‘A firework is a beautiful way to pay tribute’: Dark Mofo ceremony celebrates lives with a flash in the sky
A bracingly chilly evening in Hobart. Mizzling rain is falling. A firework zips into the sky over the River Derwent (timtumili minanya). A flash, a bang, a cascade of golden embers. Glittering reflections scatter across the water.
Some among the hundreds of people in the waterfront queues for Hobart’s Dark Mofo winter festival feast look up and catch the moment. Not all, perhaps, are aware of the significance of the event.
Created by the Australian artist-pyrotechnician Alex Podger, Memorial is a celebration of human impermanence in a single firework. For those who have chosen to be involved with the project, it is also an act of catharsis: each firework contains the ashes of a loved one.
Among the lives celebrated with a firework was that of Christopher Russell, who died on 4 February, aged 92. His wife, Elsbeth, and their daughters, Amy and Wynne Russell, took part in the Memorial ceremony on a floating jetty.
“Honestly, if Dark Mofo hadn’t proposed this way of celebrating his life, I wouldn’t have organised anything,” says Amy. “I’ve been too depressed since he passed away. This artwork gave me a powerful and beautiful experience as well as a commemoration of my father. I felt that the community was celebrating Dad.”
It rained steadily the entire day prior to the firework being released. “We worried that the event would be cancelled, but were reassured that it was a very powerful firework,” says Amy. “The rain created a universe of sound, water and darkness. It seemed miraculous to me – a blessing.”
At the beginning of the ceremony, participants are welcomed to Country by Palawa elder Uncle Dougie Mansell. “It was one of the most beautiful and significant parts of the ceremony,” Amy recalls. “He described the Sky Country of the ancestors to which our loved ones travel. I couldn’t have imagined a more beautiful image. Really, the event was a gift to my family.”
The idea for Memorial was sparked by Podger’s lockdown experience of London. He’s been based there throughout the pandemic and was unable to travel to Hobart.
“I spent much of the nine months of lockdowns walking through cemeteries in different seasons, watching beautiful stone monuments slowly being tipped over by tree roots or buried under snow,” he says. “Does anyone remember those names now, written 100 years ago? But imagine how loved they were back then.”
For Podger, those graveyards were a reminder that the deceased live in memory, not in carved marble or granite. “I’m not saying we shouldn’t build monuments, but maybe that we should just revel in the beauty of a single, beautiful moment and remember that fondly.”
After the ceremonies on shore, the firework is taken by boat from Hobart’s Elizabeth Street Pier to the launch site.
“The boat that takes the ashes represents the journey souls take across a river in a few different mythologies,” Podger says. “There is something profound about watching a boat disappear across the dark water carrying something so important.”
For Wynne Russell, Amy’s sister, it was a powerful event. “I was so moved to see the red light of the little boat carrying his ashes away through the darkness, reflected in the water with the green lights of the harbour markers. His own crossing of the dark waters – even if not of the River Styx. The attendant raised the little red bag of ashes high in her hands like a priestess. It was so wonderful to just be able to be silent and watch him glide away.”
The pyrotechnics of Christopher Russell’s memorial lasted a few seconds. “The firework itself was exquisite, a single golden chrysanthemum of light,” says Wynne. “I feel that such a moment of beauty is the only memorial I could ever want for him. It felt perfect to consign him to water and air and light.”
Amy agrees. “I’m not sure how I felt, but all the pictures show that I was smiling joyfully,” she says, adding that immediately after the firework flowered and then drooped towards the water, there was “a moment of clarity without thought”.
Wynne and Amy’s mother, Elsbeth, says it was an “absolutely beautiful night-time event” with a moving contrast between light and dark that Christopher would have loved. She says there is no competition between the evanescent quality of Memorial and a more fixed resting place for the rest of a person’s ashes – she is looking forward to her and her husband’s ashes eventually being commingled at a family property on Matinicus Island, an isolated island off the coast of Maine in the US. “But a firework is a beautiful way to pay tribute to each individual’s exceptional qualities,” Elsbeth says.
Though the ceremony is intensely personal, the explosion can be seen and heard across the city of Hobart, says Podger. “I’m hoping people will take a moment to respect the grief and loss of others, and that there might be a moment of shared compassion, a pause, across the city.
“I think we get so tangled in our own lives now that we sometimes forget to respect the struggles of other people.”