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Tracey Moffatt's two series, Up in the Sky and Heaven, marked her New York grand entrance: the work was commissioned by prestigious DIA Foundation and will be on display there for close to a year. Up in the Sky is a series of twenty-five offset photographs, some black and white, some sepia-toned, and is reminiscent of Moffatt's earlier Something More, which depicted eerie impressions of life on Australia's red-neck margins. Heaven, by contrast, is a frivolous 'documentary' video project which stitches together rough-takes of surfer-types dressing and undressing in various Sydney beach-side parking lots. The contrast between the serious, almost moral tone of the photographs and the voyeuristic giggling incited by the video, makes for an intriguing tension.
Many of these photographs are shot off-centre and have the fast and loose feel of action photography. Indeed, Moffatt's shots of 'outback life' in part invoke the humanist imperatives of documentary photography, with a strong feel of the likes of Dorothea Lange. Lange's moving portrayal of the American rural poor during the Great Depression, her images of stoicism and resilience amongst the devastation of dispossession, hunger and despair, haunt Moffatt's works. Here too we are confronted with godforsaken landscapes peopled by desperadoes unhinged from the ties of convention and social expectation. However, Moffatt's photographs are also clearly staged: the figures are characters who pose and act out; the tableaux are orchestrated and artificial.
While they are imbued with nostalgia for a humanist perspective, Moffatt's photographs betray the self-consciousness of a constructed (although fractured) narrative. The protagonists in this narrative would appear to be a teenage dishwater blonde and her black newborn; the other figures, such as a group of nuns who tug at the child, stand in relationship to them. These overt references to the very real problems currently facing Australia are not allowed to operate in the manner of realist, conscience-pricking representation. Moffatt prevents such a reading by inflecting the images with fictitious, indeed humorous, overtones, and adding some affectations which take the images well away from social document and towards the cinematic. For instance, the mother sports a pout of melodramatic proportions, at times tipping the scenes into bathos, while the turnout of pyjama-clad folk to line their dilapidated back-street exudes a (comic) sense of the cliched lunatic asylum. In other images, Moffatt the stylist cannot help herself—for instance as the cinematic gives ground to the perfect composition in the very beautiful portrayal of two youths, one black and one white, locked in hand to hand combat in the dust.
By interrupting a straight reading of the dire poverty and bloody racial tensions of the Australian bush, Moffatt extends the associative reach of her images. Suffused with a surreal, even malignant quality, these fleeting glimpses could be film-stills, visual expressions of a nightmare, or even a spoof on the moralising character of traditional social realism. Certainly in these works it is difficult to evade Moffatt's sense of humour, with its many nuances, from the bittersweet, to the gently needling, to the outright puerile, with this last coming into its own in Heaven.
In considering Heaven, it is difficult not to think of Tim Johnson's film Public Fitting (1972), in which the artist surreptitiously filmed the knickers which were revealed when a breeze caught the hemlines of women walking a Melbourne street. The project of documenting the chance encounter between wind and skirt, in the same way as other ephemeral elements were tracked in conceptual works, became an outrageous excuse for voyeurism. In Heaven, of course, the gender tables are turned; moreover its spectators have been wised-up by two and a half decades of feminist exposition. Heaven might be seen as an exercise in sending up the critiques of cinema-watching in terms of male spectatorship, switching the roles so that the female is the stalker, armed as much with her sex appeal and chutzpah as with her camera and the natural vanity of her male subjects. Or Heaven might be an exercise in pure voyeurism, or pure fun, and Moffatt would appear to make no apology for either indulgence. The video makes for light entertainment on one level, but it also managed to raise a refreshing sense of solidarity among the tittering women who sat through the whole thing in the dimly-lit recesses of Roslyn Oxley's smaller gallery.
It is this indeterminacy of tone, intent, and principal concern which keeps Tracey Moffatt's work so watchable and compelling. Moffatt does not shirk from the big issues, neither the plight of her people nor the still pressing questions about the representation of difference. She handles them, however, with a unique sensibility which balances emotional investment with detachment, a detachment achieved not through irony, but by means of a far warmer humour which even gently lampoons her own role as an artist.
Tracey Moffatt, Heaven, 1997. Detail. Video still. Courtesy Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery.
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