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mona foma 2012


the sweet music of art-driven tasmania

gavin findlay: mona foma 2012, week 2, hobart

Canberra-based Gavin Findlay lived in Tasmania for 10 years and, declaration of interest, was the founding Chair of IHOS Opera 1990-95.

IHOS Opera, The Barbarians IHOS Opera, The Barbarians
photo Lucia Rossi
HAVING LIVED IN TASMANIA FOR 10 VERY FORMATIVE YEARS, IT WAS A JOY TO RETURN TO THE ISLAND TO EXPERIENCE THE TRANSFORMATION THAT MONA (MUSEUM OF OLD AND NEW ART) AND ITS FOMA MUSIC FESTIVAL ARE WREAKING ON HOBART. MONA HAS SURPASSED THE HARROWING PORT ARTHUR AS THE PRIMARY TOURIST DRAWCARD IN THE STATE. THIS IS A SEISMIC SHIFT IN TASMANIAN CULTURE AND MARKS A PSYCHIC BORDER.

With the economy perpetually moribund, the state government has had no choice but to respond, spending $30 million on a long overdue upgrade of the Tasmanian Museum and Gallery, for which the first exhibition will be a combined effort with MONA. Tasmanians have certainly responded. It is deeply satisfying to see people from all walks of life happily queuing up, eager for the next MONA experience, the likes of which would only recently have been condemned in many quarters.

Everyone’s favourite Brechtian Goth-Punk, Amanda Fucking Palmer, truly made this edition of the festival her own. The Dresden Dolls’ reunion performance on the second Friday night won many converts with its vitality, the virtuosity of drummer Brian Viglione a revelation (think Terry Bozzio during his Frank Zappa years), but that was just the start. With The Death Grips sadly cancelled, Palmer and Viglione backed up the next night with a MOFO superband, joining Bad Seed Mick Harvey, PJ Harvey producer John Parrish and MONA FOMA producer and former Violent Femmes bassist Brian Ritchie to play the songs of the much-loved Violent Femmes debut album to a rapturous reception. The climax was a two-hour flat out Dresden Dolls set in the wee small hours of the final Sunday morning in the laneway of the Faux MO festival club, patrons hanging off fences and fire escapes and totally dizzy with disbelief that it was actually happening.

Wim Delvoye’s major exhibition at MONA is, according to its website, “provoking heated debate about the ethical integrity of his work” among staff. It features skins of the artist’s tattooed pigs and of “living artwork” Tattooed Tim. This comment seems surprising given MONA owner David Walsh’s well-known devotion to transgressive art, until you become aware of his vegetarianism; then the gesture becomes an admirable statement of commitment to the personal quest underlying the whole venture. This exhibition is the largest of Delvoye’s work ever assembled, with multiple Cloaca machines in addition to the one permanently installed at MONA, and numerous other works such as a life-size truck and wooden cement mixer carved in his meticulous and delicate filigree, plus playful distortions of Disney imagery that surely have that notoriously litigious franchise plotting a slow and painful retribution. Like MONA overall, the show overwhelms (most of) the senses: so much so that it ultimately creates a deficit of touch. There is so much work here about the body, yet bringing bodies and objects into contact is almost always forbidden in art museums, even a place like this.

In delicate contrast to Delvoye’s appropriation of Disney was the complete rejection of that corporate colonisation of our subconscious by the group Armiina, from Iceland. Originally an offshoot of Sigur Rós, they produced charming, winsome soundtracks to 1920s shadow-play films of classic fairytales by Lotte Reiniger, themselves a revelation. This was one of many intimate gems that were dotted about MONA FOMA. Another was Sonia Leber and David Chesworth’s sound installation Shape Shifter, which is simply one of the best explorations of interior resonances I have experienced.

I’m kicking myself at missing Michaela Davies’ While Rome Burns, featuring a string quartet powered by electro-muscular stimulation (there’s a great snippet on YouTube at http://youtu.be/6jTKfCCmT10) and not getting in early enough for a seat for Ed Kuepper. The only major disappointment, however, was oppressively stuffy (verging on unsafe) conditions for the PJ Harvey gig, which would have been far better suited to a seated auditorium.

The highlight of MONA FOMA in the week I attended was The Barbarians, a major new work by IHOS Opera commissioned for the festival. IHOS and its director Constantine Koukias are clearly revelling in their position as premier local artists for FOMA. Who wouldn’t? Brian Ritchie even supplied the poem that forms its libretto, “Welcome the Barbarians” (1904) by Constantine Cavafy. It explores the simultaneous fear of, and desire for, the other/unknown/invader, a fundamental strand in the vast expanse of Greek cultural history, overlaid with millennia of invasions, sometimes successfully resisted but many times resulting in cultural fusion.

The Barbarians is a landmark for the company, the third in the series of deeply personal major works that began with Days and Nights with Christ (Sydney Festival, 1992) and To Traverse Water (Melbourne International Arts Festival, 1995). That it has been so long in coming is a reflection of the personal journey of Koukias and his efforts to establish and maintain for 21 years a contemporary opera company. That he has managed to make work that is both cutting-edge and accessible in Hobart is all the more notable. Koukias achieves this balance through a musical language based in Byzantine Church chant, part of the root-stock of all Western music.

Scintillating visual and sound design are hallmarks, as are the sonorities of languages other than English, but what truly makes IHOS unique is the central role of movement in unfolding the text. This production saw the welcome return to IHOS of Melbourne-based Christos Linou as choreographer and dancer. His tour de force performance, naked for the entire show, was juxtaposed with the lush orchestration and polished singers and orchestra. The whole is bounded by sounds that genuinely create fear in the listener. Little wonder David Walsh attended twice and was reportedly raving in the festival club about this beautiful, transgressive masterpiece. This can only bode well for the future of IHOS and for contemporary music and performance in Tasmania.


Video excerpts from The Barbarians can be viewed on YouTube

2012 MONA FOMA, Hobart, Jan 13-22; http://mofo.net.au/

Canberra-based Gavin Findlay lived in Tasmania for 10 years and, declaration of interest, was the founding Chair of IHOS Opera 1990-95.

RealTime issue #108 April-May 2012 pg. 10

© Gavin Findlay; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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