by Garth Jones
Dark Mofo is a provocative, annual Tasmanian arts festival which takes place around the traditional pagan winter solstice. Founded in 2013 by Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) enfant terrible David Walsh, this year Dark Mofo courted controversy with its staging of Austrian artist Hermann Nitsch’s 150.Action, which utilised the carcass of a bull.
THICK, otherworldly purple fog cascades from the lobby of Pilgrim Uniting Church on a typically bitter winter evening in Launceston. An usher - made up and clad in white - stands solemn, silent sentry at the main entrance, which is crimson lit.
The steeple’s cross is a vivid red beacon.
As you approach the entryway, vague figures move in silhouette, rendered apparitions by murky atmospherics. Stepping inside, bright floodlights briefly disorient as you notice the disquieting ambient throb and hum of disjointed soundscapes pulsing from the heart of the church. There’s a whiff of something earthy - not quite incense - infused with the mist.
Anticipation buzzes as the teeming crowd is received into the church auditorium, which is illuminated with fluorescent scarlet stalactites punctuated by frigid, strobing stalactites. Framed by a cross, a projection at the back loops a moody, black and white cloudscape. There is a stage set up here, but the audience are seated with their backs to it.
Pilgrim’s imposing Tasmanian blackwood pipe organ - erected in 1910 - towers over the capacity crowd. There’s a reverent hush as lights dim and - after a languid theatrical pause - two shadowy figures approach.
One, shorter, reminiscent of a Victorian era footman, takes up his place at the organ.
The other, tall and gaunt - evoking FW Murnau’s Nosferatu in the haze - approaches a strange, science-fiction contraption mounted on the altar.
Adopting a conjurer’s bearing, the robed, towering wraith coaxes an otherworldly squeal from his instrument.
The Crossing has begun.
“I notice on the Dark Mofo website that several Uniting Churches are being used for Dark Mofo performances, almost certainly in contravention of their consecrated purpose. Perhaps the Uniting Church have crossed to the dark side?”
Letter, The Launceston Examiner, June 6 2017
“Oh, I don’t think it was everyone’s cup of tea!” laughs Hobart Scots-Memorial minister Rev Graham Sturdy.
It’s the day after the final performance of the Unconscious Collective curated Crossing project (a part of the 2017 Dark Mofo program) in Hobart, and Mr Sturdy is reflecting on the response to the previous evening’s show.
“We had some mixed reviews - but that’s art. It’s an artistic event, and that means your response is formed by your life experiences.
“We saw 400-500 people over the course of the night, with a full house of 250 for the performance itself,” Rev Sturdy said.
There was also a mixed response in Launceston.
“Quite a number of the congregation attended. I wouldn’t say everyone was necessarily thrilled with the idea - not from within the congregation - but some people who know congregation members were concerned that we were going into territory that we perhaps shouldn’t,” Pilgrim Uniting’s Rev Rod Peppiatt said.
Rev Dennis Cousens, whose ministry, as part of the Midlands Patrol, covers 18,000 square kilometres, including the Ross and Oatlands Uniting Churches, notes “interestingly, for (many) it has been an opportunity to enter a building of some historical significance, a space used as a place of worship, and which is now a place to remember with a feeling of welcome and inclusiveness.”
Sue Walker, from Launceston’s Synod office, was inspired by the Crossing experience.
“It was a different to anything I’d been to before, musically and presentation wise - the use of lights and the music connecting with them was amazing,” Ms Walker said.
”Certainly using a theremin and the electronic sound was different - it’s not really my taste in music, but I’m out to check anything new, and the performers were obviously very talented.
“It’s all about checking it out and seeing what it’s all about, isn’t it?”
“A cross is a geometrical figure consisting of two lines or bars, intersecting each other
at a 90° angle and dividing one or both of the lines in half.”
Based in Hobart, the Unconscious Collective is a loose affiliate of artistic collaborators established by David Patman and Michelle Boyde in 2014. For Crossing, Patman - an academic and engineer- and Boyde - an artist and curator - assembled a diverse array ofartists and musicians to undertake a six-day pilgrimage from Launceston to Hobart.
Traversing 200km of the Midland Highway, the project progressively illuminated six roadside churches, starting with Pilgrim Uniting Church in Launceston, taking in Ross and Oatlands Uniting Churches en route and climaxing with a standing room only performance at Scots-Memorial Uniting Church in Hobart. Other sites included the former Cleveland Union Chapel and St Mary’s Church of England in Kempton.
