Missing children, bloody scones, meat as murder: Dark Mofo's darkest moments - 15 minutes read

Dark Mofo cuts close to bone with confronting works about violence that involve the audience

More than 180 Tasmanian children have been killed or gone missing within a period of roughly 50 years — and nobody knows exactly how each of their stories unfolded.

We know that many of these children were abducted; some were shot, some drowned, and some were thrown into fires to burn alive; we know that some were dismembered and their body parts "pickled" and traded to scientists and collectors.

These are extraordinary, shocking statements of fact — perhaps more so in a country where missing children have such a powerful resonance (in real life and literature). They are unthinkable in an age where just one missing child makes headlines across decades.

But the Tasmanian children in question lived (and in many cases died) in Tasmania between 1803-1850 and they were Aboriginal children.

Most of them did not make the papers, let alone headlines — and most didn't receive burials. Most of their families never knew what happened to them.

The story of the missing and dead children has been unearthed by Tasmanian artist Julie Gough, who created a temporary "memorial" for 185 of them in Queens Domain: a winding bushland walk "fly-postered" with A4 sheets inscribed with the headline "MISSING" or "DEAD", a name (or if unknown, "Girl" or "Boy"), and a silhouette in profile, followed by biographical essentials.

For the last two weeks, members of the public could be found day and night poring over these posters as they trawled the scrub — on their way along Dark Path (the outdoor iteration of Dark Mofo's popular annual Dark Park precinct).

Dark Mofo has a justifiable reputation as a locus for confronting work — but you'd be hard-pressed to find a darker story in the festival's seven-year history than the missing and dead children memorialised in Gough's installation.

Missing or Dead is one of several works that haunted this year's Dark Mofo, seeping into the greater narrative of the festival and beyond.

In the performance Take This, For It Is My Body, audiences were invited to tea — and then served scones containing an "admixture of Aboriginal blood"; in the VR work Real Violence, we became bystanders to a shocking assault; in Pigpen, we were witness to a "birthing" — a supersized inflatable pig giving birth to human-sized latex-piglets — followed by a ritual slaughter of mother and babies.

These works cut through the hype by being not just confronting but timely; relevant to the time and place we live now.

Crucially, they also gave audience members "skin in the game", involving them in a situation and making them more than passive observers or recipients of a message or image.

Gough's Missing or Dead involved the audience emotionally through the "Missing" poster format — something ripped from the everyday life, rather than a history book.

It inevitably provoked in viewers the question: How would we react if this was happening right now in Australia? And does the fact that these events happened 200 years ago make them any more acceptable?

Gough's installation also overwhelmed walkers with its sheer scale and layout; following the winding paths and side-shoots into the scrub to "find" each child became almost a compulsive activity. No poster — no child — should be neglected.

I found myself in this position, and across two visits I saw many others making their way slowly, meticulously through the bush.

Gough told me that several people told her they felt they had to find each child; read every poster and biographical detail.

After all, what more powerful duty of care do we have than to a child?

Imagine if the child on the poster was your child: son or daughter, niece or nephew, grandchild.

And then imagine that the crime wasn't reported; that the people who did this to your child were not punished; that in fact many of them prospered.

Finally, imagine if your child had survived, had their own children and made their mark, across generations, on Tasmania.

Gough has been imagining all of this since the mid-1990s, when she moved to Tasmania and began to map her own family history: a maternal line from the Trawlwoolway people (north-east Tasmania) and a paternal line tracing to Scotland and Ireland.

Her ancestor Dalrymple Briggs is one of the children who survived; survived separation from her parents (who like the majority of surviving Tasmanian Aboriginal people, were exiled to Wybalenna on Flinders Island from 1830-1946), servitude, and even being shot by her "master".

Aged 12, Dalrymple successfully petitioned Queen Victoria for the release and return of her mother from Wybalenna.

But as Gough combed newspapers, journals, official correspondence and government ordinances from the era, she discovered many stories of Aboriginal children who were taken from their families as part of the Tasmanian colonial project, and who didn't survive.

