‘Time of Life: Penis Whistles and Performance Art at Dark Mofo’, by Kate Hennessy


Image by Dominik Krupinski.

On the bus, the duet from Dirty Dancing, ‘(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life’, is playing too loud for the tinny speakers. Pink balloons hang from the ceiling and tassles fringe the aisles. The windows are papered over so we can’t see out. It’s cheap, nasty and there’s nowhere to hide.

“Can I sit here?” I ask a guy with a spot beside him. He bats away a huge inflatable cock to clear my seat. We laugh, helplessly, then start blowing the penis whistles we’ve just been given. On reflection, it’s a shame we didn’t fall in love and get married ourselves. “How did you meet Dad, Mum?”

I’m onboard a limited edition piece of immersive performance art by Melbourne’s Gabi Barton and Simone Page Jones. It recreates a hens’ night and it’s called Time of Life—though I discover that later; for now, it’s a mystery ride. Only four bus trips are available—two on Friday, two on Saturday. We’ve been picked up from outside Blacklist, Dark Mofo’s infamous after-party, and this is the last show.

I’ve been at Dark Mofo festival for eight long nights and seven short days and I’m in a downward swing. But I’m pushing through because earlier I saw Blacklist curator, Hannah Fox, who said: “It’s a collab with Glenorchy Women’s Football Team – that’s all I can say”. The crush to get on affirms my decision to go. Word has spread.

Gabi and Simone, our hosts and hens, clump around in platform heels, defying the Hobart winter in tight pink mini-dresses, tiaras, veils and beauty queen sashes. The Target tags—$10—still hang from their g-strings. “This is our hens’ night and we’re going to have the time of our life!” they shriek. They’re all tits and teeth, flesh and flagrancy. The code is written: P A R T Y. Even the Dirty Dancing song is prescriptive, its lyrics in past tense. Women in teetering heels and tiny skirts have always seemed both vulnerable and fierce to me: a combo that draws out my protective streak but deters it too. Their air of volatility scares me—especially in packs—and I suspect we’re about to see it fully flexed.

Not everyone is fitting on the bus. I give my penis whistle another half-hearted blow. Blowing whistles isn’t something I especially like to do but I’m responding to a deeper urge: to not look like the prudish buzzkill who took the fun person’s seat. People are farewelling friends who can’t get on and I don’t want my stony “get me offa this bus” face to be the first thing they see. The inflatable cock bonks my head from behind. “C’mon love,” it winks, wordlessly. “Crack a smile!” It is the beach ball at the festival gig you must thwack back otherwise every sunburnt douchebag in a singlet scores a mandate to boo you. I don’t know what to expect of the mystery ride but I feel I know exactly what’s expected of me. We pull away from Hobart City Hall. Too late, Kate.

As we drive through the dark streets, a woman combs the bus for a free seat but with the penis ploughing the aisle, it is no place to linger. She sits on my lap then scoots across to the guy beside me, dragging my shoulder bag with her so I’m forced to slightly stoop towards his crotch. The indignity seems barely worth protesting, given the general tone, and my neighbours don’t notice anyway because Gabi is in the aisle poised to do the “lift” that Baby does into Patrick Swayze’s arms in the Dirty Dancing finale. “Will you catch meeeeee?” It’s a terrible idea but everyone eggs her on. It seems our scripts are more inked than theirs.

I reach under the woman’s arse for my bag. “Can I just… hi, sorry…you took my bag… ah hang on here it is… can you lift up your…” I pull it out with one hand while shoving away the looming cock with the other. I’m getting good at seeing its fleshy advance in my peripheral vision. “It just keeps getting in the way!” I say. She and I laugh hard—a lot harder than he does—and it’s obvious she gets the joke while he really doesn’t. The exchange peps me up. This show is smart, I think, as corks pop and I marvel at how its smartness can co-exist with Simone cruising the aisle offering us the ejaculations of a booze-filled penis pistol while wearing a veil embroidered with plastic penises.

