Features Published 5 February 2020

The Problematised Populism of MONA FOMA

Tasmania’s triumphantly weird arts festival lures in audiences with magic, sweat and glitter.

Alice Saville

‘Cloaca Professional’ by Wim Delvoye. Photo: MONA

I’m in a basement where alchemy is happening. A set of substantial but delicate glass vials forms a replica of the human digestive system. A solemn, bowl-cut-adorned gallery assistant is feeding gourmet sausage rolls (from the gallery cafe, I’d guess) into its mechanical maw. Instead of turning shit into gold, this machine is converting one kind of value (nutritional value) into another (artistic value, market value, and, when the comically large poo emerges from the machine’s other end, comedy value). I want to laugh, but doing so might involve breathing in and the smell is appalling.

The poo machine (or Cloaca Professional, to give it its proper title) is one of the star exhibits of MONA, the Museum of Old and New Art, as presided over by maverick millionaire David Walsh. The art world is full of very rich people with outsize influence on the art that gets made and seen; what I guess makes Walsh different is his willingness to show outsiders how the sausage (or poo) is made. And he’s happy for you to think his taste is shit. His museum has an app (the O) which features, alongside curators’ notes (labelled ‘art wank’) his own commentary (labelled ‘gonzo’). These weird first person passages include weird anecdotes about haggling with art dealers at the Venice Biennale, or confessions about all the fake artefacts he got landed when he first started out; gewgaws that are now suspended in a giant fish tank in the museum. Because he should have known they smelled fishy. Walsh is a millionaire who made his money betting on horses, and then invested it in creating an underground art museum so lavish a James Bond villain might raise an eyebrow at the construction bill. It’s carved out of a huge hunk of rock by the sea, its trajectory spiralling upwards to a clifftop that overlooks the quiet Hobart suburb where he grew up. He’s a local hero now, for putting Hobart on the tourist map. From the outside it all looks like a bravura self-publicising gamble, but it’s not quite as calculated as his bids on horses; for a start, the whole thing must stumble toward breaking even, so he can stop bailing it out each year with the proceeds from more gambling. The branding is everywhere, instantly recognisable, giving the gallery a cultish feel. Optimistic signs encourage you to combine your art experience with tapas in the gallery’s stylish restaurant. In the toilet, an arrangement of mirrors lets you watch your own personal Cloaca in action.

I’m starting this write-up of arts festival Mona Foma with all this context because without it, it makes even less sense than it might do otherwise. Mona Foma is a redigested, reconstituted product of MONA, one of its two live festivals (the other one, Dark Mofo, is a larger, more messed up winter affair that revels in satanic vibes). It’s been produced from this same strange place, this mixture of serious artworld credentials and edgy cool and scatalogical-stunts-a-twelve-year-old-boy-would-dream-up. Since his Wild West beginnings, Walsh has secured a degree of public funding for the festival, and with that comes new responsibilities; especially, a degree of involvement from the local community.

The response has been an eclectic shower of free (or very cheap) public art events. As we get a taxi from airport to Psycho-esque motel (the last unbooked bed in town), our driver tells us that she loved the giant glowing inflatable buddha (Parer Studio’s Man) that floated through the town’s gorge the previous week, even if some guys apparently took potshots at it, trying to puncture its buoyant surface.

By the time we arrive, it’s been replaced by a stage for the festival’s biggest gift to Launceston, King Ubu. It’s the creation of Tasmanian puppet company Terrapin, who’ve teamed up with hordes of local performers; drama students, a cheerleading squad. They’re decked out in the most incredible costumes; the vast, monstrous puppet Ubu and Ubu’s wife are surrounded by tumbling armies of citizens in ‘90s inspired rompers, hot pink with vivid orange swirls.

