Review: Dark Mofo & Silence

June 28th 2017


Häxan, silent film by Benjamin Christensen

“Watch your tongue or your foul mouth will stay open all your life” reads the screen, as a frustrated witch leaves her victim lock-jawed and unable to speak.

We sit silent in a room full of sound, the constant click of 16mm film through an old projector providing a steady background to Melbourne drummer Maria Mole’s live percussive soundtrack. We’re watching Benjamin Christensen’s Haxan, a 1922 silent horror film, where an eccentric satan lures nuns and old maids into the realm of witchcraft. Maria’s scattered rhythms carry us through a tale of accusations and persecution, with men thrashing women’s polluted bodies to purify their souls, and throwing them into rivers to see if they will sink. Her performance ends with an image of sunrise over women burning at the stake, as the sound of applause and a hundred conversations suddenly takes over the Odeon, a theatre with its own strange history of cinema, religion and silence.

Dark Mofo calls us to shut our mouths, even if just for a moment, and listen. The theme of this year’s festival is ‘silence’, but it’s the sounds that fill the city spaces when we stop making noise ourselves that matter. For two weeks, Hobart’s sleepy streets have been filled with the voices and footsteps of 250,000 extra people. But as the sun rises and sets each day, locals and strangers alike stand silent, greeted by an ethereal chorus of female voices and deep growls coming from the sky. For seven minutes twice a day, these layers of sound encompass the city from sky to sea, falling from 450 speakers connected to city buildings and even a helicopter. Siren Song is a collaboration between Melbourne sound designer Byron J Scullin and creative agency Supple Fox, and a city open to letting artists take over it’s soundscape in a way you couldn’t imagine happening Sydney. When it’s over we’re left momentarily aware of the noise around us from people and traffic, before it all slips back into our unconscious hearing.

It’s the fifth year that MONA has taken over Hobart (and beyond) to celebrate the winter solstice and the darkest days of the year.

For this year’s festival, MONA also welcomed the travelling exhibition The Museum Of Everything into the deepest level of their underground museum, filling 30 rooms with art made by ‘ordinary’ people. Lifesize dolls stand beside a kitten tea party; twisted home-made furniture sits by a blind farmer’s kinetic hand-carved windmills. The walls are covered in painted gospel revelations crafted by intuition or from the deep belief systems of store clerks, laundry workers, butchers, a bulldozer driver turned preacher. We twist through nooks and crannies of an intimate, bizarre home with armchairs, libraries and garish wallpaper. Filling any empty space is music – scratchy gospel songs that lift the anonymous intuitive artworks into an eerie nostalgia that you can feel in your stomach.

Chris Levine

Chris Levine’s IY PROJECT with Robert Del Naja (Massive Attack ) & Marco Perry

At night we twist our way under red neon crosses, through crowds seated at long tables lined with candles at the Winter Feast while jazz music plays from a band performing on a high stage set in a red velvet wall. In the Dark Park we pass through bustling warehouse whisky bars to wide open spaces with nothing but the crackle of logs burning in firepits. Following voices deeper into the park, we join a crowd entranced by an electronic soundscape created by Marco Perry and Robert Del Naja of Massive Attack, while Chris Levine’s meditative light sculpture shoots lasers 10km into the sky above us. Music fills Hobart’s forgotten or unnoticed spaces, as theatres, tennis academies and masonic halls hum with late night parties, and by the harbour the City Hall heaves with the dark beats of Red Bull Music Academy’s Transliminal.

It’s hard to imagine a festival of this calibre making its way through Sydney’s red tape, but even in Tassie Dark Mofo is no stranger to controversy.

This year, Hermann Nitsche’s sacrificial ritual 150.action caused so much backlash it was almost cancelled. Right or wrong, the performance went ahead. Volunteers covered themselves in blood and entrails, performing to Nitsche’s largest ever audience while protesters stood outside and spoke their anger, spread petitions and sparked a media storm. This was a different kind of noise – of clashing voices, words and action – spreading far further than the space where the act occurred.

Pussy Riot

Pussy Riot, Act & Punishment

Perhaps the controversy was intentional. Either way, it added to an undercurrent to the festival’s programming that spoke to the value of noise for action. Days earlier, we watched the new Pussy Riot documentary, Act & Punishment, which told of actionist art as a pattern of protest through centuries of Russian history. After the film, Pussy Riot’s Masha Alyokhina stood on stage thousands of kilometres from the country that tried to keep her silent in prison and solitary confinement. Small-town Hobart feels like an almost unbelievable context to hear her articulate the years she spent wrongfully imprisoned for the actions of her political punk collective, and we’re hanging on every word. “Somehow people decide that we are heroes,” she says, “but every person is a hero. I have a story of prison and dancing in a church, but every person has his own difficulties and faces a choice every day. And the choice is kind of simple. You act, or you stay silent.”

Two weeks of crowds, experimental soundscapes, pockets of music and words ends with a meditation on silence and a rare performance of John Cage’s 1952 composition 4”33, a three-movement piece where the performers are instructed not to play their instruments at all. The audience sits quiet, listening for the subtle atmospheric sounds that are otherwise ignored or slip unnoticed through our consciousness. Soon enough we’ll be back to the usual noise of normal life, but even if only for less than five minutes, we’ve managed to close our mouths and listen.


Read more from Jess Hamilton