You immediately sense the drop in temperature and the thickness of the night when you land in Hobart from Sydney. “Once Upon A Dream” — pinned big to the façade of the airport — blazes haunting and neon red, as you step onto the tarmac and tighten up your scarf.
The Dark Mofo festival celebrates the winter solstice. This is the time of year when the night is deepest. Where Sydney’s Vivid festival celebrates colours and light, Hobart’s festival celebrates the charms of darkness.
The long night and the solstice have always been a sacred place of mysticism and bacchanal. In the depths of winter, our behaviour changes. The night time saturates and maintaining warmth becomes paramount. Primitive man came together in order to survive these months. Close knitted and huddled, it was the time we talked most, shared stories and whispered about the spirits — both the good and the evil.
And this is a theme embraced — not just by a few ticketed venues in Hobart — but by the entire city itself. So much so that loudspeakers placed strategically across Hobart cry out the ethereal ‘Siren Song” at both sunrise and sunset. Opening your eyes in bed first thing, you listen to this beautiful elfish-like sound, seeping everywhere.
Now in its fifth year, the annual improvements made to this charismatic concept have increasingly left the locals smitten. For despite all of its pagan undertones, controversial artists and omnipresent blood-red lighting, Mofo is about encouraging the Hobartians out of hibernation. It is about forgetting the swirls of winter, at least just for a little while. It is all about coming together.
And it is this coming together that resonates with visitors like me. Sitting on a log and chatting with a stranger next to one of the countless open-air fires. Helping a young child place his folded-up, written fear on a paper-mache demon before it is burned at the pyre. Dancing together on the streets of Hobart as the drums drive wild the mood, with incessant tribal beats.
All ages come out to celebrate it. Mofo is not just a festival for the youth or the brave. Children marvel at the near-real teeth of the Ogoh Ogoh as it carried to its fiery demise.Young people dance under laser beams until dawn at Subliminal or Welcome Stranger. Older locals embrace the abundance of theatre, dance, and performance art. Families wander the evening streets and marvel at the myriad of installation pieces behind little windows on Hunter Street. Everyone is welcome and that makes everyone feel safe. It is a lovely feeling.
Where Vivid excites the eyes, Mofo hits you in the gut and the soul. If Vivid is for kids, then Mofo is certainly more grown up, more adult and self-assured.
For a Sydneysider like me, all of this is especially exciting — because nothing like it exists in Sydney. Little things — like being able to sit around an open fire in the middle of the city — would undoubtedly be heavily compliant or be disallowed due to a caveat of rules.
Evocative acts, like Hermann Nitsch’s 150.Action, would simply never happen in Sydney. Kids would be considered far too young to attend the nightly Winter Feasts. It would be impossible to host a theatrical event like “Welcome Stranger”, where groups of friends move between four venues over the course of the night at whim. Bouncers would refuse entry, split up groups and target those dancing wildly.
But it all works in Hobart because the festival is coordinated with a deep undercurrent of trust. A maturity that commences at the top before being passed all the way down.
Politicians and councils get out of the way and trust the festival organisers with the city. Security staff and police blend into the background. Venue staff check tickets at the door and welcome you warmly, rather than treating you with suspicion or asking how many you’ve had to drink. Festival goers are given space to dance, to have fun, to really let their hair down, to soak up the community spirit.
Confronted with a twenty-thousand-strong signature petition to stop Hermann Nitisch’s 150.Action performance, Tasmania’s premier refused to interfere. Acknowledging the art was not his personal cup-of-tea, Will Hodgman repeated that it was the prerogative of the people to decide whether or not to attend the event, or get onto the street and protest against it.
It is this same sensibility that breeds a very tangible pride in Hobartians. A pride in knowing that they are at the forefront of the Australian cultural scene. Their festival is one that instils visceral feeling and moves you.
Where Vivid is about pretty lights colouring up a cityscape, there is nothing superficial about Mofo. Where Vivid excites the eyes, Mofo hits you in the gut and the soul. If Vivid is for kids, then Mofo is certainly more grown up, more adult and self-assured.
Each year, Dark Mofo gets stronger and braver, while more of the little details get sewn into it. It is surely one of the most important cultural events in Australia, if not the leading.
The climax of the festival is the burning of the Ogoh Ogoh. Adopted from Balinese mythology, the burning is about dispelling the evil spirits from the city so that the light and goodness can pour back in. As the demons are paraded through the streets of Hobart, there are no police controlling the crowd. Locals are free to walk and dance right alongside the procession.
And as the monster is set alight and all of the evil spirits are vanquished for another year — red hot ashes float right over the expanse of the crowd, disappearing within in. But there is no panic and no drama at this. Just a throng of people marvelling at a beautiful, enigmatic spectacle. I can’t remember the last time I experienced something like that in stifled Sydney.
Each year, Dark Mofo gets stronger and braver, while more of the little details get sewn into it. It is surely one of the most important cultural events in Australia, if not the leading. And for a Sydneysider like me, it is nothing less than exhilarating and an utter cultural escape. Coming back home after a weekend in Hobart, one cannot help but feel that Sydney — bogged down by its rules and uptightness — is very quickly being left behind.