Top 10 Moments From Mona Foma Hobart

9 March 2023 | 12:46 pm | Bryget Chrisfield

From iconic band Bikini Kill to an interpretive dance piece from Baby Girl, we define the top ten moments from Mona Foma for 2023.

Photo Credit: Jesse Hunniford

Photo Credit: Jesse Hunniford

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Having heard people gushing about Mona Foma – curated by Artistic Director/Violent Femmes bassist, Brian Ritchie – pretty much since its debut in nipaluna/Hobart back in 2009, getting to witness this summer festival of music and art returning to full international engagement in 2023 feels extra special. 

Unlike most Australian festivals that rush to book a collection of acts that are popular at the time, even if they’ve already graced festival stages here umpteen times, Ritchie typically curates exhilarating line-ups to start – or continue – important conversations. And this is in line with the vision of owner/creator David Walsh’s Museum of Modern Art (MONA): a lavish, three-level, underground labyrinth that’s carved into sandstone and devoted to the themes of sex and death.

Mona Foma 2023 gave us plenty to ponder while reinvigorating our desire for IRL experiences, familiar or otherwise.

Check out our standout Top 10 Moments from across the entire extended weekend (Thursday to Sunday) below: 

Girls to the Front!

These feminist agitators/riot grrrl pioneers haven’t performed here since 1988 – when a guy called Sloth put on a show, we’re told – and kick off Mona Foma’s closing Sunday headline slot with New Radio, taking exactly zero time to get in the zone and remind us what they’re made of: “I'm the little girl at the picnic/ Who won’t stop pulling her dress up…” Then just like that, in the blink of an eye, song one is done!

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You’d be hard-pressed to find a Bikini Kill song that’s over two minutes duration. “Fuck, YEAH!” yells a nearby reveller. “This is a different song” – Kathleen Hanna’s between-song banter is hilarious and she also shares some infuriating memories of the sexist crap they’ve copped over the years (including that time a keyboard warrior, with spelling difficulties, labelled her a “dumb brawd” [sic] on the internet). And as for Hanna’s confession that upon finding out which hotel Naomi Campbell was staying at back in the day, she kept prank calling reception, putting on a dodgy accent and pretending to be one of the supermodel’s mates? Too good!

Introducing Alien She, Hanna – resplendent in chartreuse mini-dress, hot pink tights and trademark coiffed beehive – reflects, “I wrote this song a long, long time ago when I was a baby feminist and I was trying to figure out what’s the difference between the constructed part of me – by society – and, like, the real authentic part of me. And then I was like, ‘It’s such a fuckin’ mish-mash, do I really care at this point? Maybe I should just try and be the best with whatever conglomeration is going on.” Can you imagine how an all-female band releasing a song called I Like Fucking went down last century? Let alone Suck My Left One. Band members swap instruments like bosses throughout, with drummer Tobi Vail (who is credited with inventing the term ‘riot grrrl’) taking lead vocals for a couple of songs. They close with Rebel Girl – cue fist pumps and pogoing! – and leave the stage to thunderous applause.

Thank you, Bikini Kill, for remaining fearless and fighting for equality while constantly dodging projectiles that ignorant fuckwits hurled at you during past performances (this certainly didn’t occur tonight, thank fuck). Fuck the patriarchy. Did you know? Hanna met her future hubby, Adam ‘Ad-Rock’ Horovitz (Beastie Boys), during Bikini Kill’s 1996 Australian tour (both bands were touring as part of the Summersault festival line-up).

“The land heals”

We’re blessed with glorious weather for the opening, Thursday evening Mona Sessions as seagull calls and the sound of children playing underscores clap sticks, and fragrant smoke wafts up our nostrils from the Smoking Ceremony.

