dark mofo: review
Dark MOFO shines as Australia’s most highly anticipated arts event of the cold and miserly months, achieving this extraordinary feat in only three short years. In a time when our government is intent on squashing independent arts in Australia, I am personally thankful that MONA exists.
The benevolent wealthy will potentially keep cultural life in this country thriving, but I’m not sure MONA founder David Walsh is an investment portfolio manager so easily replicated. He’s certainly not your run of the mill new-money conservative, and nor is MONA a classic investment. Say what you want about him but Walsh undeniably has vision, as testified by the huge crowds flocking to MONA, Dark MOFO and the summer festival MONA FOMA each year.
Dark MOFO 2015 is centred on the current Queen of magical realism and self-professed artist-cum-shamanic leader, Marina Abramovic. Private Archaeology, a major exhibition of works curated by MONA senior curators Nicole Durling and Olivier Varenne, ranges from video documentation of early performances to newer works falling under the rubric of The Abramovic Method.
Abramovic currently exists in the complex ecotone that develops when an artist abruptly ‘makes it big’ after a lifelong career ignored by everyone outside the art world. Thus, on opening night at the aptly named Museum of Old and New Art, a melting pot of Abramovic fans both old and new coalesced.
This was typified in the bathroom before the opening, as I heard two women chatting:
‘I’m excited to see Marina.’
‘The artist who’s opening we’re at.’
‘Oh, I’ve never heard of her.’
‘Yeah I hadn’t until yesterday, but I watched a video about her online and she’s here.’
It’s been strange to witness the sudden spike in Abramovic’s celebrity, as she’s a figure any art school graduate worth their salt has long been familiar with; I’ve been pulling out Rhythm O for years as a shutdown to those who arrogantly claim that contemporary art is ‘nothing (they) couldn’t do.’
Abramovic celebrity is not as surprising however, when considering she’s incorporated celebrity endorsements into her marketing strategy artistic collaborations – most notably with Adidas, and recently with Lady Gaga. It is reputed that Abramovic’s sudden over-saturation is the reason for the Sydney MCA’s recent withdrawal of an already widely publicised representations of decades of the artist’s work, slated to be held in 2016.
Ample Dark MOFO publicity stated that the artist would indeed be present at the opening, and the bar staff nervously confided they were expecting around 7000 visitors. I’ve no doubt they achieved those numbers, as the evening spun ceaselessly around ever-snaking queues. If Abramovic had intended all the queuing to be a sneaky lesson in how to be ‘present,’ (and damned patient!) it would have been a cleverly self-reflexive comment on her own celebrity and work.
Private Archaeology features instructional scenarios such as Counting the Rice, as part of The Abramovic Method. Counting the Rice is precisely what the name suggests – a room where you are invited to sit and count grains of rice. Other activities included sitting or leaning on crystals and wearing white noise-cancelling headphones while sitting in white deck chairs. Frustratingly, it all felt a little too much like an Apple commercial, and the quasi-art therapy/spiritualism had no potency in a gallery setting. The glaringly obvious privilege of a leisure class that has the free time to come and count rice in a gallery for a lark made me uncomfortable.
I considered if I was just being a bitter jerk for no good reason until I watched Walsh and Abramovic’s lengthy public discussion, in which she raised how influential Australian Aboriginal culture has been to her practise. During question time, an audience member asked for Abramovic’s thoughts on the Australian Governments forced closure of remote Aboriginal communities, suggesting she might use her considerable influence to do something about it. She answered that, ‘art can’t change the world, individuals must change their consciousness.’ I was slightly stunned; from her lofty art world position ‘Let them eat cake,’ all of a sudden sounded awfully close to ‘Let them count rice.’
Dark MOFO has in some ways fallen prey to its own hyperbolic marketing, as all large-scale art events have. Slick copy promises so much it eclipses what will genuinely be delivered IRL. Black List, the Dark MOFO late weekend party reads like a checklist for a ritualistic orgy, including such instructions as:
1. Acknowledge the power of magic.
2. Do not kill non-human animals. Do not harm little children. Be respectful to small adults.
3. Listen closely, go hard, open your mouth, close your eyes, sacrifice for the greater mood.
To be blunt, my Black List experience was equal to many other large-scale art/club nights that were working with what I can safely say had much lower budgets. There were a few interesting spectacles and a scattering of performances betwixt a general sandwich of booze fuelled kids careening about drinking ten dollar plastic cups of booze. But the thing is, herein lies the somewhat softening crux of my criticisms: I LOVE a bit of booze fuelled dance floor sandwich action if I’m told that’s what I’m in for. If however, I’m expecting to be taken to a sacrifice by a demented, paint-splattered faun, then I’m like to be pretty disappointed when I get the former instead. Watching all the kids of Hobart having a drunken blast did make me smile. I remembered being an immensely bored teenager growing up in country Victoria, counting down the days til the next Freeza. In that moment I thought-you lucky bastards- and considered whether Dark MOFO was perhaps more for them than for older art hags like myself. Or maybe I’ve just been to Burning Man too many times and my expectations are now massively out of proportion. And I fucking hate queuing and I hate being cold. These forces beyond the Dark MOFO team’s control are all definite contributors to my fun-levels.
What I did love, as I always do, was that snarky bastard Gareth Liddiard. He reminisced on a fight he passed in Salamanca years ago, where two guys brutally glassed each other in the street to John Farnham’s ‘You’re the Voice.’ Classic tales of Australiana amidst Liddiard’s belting lyrics, making it feel like he’s punching your soul repeatedly through your guts.
The Bass Bath, presented by Byron J Scullin and Supple Fox was a sensorially overloaded experience akin to being beamed up inside an alien spacecraft; I could’ve happily sat there for half an hour thinking up all manner of Philip K. Dick-esque abduction scenarios, and it was this experience that most brought the surreal darkness I was told to expect from Dark MOFO.
The low-key conversation between Walsh and Abramovic was however definitely the highlight of my weekend. An intriguing dance between the mystic and the mathematician, Walsh was coy but knowledgeable, prodding Abramovic’s intensely direct conversational style that she peppered with many jokes in her broken English. Hearing her say ‘your art shrink my bollocks’ in her thick Serbian accent was wonderfully amusing. Abramovic in person is self-effacing while exuding a commanding physical presence – whatever else she does, there’s no denying she possesses the personal qualities demanded of all successful gurus.
During the talk, Walsh seemed rather enamoured or in the least subdued. His famous acid tongue was strikingly nowhere to be seen. As question time drew to a close, Kirsha Kaechele, Walsh’s wife stood up and asked in a clear and cheeky tone ‘Darling, are you okay? Why are you going so easy on all this magical thinking? I’m worried about you,’ before a huge torrent of laughter exploded from the room. His response answered everything:
‘So, in regards to this magical thinking, as opposed to my reductionist reality … they are arguably or one would argue under the circumstances, not compatible, but; let me use an anecdote, a joke that Woody Allen told, to show why I’m tolerant to Marina’s worldview where I normally wouldn’t. A bloke goes into a psychiatrist and he says “Doctor, you’ve got to help my brother, he thinks he’s a chook,“ so he says “well I can’t help him unless you bring him in.” He says well I would bring him in, but I need the eggs.’