Consider the story of John Shinall (aka Shiney), separated from his family by the time he was five years old and brought up amongst white people while working as a labourer. After he died, he was decapitated and his head embalmed then sent to the UK.

"If this happened to my nephew or grandchild now … if I was face to face with any of the people who did these things …". She trails off, shaking her head.

This is the legacy of trauma and unresolved tension that Tasmanians live with today.

Visitors to this year's Dark Path art walk could book tickets to a Devonshire-style supper of scones, jam, cream and tea in Government House.

This being Dark Mofo, there was a twist; this was not a polite or pleasurable experience. In fact, it's fair to say that it subverted most expectations.

The show's premise was hinted at in its title: Take This, for It is My Body.

Audience members were served scones containing an "admixture of Aboriginal blood", drawn from the individuals who made and served the meal: artist SJ Norman (a diasporic Koori of Wiradjuri descent, born on Gadigal country) and performers Carly Sheppard (a diasporic descendent of the Kurtjar people, born and raised on Kulin country), Naretha Williams (a Wiradjuri woman) and Sinsa Jo Mansell (a Tasmanian Aboriginal woman from the Northern region of Tasmania).

A "menu card" beside each place setting contained a brief history of race relations in Australia from first contact to the present, taking in the 146-year Frontier Wars, policies of protectionism and assimilation, the Stolen Generations, slavery, and the 1967 referendum.

The menu card continued with a chapter of personal history: the show's creator, SJ Norman, writing about their great grandmother Sally, "an itinerant cook and domestic".

The card concluded: "You are invited to consume, keep or refuse this offering as you see fit."

However quickly you may have made a choice in your mind just now, I can guarantee the decision takes a far more complex flavour when you are seated at a table with strangers (likely to be majority white) and being served in silence by women whose blood is in the supper, while contemplating the contents of that menu card — and the fact that, if you're a non-Indigenous Australian, you're inevitably, inherently, a benefactor of this history of violence.

From entering the grounds of Government House to exiting, the whole experience takes 20 minutes — but manages to up-end power structures and reflect the audience back to themselves in a way that is likely to stay with each person for some time afterwards.

The venue was a key ingredient in this iteration of Norman's work: a site of power, occupied from 1858 to the present by Her Majesty's representative; and a place where colonial architecture facilitates the acts of immersion and imagination from which the performance derives its potency.

Norman has performed the work in varying types of venues since its 2010 premiere in Bristol, but never before at an official site of colonial power.

"None of us can believe we got this site," Norman admits, adding that Tasmanian performer Sinsa Jo Mansell had told them: "This is history-making shit to be [performing this work] here."

The work has also never received such a wide audience: Dark Mofo draws on a broad spectrum of the public, not just arts types. The season sold out and the performers extended their nightly hours to add more shows.

Speaking on Sunday night after their final performance, Norman, Williams and Sheppard said that the reactions over the course of five nights and more than 50 performances during Dark Mofo had ranged from awkward silence to tears; from nervous laughter to lively discussion — and some blatant racism.

Some people ignored the performers serving them; others demanded their assistance or verbal interaction. One audience member said their tea was too strong, and asked Williams to top it up with hot water.

"There were a few really good sessions; tables who were really in it and having a yarn about history and complicity and privilege and guilt and grief — really talking through the complexity of what the work brings up," Norman says.

"The dynamic of each table is really different, and they [the participants] kind of set each other off — which is part of the work."

Norman describes the mechanism of the show as "a series of power flips".

"There's a volatile question around who has the agency in that space and who is actually performing? There's an assumption that we're the ones performing for them — but sometimes it's really the audience performing for us," Norman says.

"Sometimes what they're performing for us is pretty ugly."

Two years ago, Austrian artist Hermann Nitsch slaughtered a bull as part of Dark Mofo. The furore started when his artwork was announced — and continued in its aftermath.

It's arguably the most confronting and controversial event staged by Dark Mofo — a festival that is not shy on either count.