Photo Credit: Jesse Hunniford

Touring the country this year to honour the 40th anniversary of John Pat’s passing – the 16-year-old was tragically beaten and left to die in the custody of Western Australian police – Songs For Freedom culminates in the Freedom Band (Pilbara musicians from the town of Roebourne) performing songs composed during workshops conducted in prisons around mainland WA, guided by Ngarluma and Yinjibarndi Elders.

While raising the profile of unfair and excessive incarceration rates among Aboriginal people, Songs For Freedom also unifies, making us feel hopeful that perhaps one day everyone will feel safe and free to control their own destiny. We’re invited to place our hands directly onto land, drumming on the soil to create some welcoming, communal percussion. As one Elder explains, “When we respect each other’s country and talk about it, the land heals.”

Horsing Around  

Seeing an actual horse led out onto the stage by a character wearing absurd headgear – was it ‘Clockhead’, ‘Birdcage Barnet’ or ‘The Headless Jacket’? – during A Deep Black Sleep is wild. Following this performance, a fellow journo hilariously admitted that he was half-expecting the film noir opera would “go all Equus” once the horse hit the stage (thankfully, it didn’t). And we later overhear someone involved with this production explaining that said horse had to get into an elevator in order to appear onstage – wow!

Easy Tiger 

We thoroughly recommend taking the Mona Roma ferry – high-speed catamarans that sail between Hobart’s Brooke Street Pier and Mona, getting you there in around 25 minutes – rather than arriving by land. You can sit on a life-size sheep seat (what a golden photo op!) while admiring the ever-changing landscapes, from mountainous natural beauty to what resembles a Mad Max attraction at Universal Studios (NB: it’s actually a smelter), with champers in hand (if that’s your jam). There are also tiger seats (in lieu of sheep) on another Mona Roma vessel and the people watching, especially during the post-Mona Sessions return trips, is next level (we’re looking at you Old Mate who fell off your stool and then remained seated on the floor, dumbstruck; as though not moving would somehow make him invisible).

Sign o’ the Times

The Auslan interpreters were so much a part of many Mona Foma shows and particularly brought smiles to our dials during The Queer Woodchop – elevated by Auslan interpreting courtesy of a pioneer-bearded gent who looked like an extra from Sovereign Hill and cracked up on the reg while signing the various “wood”- associated double entendres – and Peaches’ festival-owning Friday night Mona Sessions headline set, signed by the legend with a man-bun: Mikey Webb. Webb’s enthusiastic dance moves and obvious passion for what he does regularly pulls focus from even the most riveting of performances (see our full Peaches review here). “Not many artists are as cool as Peaches, clearly,” Webb reflected of signing for the electroclash trailblazer during our exclusive phoner the following morning. “But, yeah, obviously the feeling, the vibe of the show, yeah, it was just awesome.

“A lot of people don’t get that deaf people enjoy music too. And it’s not necessarily the music as such, it’s the experience. Can you imagine being there last night with your friends, your family and then being able to go home and talk about that kinda stuff, ‘cause you had that access? It’s not necessarily about the lyrics, but the whole experience of going out and just being in an environment like that.”

Webb also signed for Kae Tempest’s by-all-accounts tremendous Mona Foma set in Launceston last Friday night. She spits bars super-fast, hey? “Yes,” Webb recalls, laughing. “I’m lucky, ‘cause I’ve done Red Hot Chili Peppers recently; so their lyrics are mad and rapid-fast as well. It’s about just getting the cadence and the rhythm right, and then making sure you interpret some meaning as well.”

On Sunday afternoon, during A Life Sentence With Nico Muhly – an interactive performance featuring the TSO (Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra) Chorus – we’re given a taste of what it would feel like to experience music without sound when the Chorus soundlessly lip syncs the words as an Auslan interpreter signs. A half-hour composition, this is the third year Mona Foma has planned to roll the red carpet out for Nico Muhly – a prolific contemporary composer from New York who has collaborated with Sufjan Stevens, Paul Simon, The National and James Blake to name a few – but now he’s finally here. And as Mona Foma’s 2023 artist-in-residence, Muhly shows off by composing a piece from scratch – based on a sentence chosen by the audience – in just 30 minutes. When he’s called back into the room, Muhly distributes sheet music to the TSO Chorus (sight-reading is nuts!) before they premiere this brand-new work to close out A Life Sentence With Nico Muhly on Sunday afternoon while he sits on the floor in front of them, proudly watching on.