I sneak a sidelong glance at the guy in the seat beside me. Cute, early twenties, not too pissed. Surely he is out of his comfort zone, encased by cocks and older women laughing at cocks. A few seats up, a guy looking girly in a cock headband appears a bit shell-shocked too. Perhaps if you actually have a penis such props are a tad confronting? It strikes me I’ve never had to ponder such a thing before.

When did penis paraphernalia eclipse silly games at hens’ nights, anyway? I followed some Gold Coast hens on Instagram recently and they even had cock water-slides. I guess you can play games later when you’re married and pregnant at the baby shower. I like the hens/cocks movement. Little ones, big ones, trifling ones, gigantic ones – irrespective of size or shape, the purpose is to regard and touch them irreverently and with zero consequence. Detached from the male body, they are vulnerable, objectified and bereft of power. Even better, they’re freaking hilarious.

Currently showing at a New York gallery, Cheim & Reid, is an exhibition of thirty-two women artists (including Tracey Emin and Jenny Holzer) called The Female Gaze, Part II: Women Looking at Men. “A number of works directly approach the phallus, which is basically the last taboo in Western culture—it’s very shrouded and guarded,” said the curator John Cheim in an ArtNews interview. “People are still uncomfortable with the male nude… I think it’s about control and power.”

Clearly, Cheim’s never been to a hens’. The aim of several works in the exhibition is to make you “smile”. It’s art, so touching the dicks is a no-no. The aim of the mass-produced penises at a hens’ night, meanwhile, is not to make you smile wryly at the artist’s deft and historically-aware gender flip but to make you shriek with laughter: loudly, brashly and trashily. You can fondle the cocks in whatever way you desire and if you happen to burst one with your shellacked fingernail, no-one will kick you out. Assigned the task of stripping the phallus of its power and mystique, the hens of the world make the artists look like squares.

Though the hens have more to lose. It’s (supposed to be) the last time they’ll touch any penis that’s not dangling between the legs of their husband. It’s a “goodbye random penis” ritual. And farewells are always emotional.

We’re offloaded at a dark showground. It’s midnight and no-one’s here but Gabi and Simone fill the silence with their racket. They usher us up a concrete stairwell into what seems to be the member’s area of a racetrack. Garish carpet, function room furniture and ‘(I’ve Had) The Time Of My Life’ playing here too, triggering more ferocious partying. Gabi busts open a piñata and Simone dances on the bar. They start up a chant: “Time of life!” We chant back: “Time of life!” Well, I don’t. I can’t. I’m terrible at mob mentality: the engine powering this show. A few of us shyer ones eye the bar but there’s no bartender: a reminder this is a performance, not a night out.

“Where are our girls?” someone says suddenly. They are gone. The stadium lights blink on. Amassed on the grass below is a uniformed football team dancing in formation to the song, now blaring on the stadium speakers. We clap and cheer: now this is entertainment! Then, the naked bodies of Gabi and Simone running from the bleachers as though being chased by Benny Hill, vaulting the fence and sprinting towards the players. They collide and are tackled, get covered in mud, struggle to their feet, dance crazily, get crash-tackled again. Simone disappears beneath the bodies for some time.

From this distance the broad-set footy players could be men. They’re not—it’s the Glenorchy Women’s Football Club—but regardless, my thoughts turn to hazing, to Anna Krien’s book Night Games, to rape, to the darkness “our girls” would be in now if the lights went out. I think of the prickle of dewy grass, the dank stairwell and all the other places like this where bad things happen. I think of the scene in Sofia Coppola’s Virgin Suicides when Lux wakes up at dawn on the football field, alone and ruined. The lewd permissiveness of the bus lingers in a sickly way. Why are they naked? People are still laughing but I’ve stopped. To laugh, I need to be surer of what I’m witnessing. And what I’m seeing is Gabi and Simone literally throwing themselves at footy players, while naked and (acting) drunk. “So we’ll just let it go / Don’t be afraid to lose control /With my body and soul / I want you more than you’ll ever know.”The players are women so the most obvious reading is subverted. Maybe it’s just a joke about streaking? Why bother?

