Tracey Moffatt

From something singular... to something more

I

There has been a distinct unease regarding the use of terms and concepts drawn from Western aesthetics in much contemporary Australian art writing. It has been variously argued that the Western aesthetic tradition serves ideological ends, that it is hostile to cultural difference, that its application to our conflicted, postcolonial present is symptomatic of an aggressive-or regressive- Eurocentrism. The prevalence of this view is seen nowhere more conspicuously than in the writing on Aboriginal art. To impose the discourse of beauty, form, quality, aesthetics--even, for some, the word ' art'-on the work seems inevitably to do it an injustice, failing to account for the context in which it is made, refusing to understand it in its own terms. Conversely, it is also true that anthropological or ethnographic studies of Aboriginal societies and art are no less entangled in questions of ethnocentrism, that is, in the necessarily European premises of their discourse and its historical claims to scientificity. There seems therefore no appropriate way of discussing Aboriginal art. And it seems that often a preoccupation with the problematic of cultural identity and difference in the critical writing on Indigenous artists in Australia works to displace- if not actually rule out- aesthetic considerations. What follows from this may be a demand for the meticulous reconstruction of the specific social and religious context of an artist's practice; it may be an affirmation of the hybrid subjectivities and cultural forms that are demonstrated in an artist's work; it may be the argument that there is no possible rapprochement between different cultures. What we are frequently left with is a discourse of cultural relativism, accompanied by a recognition of the more or less impassable 'difference' of Aboriginal art and culture. Formalising this kind of stance, Robert Stam writes in his essay 'Multiculturalism and the Neo-Conservatives';

Polycentric multiculturalism calls for a diasporisation of desire .. . Multiculturalism and the critique of Eurocentrism are inseparable concepts; each becomes impoverished without the other. .. Central to multiculturalism is the notion of mutual and reciprocal relativisation, the idea that the diverse cultures placed in play should come to perceive the limitations of their own social and cultural perspective. I

It is tempting to see the work of the artist Tracey Moffatt as typical of these tendencies. One can think of her work as coming out of a postmodern 'anti-aesthetics', partaking in a critique of modernist aesthetics and the Western model of beauty that emerges from it. More particularly, Moffatt's work may be seen as a striking exemplification of a 'hybrid' post-colonial art that aims at showing that the apparent 'purity' of the terms on which aesthetics depends- universality, disinterestedness, autonomy- is always compromised by the social, always conceals special interests. Her work arguably does reflect the kinds of strategies proposed by Stam and others: it seems to express a general relativisation of cultures and the mutual indebtedness that constitutes them, the decentring of the privilege of the West. There is no 'pure' cultural universality presented there, no adherence to the Greenbergian conception of aesthetics as a discrete cognitive realm whose autonomy is to be defended.

Yet it is also the case that in her public statements about her work, Moffatt does not repeat the rhetoric of an always more specific difference, the incommensurability between cultures. Indeed, she does the opposite, often insisting on the non-specificity of her work, its lack of location, the generality of its concerns.2 Now- and this is the double-bind of our current situation- this refusal of the rhetoric of difference can be read ostentatiously, as a rhetoric in its own right. It may be that Moffatt wants to hold on to the discursive position of being an Aboriginal artist, while seeming not to. (We cannot help thinking that, while it is her Aboriginality that some of her white audience want to be seen confirming, her 'reserve' with regard to it also secretly aids her popularity.) And it is true that in general critics of her work have not taken this gesture of 'reserve' seriously, or at least not properly sought to elaborate what is implied by it. They have refused, that is, to see either of the two sides of that doublebind we have outlined above.