Animal rights activists may have been happier with this year's slaughter event: Pigpen, by Japanese artist Saeborg.

No animals were hurt in this production, which featured a giant inflatable pig and humans wearing latex piglet costumes.

Even so: this entirely un-sexy, un-kawaii performance haunts you.

The supersized sow, doe-eyed, lies along a wall of the Avalon Theatre — confined by her litter and by inflatable floor-to-ceiling bars.

As we watch, she impassively "births" eight wriggling human-sized piglets, one by one, and they quickly attach themselves to a teat apiece.

Enter the farm girl: a buxom latex blow-up doll in pinny and boots, brandishing a meat cleaver.

First comes the slaughter of the piglets (in mime, followed by unzipping of costume compartments to reveal guts and organs). Then the mother is de-robed of her most delectable flesh.

And then the striptease: inexplicably, our murderous meat maiden de-robes and does a bump 'n grind, presumably dedicated to meat-lovers everywhere.

Finally, the piglets — reborn, zombie-like — whip the audience into a booty-shaking dance frenzy.

Later that night I contemplated the IRL carcass of my latex dance partner, artfully displayed as part of Dark Mofo's Winter Feast food hall.

It still wasn't as confronting as Saeborg's bizarre, disorienting pantomime.

Part of the work's effect is having piglet-performers and audience members in the same space, unmediated by a stage or cordon; individual piglets scurried amongst us, hiding from the meat cleaver, shaking with terror, squealing.

I saw several people reach out with a soothing hand — instinctively protective; involved.

Not even Dark Mofo's avid detractors appear to have sniffed out this year's most notorious work: Jordan Wolfson's VR work Real Violence, in which audience members step into a short, realistic scene to watch the artist assault of a man kneeling in front of him on the sidewalk — beating him with a baseball bat, stomping on his face and skull with his boots.

When it premiered at the Whitney Biennial in 2017, reactions to the work merited their own round-up article, with breathless tweets including "the most disturbing, horrifying artwork I have ever seen" and, "Can you get PTSD from an artwork? Because I think Jordan Wolfson gave it to me".

For at least some audience members at Dark Mofo, the notoriety, shock value and trigger warning would have been reasons enough to queue for the work (which you invariably had to).

It's possible to find merit in the work, however: New York Times critic Roberta Smith said Wolfson's work showed "real violence that many Americans rarely see. Horrible to watch, it should at least shock almost anyone into a better understanding of how scarring it is to witness physical savagery".

Interestingly — pointedly — Wolfson has said: "I'm no moralist trying to shock people into behaving better."

For me, the work left a lingering sense of dread — it was genuinely a locus of dark thoughts.

It seems broadly effective in exposing the viewer's reaction to real versus staged violence; violence IRL versus violence on screen.

On a subtler level, it subverts expectations of on-screen violence by distributing power (somewhat) and disrupting the abuser/victim dynamic: the men are the same age, race, height and build. The assault is sound-tracked by a voiceover track of Hebrew prayers, read by the artist.

Some viewers have questioned whether the act of violence is also an act of retribution.

These are interesting factors to consider while analysing your response to the scene.

As with Gough's installation and Norman's "high tea", the venue was key: this was not a "safe" gallery space, or a polite white cube.

There was no doubt that this experience felt more fraught at night, in the cold, in a cavernous space in which Marco Fusinato's noise art blasted intermittently — an assault on the visitor's ears.

Jarrod Rawlins, part of Dark Mofo's visual arts curatorium (alongside Hannah Fox and Theia Connell), told the ABC he was drawn to Wolfson's Real Violence because of the way it "undermines" typical VR experiences.

"It's quite a cinematic experience; it's not like a first-person player game with a narrative where you're running around exploring the environment — you're actually standing still watching a scene that could be from a film," Rawlins says.

Dark Mofo ran from Jun 5-23. The writer attended the festival with the assistance of Dark Lab.

Source: ABC News (AU)

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