Mercury (Hobart) - Magazine
Diamonds in the sky
Alex Podger’s new Dark Mofo artwork, Memorial, will scatter people’s ashes in a pyrotechnics display that will reflect the fleeting nature of someone’s life
Alex Podger really loves setting stuff on fire. Big stuff. Sometimes he loves blowing stuff up, as well. The best part is that people absolutely love watching it when he does. And at this year’s Dark Mofo festival, the entire city of Hobart is invited to watch as he launches the ashes of people’s departed loved ones on board giant fireworks and farewells them in spectacular showers of fire and light above the River Derwent.
Podger’s artwork, Memorial, will be held across five nights of Dark Mofo. Each night, one single pyrotechnic shell will be fired into the night sky, carrying someone’s ashes, in a spectacle that is intended to make people think about the fleeting nature of human life, and help us to reconnect with the idea of respecting and honouring other people’s loss and grief.
“I’d been thinking about this for a while, what it would be like to witness that, to see someone’s entire life represented in these hundreds of little stars, only to be gone in seconds,” Podgbit says. “And part of the experience is that most people watching will have no idea whose ashes they are watching being launched into the sky, and will respect that ritual all the same.
“I read this story once about a funeral motorcade and the grandmother in one car was quite taken because she saw a random pedestrian on the street stop and take his hat off out of respect for the procession.
“I started thinking, that used to be the tradition, it was something you always did when bells tolled. You knew it meant it was a funeral, so you paused. If you saw a hearse, cars would pull over to let them through.
“The ways we honour and respect other people’s grief are a
light-on now. Memorial is my way of asking people to take a moment to reflect on that sorrow and loss of others.”
Probably best known as a pyrotechnics artist, London-based Australian Podger led the teams that created Dark Mofo’s centrepiece ogoh-ogoh sculptures in 2018 and 2019, and is returning to that role this year as well.
Each year, people are invited to write their greatest fears or secrets on pieces of paper, which are “fed” into the mouth of a wickerwork creature. The sculpture is then ceremonially burned at the culmination of the festival, taking all those fears with it.
The ogoh-ogoh burning ritual is based on a Balinese tradition, and it is one that the people of Tasmania have embraced enthusiastically, as a favourite part of every festival.
It was partly our willingness to engage in such meaningful rituals that led Podger to create Memorial, another kind of public ceremony, helping to purge grief and sadness with fire.
“That’s what’s so special about Dark Mofo, I think,” he says. “There’s this amazing trust that the community has in the curators and organisers, so when artists come up with something exer
perimental not only does the festival get on board for it, but the audience is up for it as well.
“You might get 15,000 people turn up to watch their fears burn in the ogoh-ogoh and all you need to say is, ‘This might be a bit loud’ and they just cover their ears.
“Or you put a line on the ground and ask people not to approach the artwork and they don’t.
“That trust and mutual respect is the envy of other festivals all around the world.”
Mona’s winter festival Dark Mofo returns for its eighth iteration in 2021, illuminating the darkest Hobart nights with seven nights of art, music, feasting and community rituals.
After last year’s festival cancellation due to Covid-19, organisers are committed to offering much of this year’s program to Dark Mofo’s dedicated audience for free.
This festival will christen the new DarkLab Bell Tower, positioned above the Cathedral at In The Hanging Garden, the first bell tower erected in Hobart in close to 100 years.
Originally from Hervey Bay in NSW, where both of his parents were artists, Podger is a multidisciplinary artist who works in visual theatre and site-specific/outdoor art installations.
Currently based in London, his body of work includes giant exploding sculptures, television commercials, music videos, outdoor operas and large-scale spectacle theatre works with puppets, pyrotechnics and orchestras.
He is the artistic director of Woodford Folk Festival’s flagship Closing Ceremony, the largest annual outdoor theatre project in Australia. He has created work with internationally celebrated Irish spectacle theatre company Macnas, and the Australian Commonwealth Games Festival in 2018.
Common themes running through Podger’s work are a flair for the dramatic, and a strong sense of community involvement, something he says he inherited from his mother.
“When I was two she started doing the closing ceremony at Woodford Folk Festival, using fire and ritual theatre at the end of the festival – a festival that I am now artistic director for. “That’s how it began for me.
“I was kind of always at these kinds of shows growing up, winter solstice festivals, folk festivals, and always surrounded by incredible artists doing work that involved things like bonfires, burning effigies, giant puppets, things like that.
“That’s why I started working with fire and pyrotechnics; it became my main medium by osmosis.”