In order to make Moffatt's distance from this model of critique clearer, we might briefly compare her work to that of Gordon Bennett, another artist whose work also takes off from the notion that there is no essential Aboriginal identity, or at least not one based on a connection to Aboriginal traditions. Both Moffatt and Bennett, that is, can be seen to be refusing to take their identities as fixed or for granted; both refuse the status of 'Aboriginal artist'. However, the consequences each draws from this 'contingency' are different. For his part, Bennett pursues a practice that can be seen as a critique of colonial iconography, revealing the indebtedness of Australian art and culture to an excluded Aboriginality. In his Home Décor series, for example, he puts together elements of Pi et Mondrian's Neo-Plasticism with the work of the modernist Australian artist Margaret Preston, who sought to produce an identifiable Australian culture through a fusion of European and Aboriginal styles. Ian McLean writes of these works that their 'multiple rather than singular' readings satirically dissolve the 'generally accepted boundaries of identity and individuality', so that the question 'who am I?' is not answered by 'an inner psychic journey, but by the study of a history of place and ideology' .3 And out of these conflicting traditions, Bennett (as all of us) must attempt to piece together his own hybrid subjectivity, hence the subtitle of the series: Preston + De Stijl = Citizen. It is the idea that identity is both historically produced and transformable. It does not exist outside or before language but only through it. And, complementing this, the aesthetic is deemed to be ideological, subordinate finally to the historico-political. Or this at least is the predominant reading of Bennett's work.

How does Moffatt position herself in relation to this project of critique? In one way, she can be aligned with it. Moffatt's images too feature hybrid, non-essentialist figures of Australia's complex postcolonial history. (We might think of the Rastafarianstyled actor David Gulpilil of The Movie Star, the male dancers of Some Lads, the Aboriginal stockman posing cowboy-style of Beauties, the Chinese boy in lipstick and make-up of Something More, the Tongan family of Scarred for Life.) In such images, Moffatt points to the historical determinants acting upon social formation, showing that there is no 'essential ' or 'underlying' national identity. Put simply, Moffatt challenges Australia's various stereotypes. Or better, her work plays with and against these stereotypes. (To return to the example of Gulpilil, he is actually leaning on a Holden by the beach with seemingly traditional body painting marking his face-like and unlike the traditional beachgoer's zinc cream- holding a can of beer.4 Or the ' girls' of Nice Coloured Girls are frivolous, fashion-obsessed and flirtatious they 'misbehave ' like other teenage girls.) In this sense, Moffatt, like Bennett, can be understood to be revealing how the individual is formed through a series of intersecting social and historical contingencies: Aboriginal + male + Rastafarian styling = Gulpilil the star; Aboriginal + female + youth = Nice Coloured Girls. In this, Moffatt seems to gesture towards some future post-colonial International, a complete levelling of difference where everything is partial, diverse, exchangeable. And we could never entirely distinguish Moffatt's notion of wanting to create a 'general' world, a ' universal' art, from this.

Perhaps, however, this does not tell us quite enough about the particularity of  ==Moffatt's practice. Is there not something else occurring there, an indefinable 'something more', which escapes this post-colonial, critical understanding of it? Let us return, then, to some of those works we mentioned before and see what else we can discern there. Yes, in one sense, these identities are mediated and constructed, historically produced and therefore historically contingent. And, yes, this is a marked feature of her work. The bodies we see there are not natural but theatrical, stylised, demonstrative- as are the images themselves. But for all this we nevertheless have the sense that their identities lie elsewhere. Or, to put it another way, these images, these bodies, are seductive, even beautiful. In fact, the unspoken aspect of these images is the discourse of the beautiful that recurs throughout them: Beauties , Guapa (Good-looking), Nice Coloured Girls, Some Lads (and its later counterpart, Heaven). But it is not surprising that this discourse of beauty is not spoken of here because it would not fit that model of ' critique ' that is most current in this context, a model in which beauty might seem irrelevant or, worse, backward-looking, the very thing Moffatt in her hybrid anti-aesthetic would most want to overcome. However, it might be in just this way that Moffatt's images are truly 'critical' today, or at least how they might be seen to be critical of this very notion of critique. As Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe says in his book Beauty and the Contemporary Sublime, on the distinction between the beautiful and the sublime to which we shall return:

Beauty's uselessness lies in it being that which can't be reduced to its critique, that is, to the sublime .. . If beauty exceeds critical adequacy, is counterproductive where the sublime is critically productive ... it's that beauty, because it is not critical nor a product of criticism, can only undermine that regime of good sense that is criticism's search for meaning. Beauty, in being frivolous, and in that trivial and irrelevant, is always subversive because it's always a distraction from the worthwhile, which lets us know it's worthwhile by not being beautifuJ.5

