shows, held over two consecutive nights, were something to see as well as hear — the first night in particular. For his performance — the world premiere of his 2018 album 2012-2017 under the moniker Against All Logic — MAC02 was transformed: The Chilean/American producer performed in the round, with four sets of bleachers surrounding him, around which we danced.

Occupying one of the bleachers were a large choir of local musicians, whom Jaar had recruited to open and end the mind-bending show. Later in the evening, the choir’s conductor told me about how, during rehearsals, Jaar commented that he’d never expected to be asked to perform this album live, and how excited he was to try. We’re he did.

Elsewhere, Serpentwithfeet recited poetry mid-set, Dirty Three (Warren Ellis’ spangly dancing in particular) shook us to tears by performing their 25-year-old self-titled album, folk bands serenaded us as we ate dinner around open fires at the Winter Feast, and our ears were well and truly assaulted at the seven-hour black and death metal extravaganza that was Hymns to the Dead.

It doesn’t matter what music you think you’re into. Dark Mofo has it all. And they don’t settle for anything but the best.

FKA Twigs at Dark Mofo.

Weird Is Good. Weird Is Great.

It’s been said to death about Dark Mofo, but it’s precisely what makes this winter Bacchanalia so indulgent and exciting.

MONA, the source of all things Dark Mofo, turned all the way up with new exhibitions and an entire new wing on display, including stunning new installations by Alfredo Jaar, Ai Weiwei, Ryoji Ikeda and Kirsha Kaechele (wife of MONA and Dark Mofo overlord David Walsh) among others.

But you didn’t need to go to the gallery to experience the art. It was everywhere. Unassuming buildings marked by neon red crosses housed strange, confronting and beautiful exhibitions. The Regatta Grounds hosted Dark Path, a 4km walk in mostly darkness, punctured by spectacular laser displays, creepy installations… and a whisky bar. And A Forest housed a series of challenging, beautiful and deeply confronting installations, some of which were the most difficult of the festival to endure.

An old church played house to Peter Yore’s insane It’s All Wrong But it’s Alright. The extremely colourful, astoundingly explicit work seemed to mostly comprised of children’s toys and discarded Australiana, but on closer inspection, it quickly became one of the most adults-only installations at the festival.

Peter Yore’s ‘It’s All Wrong But it’s Alright’ at Dark Mofo.

Hobart Knows How To Party.

Maybe it’s because a lot of us are used to living in cities with lockouts; maybe it’s because there’s something deeply exciting and animalistic about the smoky red air down there.

Either way (or both), Hobart turns up for Dark Mofo in a way rarely seen on the mainland. Night Mass was a wild, loose, late-night party spread throughout a part indoor, part outdoor area that included the Odeon theatre and new spaces Altar and In The Hanging Garden — was immense, wild and extremely fun.

There were no set times, so you didn’t know if you’d stumble upon Sampa the Great, Mallrat, Red Bull Presents: VIA SÃO PAULO, a showcase of Brazil’s dangerously exciting queer underground, or something you’d never heard of. It didn’t matter. It was just that good.

Wander through the many rooms throughout and you might stumble across art installations, tiny, sweatbox DJ sets, and, eventually, into a 24-hour pie shop that also sold cocktails. And if you were feeling understandably cold at 2:30am, you could simply huddle around a warm, inviting open fire outside.

More than the events themselves, it’s the way we felt while we were there: permitted to enjoy ourselves and have fun, without feeling as though we weren’t allowed to. The police and security presence felt minimal, and yet, we all lived to tell a particularly lively tale. Sydney could learn a few things.

J’ouvert at Night Mass.

The Target Demographic? Everyone.

Sometimes, we make a big deal of needing to go to events with the “right” person or group. Sure, that may ring true for camping festivals and the like, but not for Dark Mofo. It may sound like a debaucherous celebration of sex and death (which it is), but it’s more than that.

Sit at one of the long, candlelit tables at the Winter Feast, and you’re as likely to sit beside a three-generation family or a local, elderly couple as a group of twentysomething Melbourne imports. We were travelling solo,  but it was easy to make a friend or two, whenever it was time to have a dance at a gig or a late-night chat over Hot Toddies by a fire.

It goes without saying that some of the more controversial, violent and sexually charged exhibitions are absolutely not child-friendly, but that’s only one part of the festival. There’s so much there that’s perfect for anyone, of any age, as long as you’ve got an open, curious mind. And, hey, if you don’t, Dark Mofo might just be the place to change that.

Dark Path at Dark Mofo.

Lauren Ziegler is a music and culture writer based in Sydney. You can find her on Twitter: @zieglerlauren*

All photos courtesy of DarkLab Media