Video of Time of Life by Kate Hennessy.

We’re in a grandstand but I don’t feel like a spectator. I’ve decided the whole performance is an elaborate call and response so how I respond is important. But I don’t know how and I feel even more out of sync with the groupthink than before. Coming here, our cues were clear but the script has disintegrated. Perhaps that’s the point. This is how bad things happen. They go from good to weird, from weird to bad, in a flash. This isn’t real life but even in this context I’m hesitant to speak because I don’t want to ruin anyone’s night.

Back on the bus, the mud-smeared (re-dressed) hens are unravelling. Gabi is squirting whipped cream into her mouth then barfing lollies in the aisle. Simone is trying to force-feed Gabi water. “She gets like this every time we go out. Follow the water, Gabi!” she says in a baby voice, then starts to look queasy too. “I’m sorry,” she moans. “I’m just really bad at cleaning up other people’’s spew.”

Not long before we arrive back at Blacklist, the hens have an epiphany. “I haven’t spoken to anyone else in ten years!” Simone confesses, tearfully. The line really gets me. I could say the same about some of my girlfriends; the women in my life who always listen and never judge. “It’s always been you!“ they say, kissing. Women kissing to arouse onlookers or an act that symbolises the intensity and intimacy of female friendship? Take your pick. It’s all up for grabs. For a show in which I initially felt bullied into my “role”, Time of Life dissolves into an immensely subjective work – perhaps to a fault. About 180 festivalgoers took the trip and each of the four rides apparently had a very different flavour. Everyone’s reading must have been different. But what were those readings?

“There were some drunk leery men who were making awful comments,” says a woman of her Friday bus ride. My guess is these men got their stereotypes served neatly back to them and left feeling nicely titillated after the women kissed. What did they tell their mates afterwards? Without hearing that dialogue, the show feels unfinished. Its truths only exist in people’s interpretations but that circle was never closed.

I could have done an exit poll myself but everyone melted into the Blacklist party. In any case, I couldn’t speak coherently about it until days later. I’m still left with a handful of frayed open ends and images that won’t stitch into a single picture.

I do know it was an immensely feminist work. Last time I reported on Dark Mofo, in 2014, singer Chrysta Bell was here and promo-ed as “David Lynch’s latest muse”, a tagline the media repeated ad nauseam, while Andrew P Street drooled over Bell’s “ethereal otherworldly beauty” and “pure, breathy, late-night” voice. Late-night Gabi and Simone, meanwhile, are the anti-muse, leaving nothing to the wistful imaginings of the male auteur. They wrote, directed and starred in a piece that could only have been created by women. Its most obvious parallel is Kath and Kim, which was created by Kath (Jane Turner) and Kim (Gina Riley). Time of Life invited men into a space they would not normally be permitted; a space that’s developed a code of conduct free of the male gaze. There was nothing to lose. The judgement or enjoyment of men had no relevance.

I also know the performance was about mob mentality, the quick onset of ambiguity, and immersing people in a permissive environment to see what happens. And how enthusiastically we participated in the artifice of an event we’d despise in real life! If I walked into a bar where a hens’ night was in raucous full swing, I’d walk the hell back out. What we reject in life, we embrace in art; a cultural tourism role-play we can’t be judged for enjoying because we’re doing it ironically. We were all performers. I’m just glad I saw the complexity in my role.

Kate Hennessy’s music and arts criticism runs in The Guardian, ABC Arts, Fairfax, Australian Book Review, Noisey, The Wire and The Quietus. Kate appears on ABC TV and has spoken at Vivid Ideas, Darwin Writers’ Festival and the Rock & Roll Writers’ Festival. She is an Australian Music Prize judge, a founding member of feminist collective LISTEN and a teacher of four years at the Australian Writers’ Centre.