Winter Feasts: MONA’s Dark Mofo and The Red Queen

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Vogue Living contributing editor Dijana Kumurdian headed to Hobart’s Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) to catch up with curators Nicole Durling and Olivier Varenne about Dark Mofo, its celebration of the winter solstice, and the gallery’s latest exhibitions.

It might be considered unusual practice for a major gallery to organise an arts festival around the darkest time of the year in the coldest part of the country, but MONA, owned by the intriguing David Walsh, is an unusual place. Coordinated by MONA’s senior curators, London-based international art specialist Olivier Varenne and Melbourne-based Nicole Durling, the launch of the gallery’s latest exhibition The Red Queen intersected with winter festival Dark Mofo (which finished on June 23) and was organised by Leigh Carmichael.linebreak

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Beam In Thine Own Eye added another dimension to the 10-day program, with 12 visceral interactive artworks comprising MONA’s first large-scale public art exhibition, including light installation artist Ryoji Ikeda’s sublime Spectra.
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“The Dark Mofo festival has been created for the solstice of winter,” says Varenne, “and the exhibition Beam In Thine Own Eye is a response to this festival – so it’s a festival where there are a lot of works that are immersive: it’s an introspection of yourself. The theme of Red Queen is why art exists and why art has existed for 20,000 years. So it’s kind of complementary to the festival, but it’s not a dark exhibition. It’s not about the darkness.”

Visiting MONA is considered an immersive experience in itself: being transported down the wide Derwent River and descending the rock-engulfed spiral staircase to the gallery’s belly three-storeys deep seems to allude to the journey to Hades or, rather more philosophically, the journey inside oneself.
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“By being in the dark – because there’s no natural light and there’s very low lighting – it’s kind of demanding and confronting,” says Durling. “Without [wall] labels, it’s just you and the work. It’s really like a confrontation between the work, the building, the roughness of the building and the elements (the rock). So it’s kind of unique in itself.”

Dark Mofo seemed to engulf the city in a similar way, attracting both locals and visitors to its hub, the Winter Feast, a magical pagan-style dining hall catered with stalls by the likes of Porteño in Sydney and MoVida in Melbourne. Light installations, pyrotechnics and musical performances seemed ever-present, and celebrations culminated nightly at festival club Dark Faux Mo or Saturday night’s one-night mini-festival Satanalia.
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Though functioning as stand-alone exhibitions, the artworks hung for The Red Queen, the works in Beam In Thine Own Eye and the installations and performances put on for Dark Mofo share an appreciation for new technologies: pieces commissioned for The Red Queen and new media artworks are displayed indiscriminately alongside classic artworks and ancient artifacts. Even Sidney Nolan’s famous Snake painting, said to be the masterwork of the gallery, was controversially uninstalled for the new exhibition.
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“Technology has changed but the essence of making art, and of creation, is probably the same as 100,000 years ago or 20,000 years ago. That’s why we’ve got so much video in this exhibition and so much technology – to show that technology is around us, but there is no question that the essence of the art piece is the same as one of the coins made 2000 years ago,” says Varenne.linebreak

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“There are theories that art is a biological adaption,” says Durling. “So, of course, human beings are adapting to the things that are advancing around them. And this is exactly the point of The Red Queen. Yes, maybe, there is quite a lot of video work and the latest cutting-edge digital technology being used, but as Olivier said, the ideas and the essence of the works and the motivations behind them – we’re hypothesising – are the same thing. Of course our environment is something we all respond to in a different way, but at the base level we’re all made up of the same stuff.”
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Those less interested in the gallery experience were able to visit Spectra at Hobart’s Cenotaph, where Ikeda had set up 49 searchlights projecting beams 15 kilometres into the sky. It was this installation that most obviously demonstrated the visceral experience the festival was driving at, and MONA’s interest in art as a basic human drive.
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“It has so many levels and it is sublime, it is breathtaking,” says Varenne. “I think that art sometimes – I don’t think always – but sometimes it should have this sort of effect. I don’t think we want to have that too often.

“They’re like symphonies, Beam In Thine Own Eye and The Red Queen. Different movements, different strands into sublimeness, from the smallest to the biggest, from the oldest to the youngest.”
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The Red Queen runs until April 21, 2014 at MONA, 655 Main Road, Berriedale Hobart. Beam In Thine Own Eye is open until July 28 at various locations around Hobart.

Words: Dijana Kumurdian
Photography: Rémi Chauvin. Ivana Franke image courtesy of the artist.

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