Andrew Harper: “Looping and Shimmering”

April 1 2010

From: Realtime 96

MONA FOMA Festival of Art & Music, Hobart.

Rather than inventing a theme for the 2010 MONA Festival of Art and Music, curator Brian Ritchie seems to have accessed performers and material he thought might be interesting or fun, for audiences to experience pretty much as they wished. You could have attended nothing but the many events in the Princess Wharf No.1 Shed, or avoided that space entirely, and still felt totally immersed in the festival. And even when MONA FOMA was archly cerebral, it was playful.

John Cale’s presence in Australia is not unprecedented, though Hobart is not really somewhere you’d expect to see him, so his near ubiquitous presence on posters, programs and in performances was astonishing enough before we even got to the content. Labeled “Eminent Artist in Residence” for the festival, he came with a five-screen video installation, Dyddiau Du (Cale’s native Welsh for Dark Days), a very talented young band and varying styles of musical performance. Coming directly to Hobart from the Venice Biennale, Dyddiau Du describes a haunted Wales, mixing long meditative shots of empty rooms, ancient and abandoned stone dwellings, intense close-ups of Cale trudging uphill, breathing hard and finally, some kind of water torture. The images bled out over an hour in a darkened room with a concrete floor. It was cold and uncomfortable, which seemed the intention.

A spirit of endurance was also needed for the grueling intensity created by Michael Keiran-Harvey in his astonishing piano work, 48 Fugues for Frank, at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery. Influenced by one of music’s great individualists, Frank Zappa, Keiran-Harvey attacked the piano with the vigour of an athlete. Like the music or not, the commitment to the work and virtuosity on display were undeniable, and at times breathtaking. A group of Hobart artists and curator Leigh Hobba, reacted to Keiran-Harvey’s composition, Zappa and the space itself, creating an exciting and witty four-floor installation. Rob O’Connor’s large, colorful F-for-Frank series lay in the dust of the basement’s earth floor, Aedan Howlett’s swirling street style paintings hung from pillars, Mat Ward (a certified Zappa fanatic) sifted through lyrics and filled the top floor with luridly bright sharks, pygmy ponies and poodles while Michelle Lee stretched a shadow along the floor and up the wall into an image of a pianist’s hands. Harvey raced between floors playing instruments, his performance then relayed to his seated audience by camera.

Site and spatial relations between audience and performance were a feature of the festival more generally, with spaces used in unusual ways throughout. In Abe Sada: Sade Abe 1936, Perth artist Cat Hope generated continent shifting feedback bass noise in a storeroom directly under the Peacock Theatre audience, so one had the odd but not unpleasant sensation of vibration coming through the floor and into the seat. That these sounds were felt rather heard was not new, but the context refreshed the idea. Not content with that exploration, Hope did it again, getting an orchestra of bass instruments, played by a collection of local musicians, to create a vast field of sound in the Princess Wharf through which the audience could wander or lie back in and be bathed in sound.

The Chronox installation by Michael Prior and Lachlan Conn was located in the Sidespace of the Salamanca Arts Centre for the festival’s duration. Cheekily described as a machine for “travelling to the present,” the work obliterates space and time with repetition created from sound and animated projection. An engaging and beautiful work, Chronox invites the audience to interact by altering the looping vinyl records that provide the sound—pick up the tone arm, carefully put it down again. As I succumbed to the hypnotising loops and glowing shapes, the edges of the room appeared to wander off into the dark.

Next door, in the Long Gallery, Brisbane-based artist Ross Manning’s humorous moving sculptures—all fan engines playing drums and driving amplifiers—came alive with a brief, clever performance. Attached to a spinning fan motor, a thin rope whirled along the wooden floor, responding to objects placed in its path—plastic, paper, garbage and metal. It seemed frantic and uncontrolled, but a second viewing revealed a sense of composition and even narrative—from scurrying to fluttering to a bell-like shimmer. This small work remains in the memory.

Kinetic sound production on a more ambitious scale was the focus of Pursuit, a performance that transformed the Princess Wharf Shed into a singing bicycle track. Jon Rose, Robin Fox, Rod Cooper and Paul Bryant, all seasoned creators of new noise, directed a squadron of bike enthusiasts on a looping chase around the shed while the audience watched from the middle. The bikes had been altered to make sounds and some looked a little crazy, but as they scraped and squeaked and honked about the space, music emerged: this bike and its horn came and went at controlled intervals; new bikes emerged making new sound; one chap rode about with a camera atop his helmet, giving the audience a perspective from within the work. While each sculpted bicycle had its own sound and character, the effect of the whole thing grew, swelling into an ecstatic moment when all the bikes rang their bells, echoing all the other loops and shimmering sounds to be found elsewhere in the festival’s program.

MONA FOMA 2010 was a huge mixed bag of art and ideas. It was totally different from 2009, and there’s no doubt that 2011, when the actual Museum of Old and New Art reveals its contents, will be just as surprising. If there’s anything this festival is about, keeping people guessing would seem to be it.

MONA FOMA, Festival of Music and Art, curator Brian Ritchie, Hobart, Jan 8-24