“Lay your burden down”: The surprising solemnity of Dark Mofo

Natasha Moore reflects on the startling theme of this year's Dark Mofo festival in Hobart: Come to the Cross.

Following the year of everything being cancelled, Dark Mofo returned to Hobart this month, with a startling theme: come to the cross.

The winter festival hosted by the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) has a strong record of courting controversy — and the symbol of the cross has been a recurring motif. In 2017, it was the “bloody sacrificial ritual” involving a bull carcase and naked performers bound to wooden crosses; in 2018, inverted neon crosses — used as a symbol of the anti-Christ — were installed around the city, offending Christian groups.

For 2021, things felt different. The curatorial statement, from Creative Director Leigh Carmichael, speaks of the anguish of the past year. Lamenting that last year’s festival (the planned theme of which was death) had been “killed”, Carmichael speaks of “the dark night of the soul” and our vulnerability in the face of COVID-19. Then, he goes full theological:

St Augustine wrote that Christ went to the cross as a bridegroom to the bride, consummated the marriage, lovingly gave himself up to the torment, and joined himself to her forever. That is to say, he participated in the suffering and sorrows of the world, joyfully.

It is within this context that we present our 2021 festival, and pray it brings a glimmer of light in these uncertain times.

We invite you to come to the cross.

There are familiar Dark Mofo/MONA themes here: sex and death; the allure of darkness. But there’s also an unnerving solemnity, and a hopefulness.

This year’s program included elements of parody — of religiosity as performance — such as the nightly X-Cathedra event, featuring “midnight DJs and blessings from Pope Alice”. But it also featured a fiftieth anniversary performance of the orchestral lament “Jesus’ blood never failed me yet”, built on the heartfelt lines sung by an old homeless man in London in 1971; and Towards a Great Silence, in which the All Saints Compline Choir sang Gregorian chants and choral music between 10pm and 6am on the final night of the festival.

And the images are stunning, in more ways than one. “Give us this eve our nightly bread”, reads the caption to a snapshot of the Winter Feast venue that could serve as cover design for the inaugural issue of Basilica Beautiful.

“Lay your burden down” is the invitation accompanying a shot of three large red crosses reclining along the waterfront. Both images take up the heart’s longings, as well as the words of Jesus, this cold and yet uncertain winter.

Perhaps most astonishing of all, “COME TO THE CROSS” blares in neon from atop Hobart Airport, like an altar call, like visitors (of which, in this COVID-spikey month, there have been many fewer than hoped) are being welcomed to some kind of tent revival.

How have the churches responded? What happens when a supposedly irreverent or even blasphemous rival starts appropriating your best material?

For several years now, across denominations, Hobart’s churches have been engaging in their own way with the festival — putting on their own performances, lectures, services, and other events in a kind of fringe or mirror-image version of Dark Mofo. In 2021, that included the Luminous Festival at Hobart Baptist Church, an interactive art installation called “Cosmos of Origin” at C3 Church, and a God is Light Festival at St. David’s Cathedral, with documentary screenings and readings of the passion of Jesus.

“Christianity is the major conversation partner in Dark Mofo, and always has been”, explains Victor Shaw, the Rector of St. George’s Battery Point, which holds their annual lecture alongside the festival.

This year of all years, that conversation seems to have tipped into convergence. While Dark Mofo leans into all that is edgy and alluring about darkness, the church events counter with an emphasis on light. But equally, a winter solstice festival is a celebration of light in the darkness — of people coming together to be warm and defiant and alive, at a time when cold and death seem in the ascendant. “Swim into the light”, invites the dawn Nude Solstice Swim with which the festival — baptismally, almost — concludes.

Perhaps the way secular and sacred seem to have converged in Dark Mofo in 2021 shouldn’t be that surprising.

There’s something a bit Gothic in Carmichael’s (and Augustine’s) take on the cross. But many have noted the horror and the fascination of the story of Jesus. Dorothy Sayers called it “the most dramatic thing that ever entered the mind of man”:

the tale of the time when God was the underdog and got beaten, when He submitted to the conditions He had laid down and became a man like the men he had made, and the men He had made broke Him and killed Him. This is the dogma we find so dull — this terrifying drama of which God is the victim and hero.

If this is dull, then what, in Heaven’s name, is worthy to be called exciting?

Artists of all stripes have long found depths to plumb in this story, so perhaps the way secular and sacred seem to have converged in Dark Mofo in 2021 shouldn’t be that surprising. At a time when we might be more aware than usual of how strong is the darkness of prejudice, sickness, death, and fear, the potency of the cross as a symbol of darkness defeated, burdens lifted, and life triumphant is magnified.

Richard Condie, the Anglican Bishop of Tasmania, agrees that the festival this year has felt less “dark” than previously. Of Leigh Carmichael’s curatorial statement, he declares that he and other local Christian leaders “couldn’t have said it better themselves: come to the cross. That is actually where we need to be.”

Natasha Moore is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity. She is the author of For the Love of God: How the church is better and worse than you ever imagined, which was the 2020 Australian Christian Book of the Year, and most recently of The Pleasures of Pessimism, as well as a co-host of the podcast Life & Faith. She holds a PhD in English literature from the University of Cambridge.

This article first appeared at ABC Religion & Ethics