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The Gloaming, Dark Mofo and Hobart’s new winter aesthetic

The Gloaming. Image supplied by Stan.

If there was ever any evidence to suggest how deeply Dark Mofo has permeated Hobart’s sense of place, The Gloaming is it. Created by Vicki Madden (The Kettering Incident 2016), and released on Stan in January 2020, The Gloaming, set in nipaluna/Hobart and its surrounds, is a supernatural crime thriller, beautifully shot in icy tones reminiscent of Nordic noir. It can be positioned comfortably within the “Tasmanian Gothic” genre, and is a dark tourism offering on-screen.

In the tale of Alice in Wonderland two gardeners paint a tree of white roses red. They were avoiding a beheading. In 2015, Destination Southern Tasmania launched their Paint the Town Red campaign, urging businesses to light up their shop fronts and premises red to support Hobart’s Dark Mofo festival. 

The annual arts festival held in June had shown the city’s business community how to embrace rather than be beheaded by the darkest elements of Hobart’s gloomy winters. With more than 100,000 tickets sold and an influx of 25,000 interstate and international visitors to Hobart for the festival last year, Tasmania’s tourism organisations and state government deemed it a raging economic success. 

Former Tasmanian Premier Will Hodgman told the ABC, “It’s always been a challenge to get people here in the depths of winter, but since its inception in 2013, Dark Mofo has been a beacon for not only those who want to come and visit out state, but for many Tasmanians—we come out of hibernation at this time of year and celebrate.” 

Since the festival first began, the creative organisation behind the event, DarkLab, has been cultivating a particular aesthetic and cultural identity for Hobart’s winter, aimed at attracting an art-tourism market seeking an edgy Tasmanian Gothic holiday. 

In an interview with The Saturday Paper, DarkLab’s Creative Director, Leigh Carmichael, pointed to Dionysis, the Greek God of Wine and Harvest, and Dionysian festivals as important inspirations behind Dark Mofo. Death, rebirth and ritual are constant themes in the festival’s internationally-acclaimed contemporary arts and music programming, marketed in their iconic red and black branding. 

But it would be incorrect to say that DarkLab or MONA invented this “goth-y”, “pagan-y” winter look for Hobart on their own. Nor are they entitled to have a monopoly on it. 

The Tasmanian Gothic has long been an art-tourism experience sold by Australia’s island state. From lanturn-lit “ghost tours” of the Port Arthur Historic Site, a former convict penal station, to stolen petroglyphs held in the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery’s collection, there has been plenty of pain for tourists to consume. 

That said, Dark Mofo’s international success and the way it has been embraced by local business and the Tasmanian Government, the red and black brand has launched a new phase of arts-tourism. It has become more than just the festival. It has engulfed Hobart’s winter.

There was no Dark Mofo in 2020, cancelled like so many things due to COVID-19, but there is The Gloaming. 

Over eight episodes, the plot sprawls outwards from a ritualistic murder of a woman discovered at a waterfall that is later connected to a cold case: the murder of a teenage girl at an abandoned colonial manor. Much like its Tasmanian Gothic contemporaries, The Nightingale (2018) and Little Lamb (2014), haunting the modern day crime plot is a story of female convicts transported to Van Diemen’s Land, the colonial name given to lutruwita, and renamed Tasmania in 1856. The convict women are subjected to the horrors of state-sanctioned gendered violence, driving them to seek brutal revenge upon their male oppressors.  

The Gloaming may reference a colonial, convict past, but it is set in a wintery contemporary. The opening episode alone provides recurring location shots that recall the familiar aesthetics of DarkLab’s Hobart. A red light blinks from atop a snow-covered kunanyi/Mount Wellington. A young man stands in front of a fire barrel, joined by a bunch of figures in black hoodies, the uniform of festival staff. A wealthy property developer with Leigh Carmichael’s haircut drives recklessly up mountain slopes. 

With heavy themes of paganism, ritual and what comes across as an attempt to critique the insidious power of institutional religion, The Gloaming is awash with Dark Mofo tropes, yet without the edge and playfulness. And much like the many conversations about Dark Mofo that have circulated in nipaluna/Hobart’s arts scenes—at dinner parties, and in beer gardens, The Gloaming left me questioning, who is this aesthetic really for?  

I have no doubt that some Tasmanians beamed with pride while binging on The Gloaming during lockdown, an appreciation perhaps intensified by desperately wanting what we can’t have thanks to Premier Gutwein’s temporary ban on shack visits and camping in National Parks. Cinematographer Marden Dean certainly captures some of the island’s most spectacular locations in all their beauty. 

However, as beautiful as The Gloaming looks, at times some of the choices and use of locations to tell the story felt jarring—as if they were chosen for their cinematic beauty, colonial symbolism, and tourism potential, and only later worked into the storyline. 

The choice of Domain House, a neo-Gothic sandstone manor, for the police investigation pays homage to colonial architecture, sure, but is a far turn from the concrete reality of Tasmania Police’s offices in the CBD. Who really goes to MONA and gives over their Tasmanian license for the free entry, only to have a secret meeting? And I personally would like to know whether the police officers fined the man who found the crime scene at Russell Falls for walking his dog in a National Park.  

I found these scenes puzzling, and had a similar reaction to the 2016 feature film, Lion, directed by Gareth Davis, and which is partially set in southern Tasmania. Like The Gloaming, characters seem to be magically transported from one stunning location to the next. There is nothing inherently wrong with these creative choices. They are what makes for enjoyable viewing, yet also show that like Detective Molly McGee, on-screen Tasmania is just another character in a work of fiction. 

Unfortunately, The Gloaming left me underwhelmed and questioning where the Tasmanian Gothic has taken us in how we tell stories about the island and its history. While convict ancestry  has been transformed from family shame to pride, The Gloaming illustrates how Tasmania is still coming to terms with representing the impacts of colonialism for Aboriginal communities. The series’ representation of the Tasmanian landscape as an empty and haunted place, combined with a total absence of reference to palawa/pakana people and culture, plays into the dominant historical discourse and myth that colonialism eradicated Tasmanian Aboriginal people. 

Arguably, the casting of Aaron Pedersen (an Arrernte and Arabana man) as Inspector Lewis Grimshaw is an attempt at some much welcome Aboriginal representation and visibility. But this feels shallow alongside The Gloaming’s fixation with colonial architecture, convicts and Celtic-paganism, which does little more than perpetuate a tired White, Euro-centric version of Tasmania’s past. 

In an interview with Launceston’s Examiner, The Gloaming’s creator, Vicki Madden, said, “people don’t talk about [the dark history] and that ultimately it’s going to bubble up.” With the growing numbers at Hobart’s annual Invasion Day rallies, along with the tireless work of Tasmania’s Aboriginal community to reclaim their language, palawa kani, and push for a Treaty, it seems that the problem is not that no one is talking, but that people are not listening.   

It would be unfair to expect The Gloaming to have all the answers to how we reconcile the pains of our histories through the arts. However, there’s a fine line between lamenting the horrors of the past, and romanticising them—a line blurry in an economic context where arts (including screen) funding is highly competitive and Tasmanian Gothic art-tourism sells to an international market. 

“Corporate paganism?” The phrase was casually dropped into conversation by a friend, another nipaluna/Hobart-based artist, as we walked down Elizabeth Street on the first day of winter. We ran into another local artist and arts worker, and I repeated the phrase. She laughed. 

The Gloaming is evidence of an aesthetic, of how we are selling Hobart and Tasmania—its history, present, and its fictions. Sometimes it makes us laugh. Other times it feels very grim.