Dark Mofo, The Red Queen & Staying in the MONA Pavilions

Dark Mofo was why I booked flights but I’d wanted to make the trek – well, the very easy plane ride – down to Tassie for a while. It’s ridiculous how small you imagine Tasmania to be before you go there. I incorrectly imagined Hobart to be just a couple of main streets, the same way I imagine all regional Victorian towns to be up and to the left of Melbourne (I know, unfair and completely impractical). In reality it’s a thriving but chilled out hub, where the English, missing home, built a city to replicate one of their own when they settled in. It reminded me of the northern English city, Sheffield, the temperate climate lending it dreary but still very pretty scenery.

Catching the shuttle from the airport to our hotel (a rip off unless you’re traveling alone), my boyfriend and I warm ourselves from the inside with the New Sydney Hotel’s mulled cider before getting stuck in to Dark Mofo.


With a media ticket and spare lanyard, we can avoid the Prince-after-party length line to buy tickets to Dark Faux Mo and walk straight in. Held in the Odeon Theatre, built in 1916 as a replica of NYC’s the Strand, the venue is our first encounter with the slightly sinister feeling of Dark Mofo events. Bathed in red light, with red carpeting and chairs, the former cinema felt seemingly abandoned but full of people, like the ballroom scene of The Shining. Really, the building is just in a state of limbo before development plans for the complex take place, but it’s a brilliant idea to harness this atmosphere for a festival devoted to the dark.

It’s also the first time we realise how many Melburnians are populating Hobart for the weekend. You can’t spill your beer without it splashing on a friend, acquaintance, or that guy with whom you have an unspoken mutual agreement not to recognise. When Zanzibar Chanel takes to the stage, the dance floor could easily be that of the Liberty Social back in Melbourne. When buying a drink we’re asked to pay a deposit on our plastic, MONA stamped cups. Everyone gets to keep their official MONA cups for refills and as souvenirs. Heading upstairs we pass the cupboard rave every review has mentioned. Of course, it’s rad, but you can’t really be a part of it in the corridor. You’re either all in, or nothing. I resist the urge to twerk in the hallway, knowing I will look like a knob and just be in people’s way. The line for the bar means we end up doing double shots at the bar and then a beer each on top of that. Ten minutes later, our night is over. (The hotel toilet bowl will learn in the morning how much that double Makers Mark was.)

The next morning we rise late and have burgers for brunch (I eat my first wallaby. No really). Navigating the Salamanca Markets we decide to do something touristy and book ourselves in for a trip up Mount Wellington. At first I don’t think the half an hour they give us at the peak will be long enough, but 28 minutes later in -4 degrees* and not enough layers I’m ready to get back on the bus. There’s snow up here. It’s a very cinematic view, with rolling moor-looking hills and so many rocks they look they’ve been trucked up and dumped here.

Back to Hobart, we head down to MAC1 for Beam In Thine Own Eye. David Walsh’s description of the exhibition is a bit convoluted and long-winded, referencing Thomas the Doubter etc., but from what I can gather, BITOE is basically just challenging you to look at things from different perspectives and recognise there’s more than one way to observe the same object or idea.

Mirrors held together in a cube by ropes reflect what it says on the box: ‘A Cubic Metre of Infinity’, ‘Lament of the Images’ by Alfredo Jaar tells complementing histories tied in with photo imagery. One tells the story of Nelson Mandela being freed from Robbin Island, describing how he blinked into the light when exiting the prison. You’re still thinking about this as you enter another room behind you and are met with a blindingly white, floor-to-ceiling screen, and you find yourself blinking like Mandela did. Going from simply imagining to experiencing that moment. A few of the other exhibits, such as Ivana Franke’s ‘We Close Our Eyes and See a Flock of Birds’ have lines too long to wait in for those just passing through. We have to book into Kurt Hentschlager’s ‘Zee’, the exhibit everyone’s been talking about with both hesitant fear and excitement, which only takes 12 people at a time. We don’t get a time until 11pm that night.

When we return later that night, warnings are read and indemnity forms signed. Walking into ‘Zee’, you’re blinded with white fog and light, removing any perception of depth, which at first is very unnerving and you hold onto the rope guiding you around the room a little tighter. They warn you about the lights, but really it’s the artificial fog which is hard to take. We’re told the initial coughing will go away and to breathe through our noses. Stroboscopes, pulsing lights and music (which interestingly neither I or my boyfriend remember hearing), then show you how your eyes really work. Creating kaleidoscopic colours from purely white light, the synesthesia is almost too much to take. Being a fainter, I note how close I am to blacking out, which without the usual nausea isn’t actually that bad.

Outside, the burning MONA X and cross again bring on that ominous feeling again. With it not getting to much above 10 degrees during the day (God knows what at night) means that some form of outside heating is necessary, and Dark Mofo has chosen the post-apocalyptic option of fires from disused oil barrels. It’s the right kind of vibe to lead you into Japanese noise band Boris’ set inside. It all feels very horror movie.