Earlier that day, during The TSO Plays Nico Muhly program, Old Bones – a stunning meditation on the bones found under the asphalt of a carpark in Leicester, believed to have once belonged to Richard III – gives us collective goosebumps. Launcestonian countertenor Nicholas Tolputt looks so humble when he enters/exits the stage or bows, yet as soon as he opens his mouth to sing he totally transforms into a superhuman force. Throughout the program’s final piece, Seeing Is Believing, the celestial beauty of purple-haired electric violinist Véronique Serret’s playing unanimously wows all in attendance. 

Tent Dancing 

Baby Girl – a dance/performance-art piece, which is immaculately executed by dancer/choreographer Amber McCartney – in The Nolan Gallery, within the museum itself, is a Mona Foma highlight for many. McCartney is so supple that her movement often calls to mind a baby before its bones have fully developed. She sheds prosthetic protrusions – a ginormous noggin and oversized, clumpy paws – while demonstrating next-level body control, muscle articulation and kinaesthetic awareness. And we wonder just how much can she actually see through those masks?

Pic by Jesse Hunniford

There are still a few summer camping festivals left on the annual calendar so we’re thrilled to have witnessed McCartney’s innovative use of a pop-up tent as well. Maybe we’ll try to replicate some of her moves next time we pitch a tent? Post-show, we’re buzzing and wide-eyed while excitedly discussing our Baby Girl takeaways in the elevator back up to Mona’s lawn stage area. One lift-sharer awards this production “11 out of ten”. Too right! We’re still thinking about it to this day. 

Drumming Up Excitement

Jazz drummer Chloe Kim turned musicianship into an endurance sport throughout the course of the festival. Her aim? To drum for a whopping 100 hours: ten hours a day, in different locations, across Mona Foma’s ten-day duration (Launnie then Hobart). Friday night’s Mona Sessions open with an hour of her improvised drumming and, we can confirm, that Kim was still drumming with her trademark precision and flair during her final, 99th hour in the James Turrell-designed Amarna gazebo. What a feat!

“Did you see the poop machine, or what?”

“It’s a cool place! Did you see the poop machine, or what?” Angel Olsen asks the Mona Foma massive during her Saturday evening Mona Sessions slot. She’s referring to Cloaca Professional, which replicates the gastroenterological journey that food takes – from eating to shitting (we recommend you avoid this exhibit around 2pm, which poop o’clock – that stench!). Accompanied by cello, violin, three guitars, keys and drums, Olsen’s vocal pretty much encapsulates the entire vibe of ONJ’s Hopelessly Devoted To You. She premieres a “real hit” she wrote just last night and it’s a keeper, alright! “It’s so hard to stay in the game when TikTok is out there,” Olsen opines before closing her set with a cover of Harry Nilsson’s Without You (also famously covered by Mariah Carey).

Bonus LOLs: We’re suddenly reminded of a contestant on Bulgaria’s Music Idol show, who hilariously belted out “Ken Lee” in lieu of this classic song’s actual chorus lyrics (“I can’t live…”). 

Eye of the Spider

Described as “a call for environmental action on Earth”, Tomás Saraceno’s Oceans Of Air is thought-provoking and unexpectedly moving. Including both existing works and new commissions from this Argentinian, Berlin-based artist, one of the most memorable creations in this captivating exhibition – in our humble opinion – is We Do Not All Breathe The Same Air, which illustrates the differences in air quality from select Australian regions. And as for the stunning Webs Of At-tent(s)ion – we could’ve gawked at those hybrid spider webs, enclosed in cases, for days on end.