Australia’s Most Surreal Midwinter Festival Celebrates Art, Darkness, and Naked Swimming

Dark Mofo is not for the faint of heart.

Australia’s Most Surreal Midwinter Festival Celebrates Art, Darkness, and Naked Swimming

Dark Mofo is unlike any other festival.

Photo by Xavier Hoenner/Shutterstock

Laurie Anderson invites us to scream. “Think about North Korea,” the artist prompts. “Think about nuclear war, school shootings, melting polar ice caps, everything going wrong in your life.”

She coaxes us to let out something primal and uncensored, like the 19-second wail Yoko Ono recorded in response to the election of Donald Trump. We look around at each other as if requesting permission. But on the count of three, we unleash a hair-raising howl that harmonizes and reverberates out from Hobart’s Odeon Theater.

This is my introduction to Dark Mofo: a music and arts festival held in the dead of winter in Australia’s coldest capital. Put on by MONA (the Museum of Old and New Art)—which its founder David Walsh calls the “museum of sex and death”—the festival has gained a reputation for taking the museum’s no-limits ethos to disturbing new heights and shaking Tasmania out of winter hibernation.

As fans of MONA living in much sunnier Sydney, my husband and I were intrigued by the idea of exploring Australia’s dark side. So we boarded the two-hour flight to Hobart, along with a plane full of artists and revelers, and within a few hours, found ourselves screaming at the top of our lungs.


Hobart lights up after dark for two weeks during Dark Mofo.

Courtesy of Dark Mofo

Anderson’s performance, All the Things I Lost in the Flood, is my first hint of the festival’s larger impact. She forces my thoughts into uncomfortable corners before releasing them into the cold, dark night. Between mournful violin strokes and punchy poetry, Anderson becomes her male alter ego, and through a deep distorted voice, delivers lines that stay with me all week:

“What are days for? To wake us up/ To put between the endless nights/ What are nights for?/ To fall through time into another world.”

For the two weeks of Dark Mofo, the quaint harbor city of Hobart becomes another world, one bathed in the eerie glow of red LED lights and giant crosses flipped upside-down like swords.

Along Battery Point and in the wharf area known as Dark Park, bonfires smolder and steel pyramids spit fire like the gates of hell. A waterfront warehouse is transformed into the paganesque Winter Feast, where crosses and candles light communal tables, and diners eat spit-roasted beef and chocolate mousse eyeballs paired with spiced cider, mulled wine, and hot toddies.


Spiced cider and mousse eyeballs are on the menu.

Photo by Jesse Hunniford

At the weekend Night Mass, heavy metal, bloody wrestling matches, and other edgy performances play out across a Gotham City–like maze of dimly-lit bars and smoking alleyways. The characters of this dream world dress in red and black, wear dark makeup around drooping eyes, and smell of propane and rain. Most of them speak in Australian accents, but a growing percentage are coming from overseas.

Over five surreal days (of 15 total), my husband and I become two of these characters and see things that wake us up. On our second night, we watch as 73-year-old performance artist Mike Parr climbs into an underground chamber where he remains buried beneath a busy road for 72 hours.


Just someone being buried in a road

Photo by Jesse Hunniford

The day after that, we stumble into an exhibition on Enochian magic and sit before a kneeling bearded man who rocks himself into a throat-singing trance. At Night Mass, a woman who goes by the stage name Betty Grumble appears naked from the waist down holding a jar of red paint. Assuming her position at a paper-lined weight-lifting bench, she introduces her act as “the world’s first pussy printing press.” (Your imagination can take it from here.) Sure, some shows blur the boundary between art and spectacle, but most achieve what I think Dark Mofo is all about: opening our eyes and minds and making us dwell in discomfort before we can come out the other side. “If it happens to make people uncomfortable, or they question their own response, then it’s probably good art,” said Leigh Carmichael, creative director of DarkLab—the think tank behind Dark Mofo—in an interview.


It’s swim caps only for the winter solstice swim.

Photo by Rémi Chauvin

The festival culminates with a polar swim on the winter solstice, during which hundreds of bathers wearing nothing but red swim caps jump into the icy Derwent River for a cleanse. And on the last night, a Balinese-style ogoh-ogoh ceremony burns a papier-mâché tarantula on a rope net along with the fears of the public scrawled on bits of paper, symbolizing the final transformation from darkness to light. Death to rebirth. The most powerful experience for me occurs on a boat trip up the Derwent River. Staring at the silver reflection of the moon on the inky water, the other passengers and I don headsets to listen to Waterborne, a 26-minute audio recording about a dead body decaying in an estuary.

The boat gently rocks me into meditation, and I can picture the play-by-play of my body’s decomposition. “You are fully submerged, face down, drifting slowly along,” a soft female voice explains. “Your muscles relax. Your lower back and buttocks float just below the surface. Your head, arms, and legs hang limply down towards the river bed.”

The story continues with real forensic details of how you, or I, become a skeleton in salt water—“Your hands deglove, and the skin is taken away on the tide to dissolve in the water. When you wash up on shore, birds pick at what’s left of your brain. Finally, your bodily fluids evaporate from the sea into rain, and waves pound your bones into sand.”

When the recording ends, all is quiet except for river water lapping against the boat and the distant thrum of Dark Mofo back on land. Despite having just confronted my own death, I feel strangely at peace and newly connected to life.

“What are nights for?” I hear Laurie Anderson ask. Then I remember her answer: “I think we’re supposed to have a really fucking good time.”

The next Dark Mofo festival will be held June 14–23 2019. For program and ticket information, visit But that’s not the only way to warm up and get inspired around Hobart in winter. On Saturdays, don’t miss the Salamanca Market in Salamanca Place and the traditional Irish jam session at the New Sydney Hotel that’s been running for more than 20 years. Mulled wine and spiced cider are a bonus in winter.

Of course, no trip to Hobart is complete without a visit to the MONA museum, which debuted its new Pharos wing at the end of 2017. Other winter highlights within a short drive include a roast lunch at The Agrarian Kitchen Eatery in New Norfolk; whale watching off Bruny Island; touring Tasmanian whiskey distilleries; and hunting for the Southern Lights at south-facing viewpoints such as Mount Wellington.

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Serena has a deep interest in people and a desire to document life’s journeys. That’s what led her to AFAR, after spending a year as the travel editor at Diablo magazine. She caught the travel bug during a study abroad trip to Granada, Spain. In the four months of her trip, she visited nine countries, from Morocco to Austria, and learned how to have real conversations in Spanish. Since her days of tapas and tinto de veranos, she’s explored the backwaters of Kerala, India; snorkeled with sharks in the Galapagos Islands; and driven through 11 U.S. national parks in a single summer. She now edits the Wander section, and hopes to take her travels further east.
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