The Crossing project set out to investigate notions around pilgrimage and spiritual seeking.
“The project was inspired by car journeys in my childhood from Hobart to Launceston, along the old Midlands Highway through the various towns - Kempton, Oatlands, Ross,” says Mr Patman. “I wondered about the inhabitants and their lives, as we drove through, sometimes stopping for petrol or a snack. Something about the drive was very reflective, and it felt like a significant journey. As I got older the towns began to be bypassed by the new highway, and it seemed that maybe life was bypassing them too.
The churches mostly remained visible, because of their size, and more recently driving the highway, I wondered about their congregations and whether the churches were able to retain their place as centres for community and spirituality, and whether that too was being passed over. I also love the neo-gothic architecture which characterises many Tasmanian churches.
The original project title was Pastoral, referring to the role of churches as caring for the flock, but Crossing also seemed appropriate because of the journey aspect of the project - crossing between places, geographically, but also from secular to spiritual. In church architectureAnd of course the sign of the cross, both in its pagan form as representing a journey into the spirit world as well as its Christian symbolism.”
Amongst those participating were Melbourne-based musician Miles Brown, lighting artist Matthew Adey and a small army of hair, clothing and olfactory artists. The opening night event in Launceston culminated in a haunting, one-off musical performance from husband and wife duo Danielle de Picciotto and Alexander Hacke, whose renowned band Einstürzende Neubauten was also on the Dark Mofo bill.
Brown, a composer and curator whose hypnotic theremin playing was the linchpin of the six performances, teamed with organist JP Shilo, who “really made the big organ sing”, according to Mr Peppiatt.
Patman and Boyde admit that “Dark Mofo events are intentionally challenging and explore darker themes,” but point out that Unconscious Collective were very aware of the need to be “respectful to the Church and its values.”
“Miles' performance alludes more to ritual, due as much to how the theremin is played by waving the hands in the air, as does his costume. As I understand it, the architecture of churches of all kinds, or interior design if you like, is meant to encourage a feeling of contact with the divine. The soaring ceilings, stained glass windows, columns and so on create a feeling of solemnity and reverence, and we wanted to work with this - to point it out - through a more mysterious and, perhaps flamboyant, performance which was sympathetic and respectful to the space, but also a bit playful.”
“Our level of trust (with Unconscious Collective) was very high,” Mr Peppiatt said. “We’ve had a really good relationship. They spent a lot of time getting to know us, including spending time in worship. Our sense was that this was something that could be done with respect.”
This view is shared by the other Uniting Church ministers involved.
“There has always been a great respect for what the building is used for and for the openness of the Uniting Church. To me the Uniting Church and the Midlands Patrol in particular have been the winners,” Mr Cousens said.
“The folk here are really impressed with the team - really enjoyed working with them. We can’t understand why other churches would take offence to it!” s Mr Sturdy said.
“Unconscious Collective were originally talking about a lighting installation. As we met up and walked around the church, it grew a bit from there. We talked about it at church council and were aware this could be a good thing and that there was a level of excitement about it. It grew from something quite low key and understated to more of an event,” Mr Peppiatt said.
“I think it works well as a part of Dark Mofo - it has the bite for it.”
“Simply put, illumination in the spiritual sense is “turning on the light” of understanding in some area.”
It is the afternoon after the opening Pilgrim performance, and Mr Peppiatt is contemplating the intersection between art and spirituality, as evoked by the previous evening’s event.
“Thinking back on the early years in the life of my church, in some ways I think there has been almost a restoration of what our tradition has lost in recent centuries, in engagement with art, with the spirituality of artistic expression,” he said. “I commented to Miles after the show last night that it would be very hard to see him perform and miss the fact that he was deeply engaged with and committed to music, and there’s a sense of devotion in that which is completely appropriate.
“If you take church practice as necessarily traditional Sunday morning worship, the links were probably less clear, but certainly the stuff around non-verbal culture and non-word-based based devotion hit us early in the piece. There was a recognition that a lot of this was around sound, and particularly light, which is something that Uniting Church tradition has come to late, I suppose.”
Mr Sturdy said the lighting highlighted aspects of the faith.
