Live Review: MONA FOMA, part one

SunRa-0951-2014’s Chloe Mayne checks out MONA FOMA, an annual festival based in Tasmania:

I’m going to hazard a guess and say that you’ve all heard of MoMA , the elegant New York governess of the art world – but how many of you know her twisted Tasmanian sibling, MONA? Even further, how many have ever met her? Buried in the cliffs of the Derwent River and ascended to from the waters like minions converging upon an ancient temple, the Museum of Old and New Art is the brainchild of the (at least, now) infamous professional gambler, and island local, David Walsh.

Walsh himself is as much of a curiosity as his architectural embodiment. Ringleader of what has been referred to as the world’s largest gambling syndicate, Bank Roll, he’s been banned from all of the country’s casinos for using his mathematical endowments to figure out how games work, and then win them (blackjack must be the only games in the world in which you get kicked out for knowing how to play). In partnership with Zeljko Ranogajec, Walsh essentially created a money mine when he was barely out of highschool. His endeavours have included computer programs which are able to make successful horseracing bets to, on one occasion, employing people to scribe every possible combination of a lottery ticket, and taking the jackpot. He’s even got a eight-year bet on a human life – that of the the French artist Christian Boltanski. His story is a sort of modern-day Rumpelstlitskin, a scruffy suburban kid spinning the space between playing cards into green note wads.

Walsh’s art collection is perverse, outrageous, and quite incredible. From ancient mummies and obese Porsches to defecating machinery, vulva casts and Picasso, the museum is a strange sensory carnival that is a real one of a kind. And if MONA is Walsh’s brainchild, MONA FOMA, the museum’s associated musical and arts festival, must be his favourite grandchild. Curated by Brian Ritchie, of Violent Femmes fame, MOFO (as it’s affectionately termed) is a self-absorbed five-day celebration of all that is decadent – music, food, wine and, of course, ‘art’. Hobart becomes Ritchie’s warped dreamscape and hedonistic celebration, occupying underused spaces and queerifiying what is, on most days, a slightly drowsy city on the outskirts of the world.

The location skipped across the harbour this year, inhabiting the recently renovated sheds on the Macquarie wharf. Jutting out into the salty Derwent, you could turn back and take in Hobart in all of its summertime splendour – Mount Wellington presiding over the proceedings from its windy peak, the city huddled about its base like the mussels clinging to the river rocks. While the Australian mainland was being cooked in its own skin by a heatwave, we were treated to a blissful five days of sunshine peppered with rain sprinkles and breeze-ketchup when we needed them.

The lineup was somewhat mysterious, as always – and there was no apparent headliner, unlike previous years when David Byrne, Nick Cave and PJ Harvey shook the banners. MOFO requires a certain level of trust, with a penchant for introducing us to our favourite artists that we just haven’t met yet. After the opening night (featuring dance-pop outfit Mofo-0665-2014World’s End Press), Thursday evening rolled slowly into gear with Mick Harvey and an array of his musical friends performing a tribute to Serge Gainsbourg. Although obviously very talented, Mick’s stage presence was about the same size as the ripples caused by a pin dropped into water (that is, quite small) – but this was more than made up for by a pair of sultry back-up singers who stared down the crowd through kohl-blackened tiger eyes and seductively shifted their weight from hip to hip, emanating suggestions of Gainsbourg’s lovers Jane Birkin and Brigitte Bardot. We weren’t treated to a rendition of Birkin’s infamous heavy breathing (i.e. Je T’Aime Moi Non Plus), though it was a polished and enjoyable performance all the same.

Next up was the intercontinental art-collective collaboration Slave Pianos and Punkasila, our first of many ascensions into the outer galaxies over the course of the weekend. There were silver jumpsuits, fluorescent headbands and custom made double-pronged guitars in gem shapes that must have been borrowed from MarioWorld – or at least, the cartoon landscape/video installation that played behind them. The sound itself was a mix of hollering, toothy-grinned punk-pop interspersed with Indian yodelling and long, long solos from the grand pianist, during which the other members stood motionless, frozen in paused video-game time. Just as we were lulling off and getting comfortable, they threw themselves back into motion and sound like cannonballs, thrusting us back onto our feet for a fiery, foot-stomping send-off.