He says Dark Mofo’s audience always shows a willingness to embrace the bizarre and Hobart’s community ownership and support for the festival has always inspired him.
“When you grow up around really large-scale projects that involve a lot of people, you feel part of a bigger community, which is an amazing experience and Dark Mofo is built for that.
“My projects are always fundamentally about people and community, so because they are about, for and involve lots of people they just end up being big!”
When Podger and his team of producers put out the call for people to be involved with Memorial, they were unsure what sort of response they would get.
But in the space of just a few days they were flooded with messages from people who wanted to take part, so many they could not possibly involve them all.
“I read the applications one night and was in tears the whole time,” Podger says.
“It was a massive honour, so incredibly moving to read all those stories. We all wished we could have included more but we could only pick five.
“And the five we selected were all kind of a perfect fit for one reason or another.”
For Hobart’s Richard Bingham, Memorial could not possibly have been more perfect.
His son Tim was 33 when he died of an accidental drug overdose in 2019. Included with Tim’s will was a handwritten note asking for his ashes to be launched and scattered from a rocket above the family’s beach shack on the East Coast.
“We were planning to carry out his wishes in April last year but because of Covid restrictions, not everyone was able to get there; we had family interstate,” Bingham says.
“So we postponed it and did it in April this year instead. But because of all the rigmarole it would have taken to get a permit for fireworks, we did it with a water bottle rocket instead.
“It worked and it scattered his ashes around the shack, so we felt we had fulfilled his wishes but we wanted to keep some of his ashes as well.
“Then, when we saw this we knew it would be something Tim would have loved, particularly with fireworks involved.
“That was an element it wasn’t possible for us to achieve with a water rocket!”
Bingham describes the experience of being part of Memorial as bittersweet but there is also an irony and humour to it that he likes.
Marita O’Connell has been unsure what to do with the ashes of her husband, Justin Huxtable, since losing him to a brain tumour in 2012.
The man she lovingly called “Hux” died on their daughter Beatrix’s fifth birthday, adding to the trauma of the memory, and since then Hux’s ashes have simply sat on a shelf in the box the funeral home put them in.
“There was always this feeling that nothing felt quite right,” O’Connell says. “We always imagined we would scatter them in the ocean, because we spent a lot of time around Spring Beach, but it never felt right.
“Then I thought maybe I would feel ready to do something on the first anniversary of his death, but it still didn’t feel right and, in hindsight, I think there was an element of procrastinating.
“But having the ashes in a box on the shelf never felt right either.”
O’Connell says the moment she heard about Podger’s project, it felt right straight away. And after discussing the idea with the rest of the family, including Hux’s parents, they decided it would be the perfect way of creating a unique beautiful memory at the same time as giving him a final farewell.
“The way we see it, it is a way for us to come together and create a memory and an event around Hux,” she says.
“We don’t tend to do much on the anniversary of his death because it’s Bea’s birthday.
“Usually we have a party on his birthday in September each year and honour him that way instead.
“It’s painful when children are little. Bea was only five when he died, so it’s hard for her to distinguish between what she remembers, what she was told, what she’s seen in videos and so on. So in a way this is creating a memory for her, keeping his memory alive.”
Perhaps the most powerful aspect of Memorial is that, while the participating family members will know who is being launched in the rocket each night, the vast majority of other observers will have no idea.
“Each day will, in effect, be a memorial to a different person,” Podger says. “People will gather together to watch in a certain place at a certain time, and they will honour the life of someone they don’t know.
“They’re the biggest pyrotechnic shells we’re allowed to use in Australia and when they go off, they’re incredibly beautiful. One glorious moment of sparkling stars, then it’s gone, and you’ll think: ‘I wonder who that was?’.”
Podger – who is unable to be present in Hobart for Dark Mofo, as Covid-19 restrictions mean he cannot travel from London – is also producing another free spectacle for festival goers this year, called: Thence We Came Forth to Rebehold the Stars.
Created in collaboration with London-based drummer Gareth Brown, audio producer Benjamin Yellowitz, and Stuart Bensley from Howard & Sons Fireworks, it involves an experimental percussion score being “performed” through the explosions and sparkling cascades of a fireworks show on June 21, at 6pm.
“We created this score around the themes covered in Dante’s Inferno and our own ideas of chaos and other experiences,” Podger says.
“Specifically it’s about the moment in Inferno when he finally leaves Hell and sees the stars again. It’s about turning points, the moment when things change for the better.”
Dark Mofo runs from June 16-22. The Memorial events will be held June 16-20 from 6pm-8pm on the Hobart waterfront. For full event details visit www.darkmofo.net.au