June 27th, 2017
Tracey Moffatt Imagines an Uncertain Future
In her solo exhibition at the Venice Biennale, the Australian photographer spins stories of displacement.
By Joanna Lehan
My Horizon, the prophetic-sounding title of Tracey Moffatt’s solo exhibition that fills the Australian Pavilion in Venice, comprises two new photographic series and two new short videos. All of these works, in various ways, address displacement, and each uses the horizon as both a compositional tool and an evocation of a future that glimmers ahead with ominous uncertainty.
Moffatt, who was born in 1960 in Brisbane, is representing Australia in the 57th Venice Biennale, which opened this May. We may feel like we haven’t seen much of Moffatt lately. It was back in 1997 when Moffatt’s breakout solo show Free-Falling opened at New York’s Dia Center and launched her to worldwide fame. During that era, she was even living at the center of New York’s art world, on then-edgy 10th Avenue in Chelsea. This was also a moment when the art world held staged photography in its capricious embrace (think Cindy Sherman, Jeff Wall, Gregory Crewdson, Phillip-Lorca diCorcia). Artists were exploring the boundaries of the narrative capabilities of photography, as well as its relationship to cinema.
Moffatt’s career rose with this tide, but with the unique combination of influences in her work—Australian culture and history, feminism, humor, experimental and classic cinema—she has always ridden her own wave. She moved back to Australia full time in 2010, and lives in a beautiful modern house on Queensland’s Castaways Beach, far out of reach of New York’s sirens. But she has continued to make her powerfully evocative videos and photographs that explore the effect of various photographic processes in works that are distinctly narrative yet elude a fixed plot.
This is certainly true of the works in My Horizon (all 2016). Passage is a large-scale, noir-ish photodrama featuring four characters—a mother and baby, a sharply-dressed “middleman,” and a police officer—in a geographically indeterminate port. Moffatt herself, styled as a maid, revisits a now-abandoned site from her past in Body Remembers, the other large-scale series of photographs. Vigil is a short video that is a mash-up of classic cinema and contemporary news, to produce a terse and affecting primal scream of a response to the refugee crises. The other short film, The White Ghost Sails In, purports to be a filmic artifact made by Aboriginal people two hundred years ago.
Moffatt replied to my questions via email, from a remote location in the Australian outback, where she’s already at work on a new project.
Joanna Lehan: The work of your long career has been extraordinarily varied. Is there very early work you can point to that resonates strongly with the work you’re showing at the Venice Biennale?
Tracey Moffatt: My Horizon might be a return to my earlier photographic narrative technique I produced twenty years ago, in series such as Up in the Sky (1997) and Laudanum (1998), then a little later Plantation—which I photographed at the same time around 1997, but printed it, in painterly color, in 2008. Two decades ago my interest was to push the photographic image away from the “document” and to disregard realism.
I made these series by taking my camera to a location and spinning a story. I would cast actors, models, or people I found on the street. I have always loved costuming and props and I like creating open-ended fictions. Mostly I like to try to create a visual mood, not unlike cinema.
Lehan: And you’ve expressed an affiliation with cinema, especially with experimental filmmakers such as Maya Deren. Your photographic narratives are not quite stories; they are quite open for interpretation. What is your fascination with a story not-quite-told?
Moffatt: Because it is my observation that since photography was invented, this is how it can be “read.” The photograph is a story not-quite-told. It is what we can’t see in a photograph that holds my fascination. American Maya Deren, who has been called the Mother of Surrealist Cinema, produced short films in the 1940s and ’50s that took us into the world of black-and-white dreams. Her background was dance. In my twenties, I photographed dance and theater as a job as well. I have always felt that this was good training for me. I would jump around with my 35mm camera trying for angles, and to adjust to the extreme theater lighting.
Maya Deren was a magnificent artist. I have treasured two stunning volumes of The Legend of Maya Deren (1984–88), compiled by three women scholars and produced by Anthology Film Archives. (Please tell me that they are still open on 2nd Avenue in the East Village. It was like a shrine, where you could sit in a cavernous old theatre and watch experimental films that were nothing but a fuzzy blur.)
My friend, the performance artist Carolee Schneemann, told me that she knew Maya in the early days in New York, and would visit her apartment. Carolee was probably eighteen at the time, and she and her boyfriend were desperate for cigarettes and food, and Maya was so broke that she didn’t even have these to give them. Maya lived the life of an artist and followed her imagination.
But no, I have never been interested in realist photography as an art form. I have always preferred the staged or the set-up. Years ago I saw Deborah Turbeville’s strange, grainy fashion photographs and they blew my mind.