The temperature drops a little lower and we decide to call it a night at around 2am. But not before we make the pilgrimage to Ryoji Ikeda’s ‘Spectra’. Where the searchlight beams are placed means technically you have to walk a couple of hundred metres along a highway, but most people can’t be bothered doing that, so scale almost cliff-like rocks or climb through fences. It feels like everyone is scrambling toward this light the quickest way they can without much thought for safety, not much different to moths. Standing within the 49 beams and looking up feels like a temple – somewhat appropriate for the night of the winter solstice.

* We’re told that anyone who was remotely hungover was banned from doing the Nude Solstice Swim that morning, as the temperature of the water would have caused a too great a shock to their system.


Tasmanians and children under 16 get in for free, though between full body portraits of transsexuals and simulating your own euthanised death, I don’t know if you’d really want to bring along the kids. I watched Se7en when I was 11-years-old and, despite not even being shown Gwyneth’s head in a box, it stayed with me for a very long time.

In my mind I think I imagined MONA to be a lot like the ’90s computer gameMyst – all low fog and ominous buildings – and thanks to coming to Hobart in the middle of winter this illusion isn’t ruined for me. Riding the MONA ROMA camo ferry comes with its own tour of the port and the Derwent River, the captain giving us the society pages of what all the big ships are doing in the area.

The 9:30am ferry gets us to MONA right in time for opening the doors but we bypass the entrance to find the MONA Pavilions. We splurged on this trip, deciding to take in the full MONA experience by staying there. Our pavilion, the Esmond, isn’t ready yet but we can leave our bags and visit the museum for free in the meantime. The entrance is supposed to be disappointing for visitors, Walsh not wanting to announce the treasures that are hidden inside. His tennis court out the front is further meant to emphasise this. Is it an art installation? No, David Walsh just likes to play tennis.

Descending the spiral staircase, moving past each layer of the lime sandstone and the exposed foundations of the building, you start MONA at the bottom and work your way up. Your arrival is greeted by a Void Bar, because booze makes art better. I dash off to quickly use the bathrooms, and as I sit down in my cubicle I’m greeted with projected video of Hobart and the Derwent River on the ground in front of me. Officially one of the most bizarre encounters with art I’ve had. Fun, too, that it seems to be triggered by sitting down on a toilet, so approximately 50% of the cubicle’s visitors miss out.

The first thing you should know about MONA is that most works revolve around sex and death, David Walsh sees these two factors as the drivers behind many of the artworks featured in his museum. These two broad themes extend out to include evolution, religion, morality and all the other big thinking ideas.

No plaques feature throughout the museum, instead you have your ‘O’ to guide you through. It’s essentially an iPod with an app installed which uses wifi to locate you in the museum and give you info on the works nearby. It’s handy, but at times frustrating when it can’t locate the artwork you’re standing directly in front of, or displays all the works from the room above you. But aside from this, it’s great in that it gives you as much information and ideas to ponder as you desire, while also tracking your journey through the museum, saving it, and sending it to your email.

‘Pulse Room’ is the first interactive exhibit. Visitors can grip heart monitors to have their heartbeat recorded and then mimicked in a lightbulb. Following the string of lightbulbs, you’re led into a room full of pulses.As each new heartbeat is added to the line of heartbeats, one drops off – welcome to the circle of life.

The velvet curtained room is a prime example of where the old and new art in the museum meet. Ancient Roman coins and Egyptian sarcofagi feature alongside sculptures of blown up suicide bombers sculpted from chocolate and a trophy rug made from kitten pelt. It makes you think how much art has changed over the years but also stayed the same.

This is the idea behind the temporary exhibition The Red Queen (I think), but personally it doesn’t seem very cohesive. It’s more a collection of loosely linked ideas of evolution and ephemerality that don’t really tell an overall story. (We’re told in a tour the following day that David doesn’t like to tell visitors what to think, maybe that’s why?) That’s not to say that the artworks themselves aren’t captivating. The performance piece ‘Cut Papers #15’ by Sachiko Abe of her kneeling among reams and reams strips of white paper while she slowly cuts more is beautiful. She apparently started cutting paper as a form of therapy, and sitting there in silence watching her feels intensely intimate but calming.

‘The Depraved Pursuit of a Possum’ sees Tessa Farmer use taxidermy and some crafty skills to painstakingly recreate the scene of a hive of bees preying on a possum, but with one tiny adjustment. Farmer has created fairies, presumably from insect leftovers, to join the fray. ‘Nowhere Less Now’ by Lindsay Seers is a video tale interweaving stories that are autobiographic family history, genetics, and are even made up or coincidental. The story of sharing heterochromic eyes with her great-uncle born 100 years earlier than her to the day threads through the piece, and is even reflected in the two spherical screens the video is shown on. The coincidences highlighted throughout and the breathy voice in which Seers tells the story, come across as quite creepy.

