Leigh Carmichael’s dark arts at MONA
Tasmania’s Franklin River disgorges myth like a lesser-known Euphrates. Richard Flanagan almost came to grief here, trapped for hours beneath his upturned kayak. Years later, Flanagan would set his first book, Death of a River Guide, on the Franklin’s most lethal kink, a rapid known as the Cauldron, where the drowning narrator laments having done nothing with his life as one by one his bodily functions shut down. It was also at the Cauldron where Leigh Carmichael, former creative director at the Museum of Old and New Art and now DarkLab creative director, nearly met a similar fate.
“I don’t have nightmares, but it still makes me nauseous to talk about it,” he says. “The Cauldron is a class 6 rapid; it’s extremely dangerous and no one rafts it. There have been many fatalities there. Pretty much only the professionals do the Franklin. We weren’t professionals. We were amateurs.
“We came in wrong and it just immediately started pulling us down. It only took a couple of seconds; the water’s moving so fast. We were grabbing whatever we could get our hands on: rocks, branches, anything.
“Fuck, I thought, we’re in a bit of trouble here.”
Carmichael looks exhausted. His eyes are smudged and swollen. Not hungover. More weathered. Red in the crow’s feet. And his movements are slow, almost like he’s under water.
We’re just around the corner from the MONA offices in an inner-city Hobart cafe, up the back in the dark, cloistered from the chaos up front.
The program for this year’s Dark Mofo was announced only two days ago, and the past few weeks have been “a chaotic nightmare”. It shows.
Carmichael was born in the Huon Valley, 30 minutes from Hobart but a world away. The bush. He’s outspoken about his love for Tasmania. But he’s always been the quiet outsider: he was shy about travelling up to Hobart for college, conscious of his clothes, that the kids from the city would outshine him in smarts and fashion and worldliness.
“People say I can be difficult to work with,” he tells me. “That I’m single-minded. There have been screaming matches. ‘Perfectionist,’ they say. But I guess you’d have to ask the people I work with.”
I ask him how he got started.
“I went to art school here in Hobart. Had kids young. Got into graphic design, worked freelance and by the time I was 30 I had an early midlife crisis.”
Are crises necessary?
“I tend to get more anxious worrying about a crisis that hasn’t happened yet. When something does go wrong, it tends to focus your mind. I’m not sure crises are necessary, but they are a good way to find out who your friends are.”
And the early midlife crisis?
“All my friends had left the island, had careers and well-paying jobs. They’d accomplished things. I felt I hadn’t accomplished anything, that my chance was slipping away.”
Then David Walsh came along.
“He threw me a lifeline. In 2006 there was a design job I was pitching for with a small boutique beer label – Moo Brew. I didn’t know who David was or what he was planning to do. Nobody did. The gig itself wasn’t a big deal. Beer labels. I almost forgot the deadline.”
But he made the deadline and got the job, and that job led to another job, and for the past decade Carmichael has been at the centre of the creation of MONA, MONA FOMA, Dark Mofo, DarkLab and, some argue, the driving force behind the Tasmania boom. It sounds like a fairytale, I say.
“A grim one,” he says.
Carmichael has been surrounded by sex and death in art and philosophy almost every day for the better part of 10 years. It’s the MONA aesthetic. I wonder if his outlook on death has changed during this time.
“I have probably learnt more listening to David at dinner parties than I have from the art,” Carmichael says. “He has a fascinating way of seeing the world, and I listen carefully. Most of the time I don’t understand much of it. I have often felt out of my depth.”
This will be a constant phrase throughout our discussion.
“Early on he sent me off to research Dionysus, Greek god of wine. It still bears fruit for me today, in all I do. The myths are such a rich vein of inspiration. I’d say they have influenced all the work I’ve done since. It was certainly central to the branding and identity of MONA.”
“I hope I have changed. I do feel more comfortable with it. But maybe that’s just because I’m older. I still read quite a bit of philosophy, but I’m disappointed in my ability to remember things.”
And David? What’s that relationship like?
“He’s been a sort of mentor. But it hasn’t always been smooth sailing. Initially I just looked and learnt. I learnt about Dionysian festivals, about death and rebirth, about the ritual aspects and danger inherent in wine. The same bottle can put you in the gutter or take you to the stars. Dionysus was also the protector of outsiders, the ones who didn’t fit into conventional society.”
Do you ever argue or disagree?
“I don’t agree with everything. Although, to be honest, I’ve never won an argument. I don’t think many people have. The problem is David usually gets it right, which is annoying.
“But we do share a similar aesthetic. We’ll often come out of meetings with the same response. You need to be on the same page as your boss. You can fake it for a while, but if it doesn’t gel it’s not going to work in the long term.”
And in the long term?
“I’ve learnt a lot about relationships. And politics. We had a very exciting first few years. Opening the museum. MONA FOMA. Dark Mofo. Then…”
“It was hard. Our relationship… it didn’t sour. It didn’t go bad or anything. But it was strained. At first I’d speak to him, not daily, but weekly certainly. Then after the museum opened everything became harder.