Again, in The Movie Star, David Gulpilil is leaning back, looking directly at the camera, a laidback but glamorous presence, at ease in his setting. In Nice Coloured Girls, not only do the girls flirt and pose for the men, but also for the camera and for us. In Some Lads, there is a kind of looseness and negligence in the dancers' gestures, in the grace and easy intimacy with which they touch and interact with each another, an attitude that is doubled by their relationship to the camera or the camera's with them.6 There is a sort of tact here that is not dramatic or self-consciously posturing. In Beauties, the male Aboriginal figure is thin, fragile , almost feminine. In Something More, Moffatt's glowing, almost ecstatic figure comes forward, setting itself apart from the surrounding scene, and from the Anglo-Australian conformity of Drysdale's painting: this beauty is at least one sense of the 'something more' of the title. In Guapa (Goodlooking), there is an undoubted eroticism to the Rollerball scenario: there is an arrested momentum and a heavy camality in the quasi-sculptural presentation of these powerful-looking, tough women colliding and falling. Moffatt herself notes that she did not want 'perfect bodies'7 for the series; in this sense, the work's title, the word 'good-looking' in both English and Spanish, suggests again the singular 'something more' than perfection that a modem aesthetics of the beautiful demands.

Can we generalise from this? Certainly, there is a marking of--or a predisposition towards- Aboriginal and other non-European identities in these images. But in another way, something else- a kind of visual pleasure- overtakes these stakes of identity. The question of the subject recedes. The truth of identity becomes incidental. In each image, even apparently the most violent, there is a type of looseness, nonchalance, ease, about the figure. (It is a looseness that implies precisely a loosening or suspension of the strictures of identity and identity politics .) In Some Lads, again, there is an informal 'theatricality' without the self-consciousness of masquerade. Though some of these early works are in a way documentary, non-fictional, the image in its careful composition deviates from any sense of truth or the ethnographic: here there are just 'some lads'. It is an incidentality that is part of the very form of the image: the Polaroid snap of Gulpilil; the cimima-verite fly-on-the-wall style of Nice Coloured Girls; the 'found' photograph of Beauties. In all of this there is a profound play on the singular moment of photography itself: an irreducible 'thisness' distinct from any ethnographic or scientific generality, the exchangeability of 'hybridity' or the allegorical nature of photo-based post-modem 'critique' . There is a brute facti city, a sheer presence, beyond any cultural type or mixture of types apparently being exemplified.

But why might Moffatt in this current artistic climate want to favour beauty? How to relate this question to that hybrid cross-culturalism that is also undoubtedly to be seen in her work? Is not the very notion of beauty irredeemably Western? How can we, in what sense can we- as assumed-to-be European viewers- understand these figures /pictures to be beautiful? (Is beauty a matter of form and not content? And, if so, how to explain the Aboriginal and non-European presence in these photographs? Is this merely coincidental?) In short, what kind of beauty is Moffatt imagining?

Here we might turn, surprisingly or not so surprisingly, to Kant. It is in Kant that we find not just a modern thinking of beauty, but more precisely a thinking of the relationship between beauty and historicity (we might say, relativity, hybridity). It is a relationship we might summarise by saying that if beauty is always historical, it is also a certain limit to the historical. As Jacques Derrida writes in 'Parergon', summarising Kant (and if he ultimately maintains a certain distance from Kant in that 'free indirect' tone he often adopts, it is also not clear that he disagrees with him either):

Whence the historical, cultural ... character of taste [that is, judgements of beauty], which is constituted after the event, after the production, by means of the example. The absence of concept thus liberates this horizon of historical productivity. But this historicity is that of an exemplar which gives itself as an example only to the extent that it signals, empirically, towards a universal principle of accord, which is absolutely ahistorical. .. . Such is the logic of the exemplary, of the autoproduction of the exemplary, this metaphysical value of production having always the double effect of opening and closing historicity. Since everyone produces the idea of taste, it is never pregiven by a concept: the production of the idea is historical, a series of inaugurations without prescription. But as this production is spontaneous, autonomous, free, at the very moment when, by its freedom, it rejoins a universal fund, nothing is less historical8