Most of the works in MONA each have something interesting to offer. It’s impossible and would be full of spoiler alerts to talk about many of the brilliant works. There are of course works that stand out in memory. In ‘Kryptos’, artist Brigita Ozolins explores her fascination with language. Her monolithic tomb-like installation is covered in binary code and random English words, the binary numbers encoding a translation of the Mesopotamian text, ‘The Epic of Gilgamesh’. The ancient and new languages are juxtaposed and, as demonstrated by being entombed, remind us that one day our own words might be obsolete. There’s also another work by ‘Spectra’ creator Ryoji Ikeda. Another gigantic-scale work, ‘DATA.TRON’, features Matrix-style numbers rolling through code, and has most likely been the number. 1 MONA work in your Instagram news feed. Laying by ‘DATA. TRON’, is a giant steel head created by Gregory Barsamian. Port holes around the head let you glimpse into what appears to be a stop motion scene inspired by of one of Barsamian’s dreams. It reminds me of the French film The Science of Sleep.

I feel like I went through the museum in depth, but my O tour sent to my email address tells me I missed 71 works. Compare that to the 94 works I did see, and that’s a lot to miss. Admittedly there were a few I didn’t read about or couldn’t find on my O, so here’s hoping that’s why the number is so high.


There are a lot of factors that make you feel like you’re residing at a Bond villain lair when staying in one of the MONA pavilions. Such as David Walsh’s apartment being built into the side of the hill and actually part of MONA (if you look up in one part of the museum, you can see through a glass roof to the floor of his living room. It was meant to be one way glass so he could see in, but there was a mistake made when the building was being constructed and so spying is now a two-way street), the Myst associations, the winter fog, and being driven to our pavilion in a golf buggy like No.6 inThe Prisoner. But nothing lends to this feeling more than when you’re only one of a handful of people on the MONA property. We’re staying in the Esmond pavilion for two days – a Monday and Tuesday. MONA is closed on Tuesdays so roaming the grounds with no museum visitors around is like wandering about a millionaire/Bond villain’s backyard, giant chessboards and all.

The Esmond, named after Australian architect Esmond Dorney, is one of eight pavilions. It has a big kitchen with the most tempting mini-bar known to man, including a fully stocked wine fridge of all of the Moorilla Estate wines and beer. Plus wireless touch panels to control ‘climate’, lighting, and entertainment, wifi, king-sized bed, spa bath, Bang & Olufsen phone, and TVs in the living room, bedroom and bathroom. The rooms are decked out with designer furniture, like the Anima Causa Feel seat and the specially made rug below. It’s a place where no expense is spared, even the shampoo and conditioner are Aesop, rather than a shitty hotel brand. There’s also a mini-bookcase stocked with books from David Walsh’s personal collection. Books range from Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, biographies on artists like Brett Whiteley (another pavilion is named after him), and Life of Pee: The Story of How Urine Got Everywhere.

We aren’t too concerned with staying on campus when MONA isn’t open, and it turns out we are rewarded. On Monday night, after making use of the infinity pool and sauna, we discover The Source restaurant is closed, but Joe at reception takes our room service order and offers us a complimentary glass of wine for coming all the way from our room (approx. 250 metres max). We end up being offered the rest of the wine used for the cellar door tasting that day. We graciously accept. My boyfriend craves a cigarette, and with none at the front desk, Joe offers to drive us down the road in the golf buggy. It’s a fruitless journey because everything is closed by 9pm. Later he drops by our room with two cigarettes he bummed off the security guard. Now that’s real five star service.

On Tuesday we play with the giant chess and check out the artwork that’s exposed to the elements.

MONA hasn’t forgotten about us just because it’s closed today either. We’re invited to join other pavilion guests and the manager of MONA for a private tour of the museum followed by a wine tasting at the Cellar Door for Moorilla Estate. We’re poured a glass of sparkling each and walked through the highlights of the museum and areas not usually open to the public, such as the Organ Room. The manager shares anecdotes and gives a bit more history of the estate MONA is built on. We’re also in time for the second feeding of the day of the ‘Cloaca Professional’ AKA the poo machine. I think it has just pooed and it smells really bad.

Afterward we head to the Moorilla Estate Cellar Door and make our way through the wine and beer list. We don’t make use of the spitoon. It’s a relaxed and informal tasting, and our attendant knows his stuff without putting on pretence. We go to buy a couple of bottles and he reminds us that everything we’ve tried is already in our rooms in the wine cellar. Dangerous. The kitchen is closed today but they’ve arranged for an antipasto platter to be delivered to our room.

The following morning we catch the ferry back to Hobart. Because it’s at 10am and going the wrong way for most people, we’re the only two passengers on board. It’s pretty special to have had all these MONA experiences to ourselves and it’s definitely worth spending the extra dollars for these treats.

MAIN PHOTO: Bianca Fioritti (other images from my Instagram)

Originally published 03 July 2013 on Everguide.com.au

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