Stuff & Things

Inside Dark Mofo, Tasmania's 12-day celebration of all things weird.

Tasmanian Devils: Sex, Death and Skinny Dipping at the World’s Wildest Art Festival

There are few things I get out of bed for. Coffee. Poorly scheduled meetings. A full bladder.

Sunrise is not one of these things.

Yet, here I am, the pink of dawn creeping above the horizon, standing naked in Tasmania with thousands of strangers, and about to thrust my body into the icy River Derwent.

The reason for our mass nudity is Dark Mofo, Hobart’s annual contemporary art and music festival—if you can even call it that. But how else would you begin to describe an event where people writhe in the entrails of a freshly slaughtered bull, or are buried alive beneath the street’s surface, all in the name of art?

On my first morning, I spot a sign of what’s to come: 20-metre-high inverted red crosses hover above a harbour that your mom would describe as “quaint” on any other day. But it’s not until darkness falls that Tasmania’s capital transforms from a cute seaside scene into a dystopian dream.

I spend my nights wandering the streets. Spaces ablaze in flame unfold around every corner. At Night Mass—a post-apocalyptic setting, replete with hipsters huddled around oil drum fires—a line winds up scaffolding to get into a David Lynch-inspired pop-up bar. Outside Dark Park, artists are displayed in windows like animals in the zoo. Kids bang on the glass as performers tattoo themselves, draw cartoon figures while hooded and chained, and rock back and forth, seemingly covered in feces and blood.

It’s a strange event—but stranger still is that it happens in Hobart, a city that less than a decade ago was considered the back end of Australia. It’s akin to Saint John, New Brunswick deciding to host a two-week citywide festival devoted to sexual fetishes and people turning up in droves.

Post skinny-dip, I’m marveling at the weirdness of it all when I hitch a ride back downtown.

“Before, there was fuck all to do,” says Kaley, the local who picks me up. “I would just go home and hibernate.”

In Hobart, I learn, there is only “before” and “after:” Before Mona, and after Mona.

Opened in 2011, the privately owned museum has been billed as a “subversive adult Disneyland.” Dedicated to themes of sex and death, Mona counts a poo machine1 and dozens of vulva sculptures2 as part of its permanent collection. In its new $32 million wing, you can order a black margarita garnished with feral pig eyeballs.3 It’s nearly all underground and there’s no signage. There is, however, an on-site winery.

Its backstory is just as good. David Walsh, a Tasmanian who grew up in public housing, built Mona with a fortune made gambling.4 His money is also the reason that Dark Mofo can push boundaries.

“There’s no corporation ‘lighting it up,’” explains Brett Steel, owner of tour company Drink Tasmania. “They don’t have to rely on sponsorship money.”

That doesn’t mean that everybody is onboard. This year, 17,000 people signed a petition lobbying against the inverted crosses. But, for the most part, the city seems committed to the theme, with few spaces that aren’t bathed in a glow of red light—including the porta potties. Every evening, young families emerge from their homes to sample food truck offerings and listen to free live music.

One night, I head to the pier for Waterborne, an on-water art installation by UK artists French & Mottershead. Waiting to board the boat, I start chatting with a couple from North West Tasmania who look every bit the part of kindly grandparents. They’ve been in town for over two weeks, watching everything from Nanook of the North (with Canadian throat singer Tanya Tagaq performing a live score to the 1922 silent film) to synth-pop musician Zola Jesus.

“We come every year for the entire festival,” they tell me, cute as pie for a couple who are revelling in everything sex and death.

The pleasantries continue until it’s time to slip on our headphones. As we drift down the river, we listen to a 30-minute play-by-play of how our bodies will decompose after we die.

It’s one dark mofo.

References   [ + ]

1. Commissioned for the museum, Wim Delvoye’s “Cloaca Professional” is fed daily at 11am. After the food passes through a series of tubes with digestive enzymes, the machine “poos” promptly at 2pm. Fair warning: It smells exactly like you expect it to. ART!
2. Greg Taylor cast the vulvas of 151 women for “Cunts… and other conversations.” Soap versions are available in the gift shop, where they are billed as the best smelling vaginas in Hobart.
3. I ordered a white wine to accompany my lunch at Faro, the museum’s new restaurant, instead. 
4. Walsh—who was a card counter in university and has Asperger’s-like tendencies—belongs to one of the world’s largest gambling syndicates, which uses computational models to bet on everything from horse races to sporting events.