“There are two broad phases to a project. The creating phase and the operating phase. I’m much more interested in the former. After we created MONA and everything around it, I struggled with the operating phase. The money people moved in. Lots of interested parties. That was tough. And over the last few years I’ve been struggling with balancing the pure artistic, creative ideas and the pragmatics of operation. A few times I wanted out.”
But you clung on?
“You can cling on too long. And it’s to the detriment of a project if you do. But as I said, I learnt about relationships. And David backed me again. I think he saw how stressed I’d become. How the management of MONA was getting to me emotionally and physically.”
How do you cope with stress?
“I go rafting.”
Are you an anxious person?
“The anxiety can be debilitating. You’ve got to get out, out of the city, out of your head. But you don’t want to be too relaxed about it all, either. Like Icarus: you’ve got to stay somewhere between the sun and the Earth.”
Late last year, Carmichael stepped out of the role of creative director at MONA, and together with Walsh established DarkLab, a new entity with a focus on the Dark Mofo festival, but also incorporating other concepts and projects that don’t fit neatly into the museum’s structure.
“The whole idea emerged during a visit to the Eden Project in Cornwall, England,” Carmichael says. “We saw what Sir Tim Smit was doing there – the environmental work, the eco-tourism work, the great social impact it was having – all the ideas coming out of the think tank behind the Eden Project: Edenlab. Essentially that’s where DarkLab came together for us: Edenlab.
“It’s amazing to have a boss who is prepared to back a bunch of creatives without even knowing what projects might emerge. David wants us to take on projects that aren’t likely to succeed.”
No one can deny the phenomenal impacts MONA has had. One of which has been attracting tourists to Tasmania.
“Initial predictions were 30,000 visitors to the museum per year. We’re now topping 350,000. To be honest it’s hard to find a quiet day to look at the art. I’d suggest going midweek.”
Between the dim lighting and his fatigue – the red, coin-slot eyes; the wiry shoulder-length hair; the black jacket, shirt, jeans, boots – his grin has a Halloween-in-the-daytime allure to it.
Tourism is a big responsibility in a place like Tasmania. There’s talk of erecting high-rises to cope with the influx. Hobart City Council met recently to vote on proposals put forward by Singaporean developer Fragrance Group. There’s also been talk of cable cars going up Mount Wellington. Some see it as a disaster, something that will irreparably change the face of Hobart.
“It certainly needs to be handled carefully,” Carmichael says. “At the moment it’s okay, but we must continue to protect our wild places, manage access and gently develop outside the World Heritage areas. I’m not against height in the city. It just has to be designed well. At some point the urban sprawl will have to end.”
In addition to his work at DarkLab, Leigh was recently appointed to the board of the Australia Council, the body that oversees the distribution of public funds throughout the arts sector.
“Yeah, I feel out of my depth,” he says. “There’s a widely held view in this country that art is a bit elitist, that the funding benefits audiences who can already afford to pay. The ballet. The opera. That sort of thing. I am aware of this.
“I believe that the most important thing MONA has achieved as an outsider organisation has been to break through cultural elitism for audiences, and this has allowed the museum and festivals to provide high cultural experiences to an incredibly wide, diverse audience.”
How can an institution remain an “outsider”, though? Doesn’t success militate against that?
“I have given this way too much thought over the years and still don’t feel like I have an answer. Shock for shock’s sake is shallow. The audience knows it. But if there’s an underlying purpose then it’s okay. For example, Dark Mofo has been looking at contemporary ritual since we began, and this year we’ve programmed Austrian artist Hermann Nitsch’s 150.Action, which uses blood, animal carcasses, nude performers, and deals with religious symbolism. This is perfect. But the blood, nudity and horror are not the reason it’s in the festival. If it happens to make people uncomfortable, or they question their own response, then it’s probably good art.”
Since this interview took place, Dark Mofo announced that Nitsch’s exhibition would include the ritualistic slaughter of a bull, one already marked for human consumption. This has sparked a series of protests, petitions and counter protests and petitions.
In the opening scene of Death of a River Guide, the drowning narrator marvels at being born with the umbilical cord tangled around his throat, at “being garrotted by the very thing that had until that time succoured me and given me life”.
The MONA aesthetic is tailored around chaos, chance, being in the right place at the right time. There is always the risk that its own nature could be its downfall. Failure and decay are certainly within their remit. And it would have all the hallmarks of a good fairytale. Or myth.
“I’m tired. But I’ve been lucky,” Carmichael says. “Lifelines have a habit of appearing. Crises tend to give rise to new life. Remember Dionysus.
“Sylvia Plath once wrote: ‘All I want is blackness. Blackness and silence.’ I know what she meant.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 10, 2017 as "Dark legacy". Subscribe here.