Derrida is talking about the way that in Kant beauty proceeds by examples without rules, singular occurrences that do not follow any criterion, rule or standard that can be predicted in advance. Beauty in this sense is not something that adheres in or can be recognised in an object. This is what Kant calls the 'agreeable', and why Kantian beauty, as JeanFrancois Lyotard says, 'doesn't get elected like Miss World' . 9 This structural singularity of beauty is one of the ways in which it breaks with the model and the aspiration towards perfection that characterises most Classical aesthetics of beauty. But, if beauty is not something objective, it is also not simply subjective, or even a matter of subjective consensus, a consensus of subjects. Rather, in a complicated way- repeating Derrida's point about beauty being at once inside and outside of history- if beauty produces a certain consensus, it is always able to be overturned in the name of a consensus to come. Again, to paraphrase Derrida, if beauty is always actually historical, a reflection of its time and place, it also goes beyond this, is the very opening up of history to something else, to a future. This is the very moment of the artistic avant-gardes: they do not simply destroy taste and judgement, but rather test the existing consensus in the name of another, more open, more inclusive, more universal, to come.10

It is in this sense that we might think how the beauty that is at stake in Moffatt's work differs from that historicist hybridity that can also be seen in it. And in a way it can be understood, if not as 'critical' of it- for , remember, beauty is unattached, not ' about' anything- at least, as Derrida indicates, as allowing us to think the limits of this historicist hybridity. First, as we have just suggested, beauty, unlike this post-colonial critique, is not entirely cognitive or conceptual. Beauty ' precedes' the reasoning of a subject. It befalls us, it pleases us or, in a language we shall be returning to, it 'touches' us. In short, it comes before that rational project of hybrid anti-aesthetics. Second, associated with this, there is the question of the 'universalisability' of beauty, which, while always reflecting a specific time and place, also goes beyond the wildest hybridity or the collapse of European (and other) norms and standards. What is at stake in beauty is a way of testing every aesthetics (or anti-aesthetics) by saying that it is still not universal enough. Its ' ahistoricity', far from being merely transcendental or having no effect, is precisely a way of challenging the historicism of every particular position arguing that despite its attempt to contest the prevailing norms or standards of the time it is still beholden to them in ways it cannot see. If we might express it as a kind of opposition, we would say that against the empty universal difference of multiculturalism, which remains fundamentally Western in its thinking of relativity, we have here at once the singularity and the always unrealisable promise of the universality of beauty, which allows us to think the historicity of even this post-colonial gesture of thinking our historicity.11

We might now return to some of Moffatt's work with this in mind. We have remarked before about a certain ease or nonchalance that is distinctive in her photographs, a certain pleasure, play or ' theatricality', as though the figures somehow suspend their identities, maintain a kind of distance from them (but, of course, we cannot entirely distinguish these figures from their photographs in this orchestration). Now, in one sense, these images can be seen as contesting primitivist and colonialist representations of Aborigines, in that move towards a relational hybridity we spoke of before (for example, The Movie Star, Beauties, Some Lads , Nice Coloured Girls). This is not wrong, but it is perhaps to miss something else, another tonality, in these images, which we might describe as a kind of vulnerability or contingency about the ways the figures present themselves, play to a Hollywood glamour photograph/movie star/cowboy look that they do not in a way measure up to, but which their costume and pose suggest. Paradoxically, however- and this is one of the most difficult points to grasp about these photographs and about beauty itself- this ' falling short' of the norm or standard, this lack, does not compromise beauty, but on the contrary produces it. This 'falling short', this distance, is not the sign of a lack of freedom, a conformity to standards, but attests instead to a kind of freedom. It shifts the photographs strangely enough from a question of identity- which, we might be beginning to see, even in its hybrid form, only involves norms and standards- or rather renders it incidental. What these images show is the kind of freedom at play in adopting an image, which echoes or is echoed by the freedom at stake in Moffatt taking them. There is literally a 'play' here precisely in this distance from, or seduction of, cultural norms. Again, we can see the paradox of the frivolous as a 'play with form ' (to use Moffatt's phrase)l2 that is perhaps also a critique of critique.