Lehan: You have often explored historic photographic processes, and have produced bodies of work using a wide variety of methods, from photolithography in Scarred for Life (1994), to photogravures in Laudanum (1998), all for a particular effect. What effect did you want these large-scale prints in the Biennale to achieve?
Moffatt: The Body Remembers prints are large-scale, on rag paper, and they have ochre hues of browns, reds, and yellows. I wanted these works to feel as though they had come out of the earth and were hit by the sun. I didn’t frame them, but left them exposed. I wanted a fragility of surface and mood. They are displayed high up around the gallery like an ancient frieze. The images are dreamlike, with shadows.
Lehan: As opposed to the global theme of migration present in the other works in the exhibition, Body Remembers is drawn more from the personal, and you’ve cast yourself as the maid. How do you see the thread that links this series to the others in My Horizon?
Moffatt: The images play with time back and forth: the maid remembers the past, or projects herself into the future, where the house she works in has become a ruin. The horizon line of the desolate landscape features in the background. Her shadow might be dreaming out to the horizon, which can represent an escape.
Lehan: Can you talk about the aesthetic choices you made in the series Passage?
Moffatt: It’s a late-1940s, noir aesthetic. The setting for these fictions is a mysterious port in some far-off colony—probably in Africa, but it could also be Brooklyn. The setting comes completely from my imagination.
Joanna Lehan: The idea of “horizon” carries a sense of the future. Can you talk about that in relationship to The White Ghosts Sail In? The work has the premise that it was created by indigenous people, and discovered by you in a former aboriginal mission. It’s situated in the past, at a moment before history takes a violent turn. Of course we know the outcome, so there shouldn’t be suspense, although keeping us in this looping moment of expectation has a certain power.
It’s also about the subversion of expected gaze. In one of my favorite, older videos Heaven (1997), you and other female camera operators harass sexy surf dudes as they change out of their wetsuits. This work also provides the camera to those about to be subjugated, as opposed to the colonial gaze with which we’re more familiar. What do you think of this reading, and what can you share about the impulse for this film?
Moffatt: The two-minute film is nothing but a series of shots of the horizon line of the ocean, the entrance to Sydney Harbor, filmed in muddy brown as if it was taken two-hundred years ago. The ocean line represents an exit and an entrance. The soundtrack for TWGSI carries an impending sound of dread, of the wind picking up, or of a British military invasion. But at the end, a baby is heard. Perhaps this indicates new life, new cultures, and moving forward.
Lehan: Vigil is a powerful, two-minute filmic montage that intercuts reaction shots from white Hollywood stars—like Elizabeth Taylor, Julie Christie, Donald Sutherland—with contemporary footage of refugees in boats, which is sometimes abstracted. The actors look through windows or lenses, always a mediated gaze, and the films are from a variety of genres.
You’ve said that there is “nothing subtle in the editing and construction of Vigil,” and that it’s about “white people gawking at desperate, poor, brown people in boats.” Given the horrific circumstances that the current refugee crises presents, I think we’re all becoming frustrated with feeling like powerless voyeurs of human tragedy, and maybe frustrated with photography itself. But your works seems to implicate the viewer more than the medium. Where do you stand on this?
Moffatt: Vigil could be about us all as voyeurs and watching a tragedy unfold in the news. Our feelings of helplessness. In 2010, I watched as rotten, wooden boat full of asylum seekers smashed up on the Western Australian coast and people drowned. I should have called Vigil “Oh F…k No!” That would have been a better title.
Lehan: In preparing for the Biennale, you had to give press events, and to allow visitors into your studio. You’ve spoken about this dynamic forcing you to “expose your failures,” those “failures” that are part of the decision-making process and conception of artmaking, the labor. This to me sounds entirely unnerving!
Moffatt: It was indeed freaky that over a period of fifteen months I had to show unfinished artworks. I did feel very exposed, but so what? It wasn’t so bad, and people did try to leave me alone most of the time. In the end, I had a great, supportive team around me.
My confidence is not in that I know exactly where I am going in the development of a new art photography series, but in that I have the ability to concentrate, and change, and rework until I feel that I have something “new”—that I have created an image that I think I haven’t seen before. The new Moffatt image I am looking at eventually surprises me.
When one makes art it is like making it the first time. Since I am constantly changing the look of my photography series, I am always experimenting. This process is not easy and it can be terrifying, but I would not have it any other way. In fact, this is the only way to make art—it isn’t party time! For example, I am doing this interview now in a remote region of Australia. Less than a month after my Venice Biennale opening, I traveled here with my camera on a gut instinct. So far nothing of interest has unfolded and I am disappointed, yet I must stay open to possibilities.
Joanna Lehan is an editor, writer, and curator based in New York.
Tracey Moffatt: My Horizon is on view at the Pavilion of Australia, at the 57th Venice Biennale, through November 26, 2017.