‘King Ubu’. Photograph: Jesse Hunniford/Mona

Their words echo up to an audience of hundreds of picnicking families. Launceston Gorge is basically the most beautiful amphitheatre you could imagine; rocks rising up on all sides around a grassy valley, their crenellations reflected in a lake’s still water. Whereas in the UK, the wild spaces that remain are treated with careful reverence, there’s enough nature in Tasmania to turn this gorge into a place for play; it’s tricked out with a free outdoor swimming pool, a fragile-looking gondola, and swings and rides for kids. The stage seems to float in the middle of this largesse; a hardy bunch of kids bathe their way through the performance.

Theatres expend a lot of energy trying to get new audiences to come to them. King Ubu comes to where the audience is sunbathing, playing and swimming already, and asks them to stay a little longer.

I feel like I’m writing about all this as an ‘experience’, and shying away from a more analytical approach. And that’s for a couple of reasons. One is that I think that productions of Alfred Jarry’s 1896 absurdist satire Ubu Roi are always going to be a bit strange to watch; the original was a jarringly shocking theatrical event, and recreating that big bang is an science experiment of uncertain impact, its shock muffled a little by the raised glass of 120 years. Another, stronger one is that the whole thing felt a bit like a collective ritual. The performers howled out their frustrations with a mainland Australian government that makes Tasmania into an afterthought, with greedy property developers and corrupt politicians. David Walsh even got a shoutout. It was an old, foreign text made so specific to this time and place, to a context I was struggling to catch up with.

What did shine out as universal was the eco message. The show’s stand-out song was the warped lullaby ‘Baby Boomers’, styling King Ubu as an impulsive and wasteful infant. His teddy/chief advisor counsels him to turn to ethical investments and organic farming, but these solutions are a thin recycled diaper that can’t contain the torrent of shit he’s putting out. Instead, he’s replaced by a child ruler, bright and knowing as Greta Thunberg.

The festival’s eco themes continue with a strong emphasis on using local products – like specially-produced local beer the Launnie Longneck – and on sustainability. There were reusable cups, tin plates, and aesthetic-pleasing recycling options everywhere; including a brilliant food waste collecting system whereby tie-dye-clad hosts invited attendees to place their leftovers on giant platters of rose-gold mirror, turning chicken bones and oyster shells into gleaming Dutch still lifes.

It’s become popular to complain about ‘experience’ culture, and specifically the way that immersive theatre has put arty trappings on the sordid commercial business of ‘a night out’. A recent Guardian article attached words like “infantilised” and “middlebrow” to party-style immersive shows like Great Gatsby. But Mona Foma made me think about how we can criticise individual bad productions, without necessarily saying that the concept of mixing art and eating and drinking and socialising is inherently a debased thing to want. I love Sh!t Theatre shows for so many reasons, but one is that they feel like they’re your hosts for an hour. They say ‘hi’ as you come in, they dole out rum or party bags, they create this sense of celebration that it’s impossible not to respond to – even as you sink into the moral quagmire of Love Actually’s traumatic sexual politics (Sh!t Actually), or the hypocrisies of expat life in Malta (Sh!t Theatre Drink Rum With Expats).

Mona Foma’s signature immersive theatre show/general live art night out is Faux Mo. It made me think about Sh!t Theatre both because of it was Dolly Parton themed, like their hit show ‘Dolly Would’, and because both experiences share an approach I could describe as ‘problematised populism’. People come to have fun, because they’re hooked in by something that they already like. Then there’s a little twist of the knife. At Faux Mo, the queues outside stretched round the block; people who arrived early got ushered inside first for a floorshow that mixed country music kitsch with furious protest. It felt weird to be partying as Australia’s forest fires ravaged an area the size of Belgium and Denmark, and killed over a billion animals – a devastation that two sequin-decked koalas acknowledged as they mournfully danced across the stage. Indigenous performers turned country music into a lament for lost ‘country’ – the land that’s been stolen from them, and irrevocably damaged by settlers who’ve ignored traditional fire management techniques like controlled burning.

Faux Mo felt too big and diffuse for the message to endure past the first section; new rooms kept opening up, filled with cardboard shapes or latex-clad dancers or experimental DJs. The crowd surged; it felt like all of Launceston was out, clutching at bits of a huge, chaotic, communal experience that was just capacious enough to contain them all, and give them all something.