To make this clearer, we might look more closely at Moffatt's series Beauties. As we have remarked before, Beauties is a series using a 'found ' photograph showing an unnamed Aboriginal man in a cowboy pose. But Moffatt does not simply present this photograph unmodified, nor does she attempt to restore this man's identity. Moffatt has in fact made a crucial alteration to the images in which the photograph is reproduced. She uses filters in different tones, which supplement the series ' title: 'Beauties'- 'Cream', 'Wine'. What is the effect of this? The obvious result is to distance us from the socio-historical context of the images, a little like Warhol's silkscreens in Pop Art, but perhaps unlike Warhol, also to give them a 'presence' that is specifically aesthetic. It is perhaps in this way that the figure 'betrays' itself and offers itself in its singularity, its difference from any norm (black or white) which we would call beautiful. To put it another way, is not Moffatt's gesture of adding ' cream' and 'wine' tones (a technique she repeats in other works, for example, Guapa) a means of subtly undermining the spectator's ability to foreground the figure 's Aboriginality and thereby showing that his 'blackness ' is not the point of either image-or not the only point- but is in a sense incidental to them? Cannot this 'colour' indeed be understood as adding another inflection to the subject's own performance? More significantly perhaps, this use of colour and the way the image is duplicated also opens up the photograph to the viewer's pleasure- complements the 'beauty' of the title as well as literally complimenting its subject. And here Moffatt's choice of 'wine' and 'cream'- terms which evidently play on the senses of the word 'taste', without reference to the 'colour-coding' of race or ethnicity-only points towards the strictly singular notion of beauty being proposed here. Importantly, it is not a matter of beauty in general, but as something absolutely specific-'Beauty (in Cream)', 'Beauty (in Wine)'- as the collective title insists, 'Beauties'. This leaves the question of whether the 'beauty' refers to the photograph or to the figure within it, perhaps suggesting that it is the singular play between one and the other.13

 

11

So far we have tried to show how in Moffatt's work there is a kind of pleasure in the singular, a pleasure in the play of forms that expresses itself both in her 'subjects' and the manner in which they are photographed. Of course, if we speak of 'play' with regard to, say, Moffatt's Guapa series, of the pleasure the players seem to take in it, or of the beauty we might discern in it, it is perhaps primarily because of the meticulous framing of the work: the title of the work, the rails of the (mocked-up) 'rink' that we see in some of the photographs, the paraphernalia of the game- all this appears calculated to fix the violent bodily contact that we see within the limits of what we are calling beauty and play, while stretching those limits to the point where it becomes more and more difficult to say what is playful and what is not, or to differentiate what is 'good-looking' (or pleasurable) from what hurts. It is here that we might begin to think about another tonality in Moffatt's photographs, a tonality that becomes more and more marked in her later work, while never entirely being absent from it.

What would it mean to speak of the sublime as a certain complication or inflection of that tonality of the beautiful we have already distinguished in Moffatt's work? If, as we have suggested, the question of beauty cannot finally be separated from the political questions of difference that are generally emphasised in Moffatt's photographs, in what way would this other, sublime tonality mark a 'return' to these questions, or rather a different articulation of them? How does the sublime relate to the aesthetics of the beautiful? The kind of play 'within the limits of play' that we see in Guapa, the coincidence of pain and pleasure that it evokes, brings us very close to a distinction that, again, takes us back us to Kant. Commenting on Kant's distinction between the beautiful and the sublime, Jean-Luc Nancy writes:

Form or contour is limitation, which is a concern of the beautiful: the unlimited, on the contrary, is the concern of the sublime ... [Or rather the sublime] is a matter- and this is something completely different-of the movement of the unlimited, or more exactly, of 'the unlimitation' ... In the sublime, it is a question of the figure of the ground, of the figure that the ground cuts, but precisely insofar as the ground cannot constitute a figure and yet remains an unlimiting outline, along the limited figure.14

It is important to grasp here that we are not dealing with a simple opposition between the limited form of the beautiful, on the one hand, and the unlimited formlessness of the sublime, on the other. The sublime is not simply unlimited: it is the very moment of 'unlimitation' that initiates the limited figure; it is what Nancy also calls a movement of 'cutting, delineation and seizure ... the strict beating of the line against itself in the motion of its outline•.15 The sublime is thus that unformed thing that gives form to form- that gives the beautiful its limited form. In 'The Parergon', Derrida calls this cutting 'which limits and unlimits at one and the same time' the 'double trait' of the sublime.16 In a further sense, it is in this ambivalent movement, as pleasure in the beautiful comes up against its limit, that aesthetic judgement is seized by what Kant calls--obscurely- ' another feeling' .17 To simplify here, let us say that it is with the oscillating pleasure and pain of the sublime that aesthetics touches on ethics.