“There were floodlights illuminating the organ, and our only stained glass, depicting Moses and the burning bush, was lit up in Dark Mofo red,” Mr Sturdy said.
“What hit me was not necessarily the lighting - it was our Bibles, opened up at the Book of Job, lit up white in the gloom of the church.”
Frontier Services’ Rev Dennis Cousens is thrilled by the project’s execution.
“The church spaces were magnificent,” he said.
“Oatlands was themed around water. Veiled in blue lights and enhanced by a lake recessed inside the church, the soul-searching combination of theremin and organ music accompanied a young woman in white walking across the lake. As you entered the church, the entrance foyer greeted you with a communion cup, cross, bread and the Bible beautifully displayed and draped in a sprig of gum leaves and nuts.
“Ross Uniting was themed around fire. Situated on a prominent hill - seen from a main artery highway - it glowed like a beacon welcoming travellers.
“There is a an ornate wall print of the Lord’s Prayer and the Nicene Creed at the pulpit of Ross Uniting. Miles was positioned between these prints, which were spotlit. I actually heard a person reading the Nicene Creed quietly to himself. It was a great outreach, even though those who attended may not have expected such.”
“A crossing, in ecclesiastical architecture, is the junction of the four arms of a cruciform
(cross-shaped) church. In a typically oriented church (especially of Romanesque and Gothic styles), the crossing gives access to the nave on the west, the transept arms on the north and south, and the choir, as the first part of the chancel, on the east.”
For Mr Sturdy, projects like Crossing are all about making connections within the community.
“That’s how people see it here - the main mission purpose is to engage with our community. Dark Mofo and cultural events are another part of the life of the church in the civic community, just like Carols By Candlelight, really,” he said.
Speaking via hands-free mobile phone, the rumble of his 4WD’s engine occasionally drowning him out, Mr Cousens is energised by the project’s reception.
“Crossing, embraced as it was by the church and attended by the general public and congregants - with full houses both nights - will leave a great impression on many people. The “thank you for allowing this to happen in these churches” received by wife Sally and I have been very humbling. This is the church being out there, meeting the people where they are expecting nothing in return. In God’s time much will come out of it I am sure.”
Back in Launceston, Mr Peppiatt recalls that he had two significant experiences on the day.
“One was that I led a worship service in a nursing home, a very traditional setting, down to the old version of the Lord’s Prayer, because for a whole lot of people, that’s where their stories and memories are. Then, to come straight from there to this (Crossing) was kind of a culture shock. But in each I saw profound things, of the church in community and in the life of the city.
“I’m really glad that we were willing to take a crack at it; opening the door to community, offering the church an opportunity for hospitality.”
“He who enters by way of the north gate to worship shall go out by way of the south gate.”
We are standing in the middle of a dark field, illuminated by fire pits, in the tiny community of Cleveland (population 15), just outside Campbell Town on the Midland Highway.
The former Cleveland Union Hall is not a Uniting Church, but it is the smallest of the venues taking part in Crossing. Inside the hall, a woman dressed in white grinds a mortar and pestle while ambient music rumbles. An usher, clad in furs, offers egg-nog and soup to audience members.
Outside, a projection of the highway scrolls across the hall’s exterior as locals pick their way across the field, flashlights in hand. Grave markers are illuminated in the evening mist, and a pen full of sheep garners constant attention from the children in attendance. With Hermann Nitsch’s performance still on the horizon, we are relieved to be reassured that there are no nefarious plans afoot for our woolly friends.
There is a reverent, electric atmosphere in the church hall as the crowd slowly assembles. Conversations are punctuated by visible breath in the chill. Incredibly, many residents of Cleveland rarely see one another owing to the sparsely populated distances - this is an opportunity to catch up, share stories and see “something a bit different”.
“It’s putting us back on the map!” says Peter, a bearded retiree from Melbourne who’s renovated a nearby three-storey, 19th century property with his wife, Grace, over the last decade.
Peter has just finished telling me about his snake infestation issues - apparently the Tasmanian weather is no deterrent, though he’d assumed it would be “so cold they wouldn’t bother” down here.
More than anything, these smaller Crossing events seem to be an ideal locus for community, a place to convene and relate. One suspects this is an occasions which will fuel many years of local dialogue, discussion and reflection.
“It’s been 30 years since some of these people set foot in a church. Everyone’s got at least a tiny bit of spirituality - isn’t that what we’re after?”