I think it’s hard to make a truly cynical immersive show that’s also successful, because offering a wrap-around experience is HARD; the set dressing, the catering, the need to have performers respond to crowds that are moving to different beats. To work, it needs inordinate amounts of love and dedication. And if the logistic aren’t quite there, I think people can still respond to the spirit behind it. I don’t mind queuing if I’m not also being scalped for an extra tenner for a themed cocktail.

‘Daedalum Luminarium’. Photograph: Jesse Hunniford/Mona

Mona Foma’s line-up also included Daedalum Luminarium, an inflatable installation by Architects of Air – also recently criticised as “art made for Instagram” by a writer who presumably didn’t realise that these artworks have been knocking around for decades; there were a lot of kids toddling about, mesmerised by its dappled colours, including some using wheelchairs – something that’s welcome, when so many installations aren’t accessible. I’ve been here before, on a different hemisphere – how weird that this technicoloured moment can travel through time and space – but still offer the same sedating, entrancing effect, wherever it is.

Taking over existing spaces means disruption, some people’s enjoyment giving way to others. The teams that normally practice at Elphin Sports Centre were replaced by a collection of video art inspired by iceskating and bodybuilding, given a new multi-sensory intensity by the sweat and deodorant lingering in its corridors. And some disappointed families were turned away from Queen Victoria Museum, which became the festival’s main hub for the weekend; wristband holders could go to an impressive music line-up, including queer cowboy rocker Orville Peck, his face hidden by dangling tassels, and haunting folk electronic from Holly Herndon. And all the while, hi-tech dog correspondent Patche wove his way through festivalgoers’ legs, recording a livestream that played in Interweave Arts’ Studio.

At first I worried about these displacements; about Launceston’s usual rhythms being thrown out of whack by a few planeloads of art wankers (terminology copyright David Walsh). But something about the smallness of the city and the eccentric bluntness of Mona Foma’s approach made these feel like a festival that was ‘for’ and ‘of’ Launceston, not just ‘in’. You stumbled across it everywhere. Even a trip to the town’s park featured a surprise appearance from Amanda Palmer, taking up residence in a wooden confessional in the town’s park, ready to harvest Launceston’s secrets and set them to music.

Like so many festivals, Mona Foma is bewildering to navigate in any purposeful way; the website looks incredibly cool, but doesn’t help much with the mundane business of locating art in time and space. Instead, the art finds you.

I don’t know how many people queuing for ‘The Dark Ride’ at kitschy Victoriana theme park Penny Gorge were prepared for its Mona makeover into Hypnos Cave; your standard old-timey mechanised boat trip turned into something determinedly camp and glittering. The ride’s animatronic convict-cannibals (gleaned from Tasmania’s long history as an island prison) had been stripped of their 19th century rags so that their gleaming plastic bodies were exposed – they looked like cyborgs partying in a net of lasers and sparkling rain.

‘Hypnos Cave’. Photo: Jesse Hunniford/Mona

Like Mona’s beloved Cloaca, it felt like another exercise in unexpected alchemy, turning centuries of mucky history into bright silver. Yes, art can do more than provide sparkling surfaces, and maybe there was room for more work that felt ‘difficult’, that took longer to get to know. But then, David Walsh’s taste (as displayed in Mona, anyway) feels like something that’s immediate and impulsive, populist but messy, ready to extract a reaction from audiences that it won’t allow to passively walk by. Arts festivals often cater to people who already know about and like art; Mona Foma feels like it’s reaching its tentacles across the city, and squeezing it tight.

Mona Foma was on in Launceston, Tasmania from 11th-20th January 2020. For more on Mona Foma, visit the festival’s website

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Alice Saville

Alice is editor of Exeunt, as well as working as a freelance arts journalist for publications including Time Out, Fest and Auditorium magazine. Follow her on Twitter @Raddington_B

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