SunRa-1082-2014Sun Ra Arkestra, resplendent in sequinned garments that covered the entire colour spectrum, cordially invited us all aboard their wooden houseboat and paddled us up the Nile with a whole lotta brass. Beginning as a jungle party in the glaring sunshine it was all bongos and belly tops, the summer light streaming an ultraviolet mist through the warehouse windows. As it set, the walls were painted velvet and we sunk back into the sticky, sweaty grooves, strapping on seatbelts for our journey across the Milky Way – orbiting at strange speeds and accented by involuntary shoulder jazz-kinks. The light trails one privately enjoys inside their eyelid-backs were realised in physical form as Marshall Allen conducted us with wrist flicks and Noel Scott flipped and cartwheeled across the stage, glittered cape flapping like the flag of an unknown planet. We were giddy by the end – not only was it a steamy night, but they played for a staggering two hours, rather than the seventy minutes originally allotted them.

After stopping for a box of salty chips at the floating fish punnets and dousing ourselves in purple glitter, it was up and over the hill to the festival afterparty, Faux Mo. If MOFO is Walsh’s grandchild, then Faux Mo must be some kind of alien second cousin, the one that paints his fingernails gold and wears a leotard and fishnets to afternoon tea at Nanna’s house. Beautiful drag queens circled the crowds like peacocks, waving feather headresses; a giant space shuttle seethed smoke outside on the grass, and over at the laundry disco (accessible via a yellow slippery slide) inebriated bodies cut loose on top of washing machines. An upstairs hall, dripping with red curtains and dim lighting, hosted exotic go-go dancers that hung from the roof like spiders, punctuated with an overdose of mirror balls and cheesy pop hits.

GoochPalms-1287-2014Outside at the Car Park Stage Newcastle duo The Gooch Palms came out of nowhere as the secret resident band of the evening and blasted us with deliciously raucous garage – Leroy Macqueen drooled white froth down his chest, stripped off his alarmingly small gold shorts and regaled us with his genitalia, finishing the act by pouring a can of beer, thrown to him by a rowdy audience member, over his head (he was even so kind as to give the guy one of his own beers in return). Their sound was outrageously full for a guitar and a pair of drums, and I’m actually a little stuck for adjectives. They were just great. My neck still hurts from throwing my head about so aggressively, and if I had a Mona Foma chocolate cake for the most explosive set of the festival, I would proudly give it to them. Macqueen was hobbling about on crutches later in the night, and told me he’d trodden on a nasty shard of broken bottle just a few days previous and could hardly walk. If that wasn’t a true punk effort, then, I don’t know what is.

The rest of the evening I toured the area as though in a fairground, stumbling upon innumerable attractions. I climbed aboard the space shuttle and was treated to a combination of avant-garde cartoons and classical music while our face-painted hosts cooed, cawed and cackled at the screen.

Eventually, I wound up in a small room at the end of a hallway, reminiscent of a school corridor, and a pair of rubber earplugs were thrust into my hand. I seized the opportunity and joined the ensuing silent disco, considerably preferring this music to the DJs elsewhere – a looping chorus of giggles hushed with a long, primary-school-teacher shhhhh. Then, like a rush of wind, sound hit the air. And it was the good ol’ stuff – Bowie, Kinks, Buzzcocks and, of course, the Stones (not the slightly frightening Stones remixes being pawned outside). The incredibly tiny miniature-man Imaan Hadchiti careered about the room, grinding people’s knees and headbutting their, er, butts.

We danced the carpets threadbare, our cheeks ripening to a flush, and I would have been there until lunchtime if they hadn’t turned the classroom lights on and shuffled us gently out the gate, wise shepherds guiding lame and drunken sheep. The hyped-up walk home included shopping trolley races, street cats and noise complaints. I gratefully collapsed into bed as the sun teased its way through a crack in the curtains, bouncing off the glitter trails on my pillow.

Chloe Mayne


Words by Chloe Mayne. Photos by Phil Kitt. Now check out part two of this review.