Is there similarly a certain limit or supplement to beauty in Moffatt's work? Is there 'something more' occurring there than that 'something more' that takes pleasure in beautiful forms? Where might we find this figuration and disfiguration of the 'cut' that would describe this passage from the beautiful to the sublime, from aesthetics to ethics? Of course, as we have already indicated, it is impossible to locate, but if we could speculate upon a certain 'passage' from one to the other in Moffatt's work, we would say it occurs around the time of Pet Thang in 1992. What is so different about this work? We would say it lies precisely in what might be called its artistic 'failure' (a failure we are not merely trying to redeem here). It is a work that is literally unclear, unfocused, unresolved and, we could finally say, mute. It is the first work of Moffatt's that makes it very hard to continue putting the case that she is working in a hybrid, political mode, and- because of this, or because of a basic unreadability- it is a series that is rarely discussed by her critics. The work itself is a series of blurry, dreamlike images where figures of the artist and- of all things- a sheep (also occasionally a lamb) appear suspended in pitch darkness. (This dream-like quality occurs more frequently as Moffatt's career progresses: we might think, for example, of the recent Victorian Gothic nightmares of Laudanum and the Goya-like Invocations.) But what we see in Pet Thang-this is its real connection with such dissimilar-looking work as Guapa- is precisely the moment of the ground becoming figure, the delineation or cutting-out of the object. (This happens in reverse in Guapa, where the dark figures rise out of a bleached-out background.) In both series Moffatt is in a way showing that 'formlessness' out of which form emerges. Whether or not the work is deliberately punning on the childhood habit of counting sheep to get to sleep, it undoubtedly conjures a state--dream-like, preconscious- that suggests regression, as though we were going back to a kind of childhood. The sheep and the lamb are something like the incongruous, phantasmatic apparitions of a primal trauma. And in some way this series seeks to attest to the nonsensual nakedness of this trauma and what remains of it, how it continues to inhabit the adult body. The series might not in fact take any artistic or critical distance from this kind of private stupor or delirium, which it simply presents without concession to the spectator- hence its relative artistic and critical failure- but for the first time in Moffatt's career we would say that the work is psychologically freighted. (This theme of childhood trauma goes back to Night Cries and forward to Bedevil and Up in the Sky.)

To put this even more strongly, what is there in this work that reveals its implicit contrast with beauty? There is the non-communicative, private, unspeakable, resolutely non-social aspect that appears thereyet at the same time we would also say that this childlike, dream-like state alludes to something 'universal' (or at least a general condition of our modernity) beyond the social (beyond the social because it refers to the negative counterpart of the social, that 'second existence' that lies before or behind our social existence and is produced by it). To this extent, the work is no longer 'beautiful' or about 'beauty'; it is no longer about the effect of a pleasure that appeals to a shared sensibility, which Kant calls 'sensus communis'- more simply, it no longer seems designed to be pleasing or seductive. Not only Pet Thang, but much of the work coming after it (Guapa, but also Up in the Sky and the two Scarred for Life series) can strike one as exhibiting an almost non-aesthetic, plain, 'austere' style, no longer appealing to any kind of social consensus. 18 In fact, the work not only at times does not communicate but is about a failure or impasse of communication (for example, Night Cries). This can, of course, seem very close to a form of cultural relativism (think here of the cross-cultural scenarios of Night Cries and Scarred for Life)-this is why we might speak of this other tonality as almost going back to that first reading of Moffatt. But, in another way, it is even further away than before from this first reading, in that what Moffatt brings out in these later images is precisely that 'something more' that precedes beauty and makes it possible, the non-historicisable kernel of beauty, or what we might even call, in the psychoanalytic sense, the trauma of beauty. The sublime perhaps begins to approach an ethics with its elaboration of this initial trauma, which is always a kind of double-movement between the sensible and the insensible, the aesthetic and the non-aesthetic, or even the anaesthetic. Moffatt's images in this sense undertake a kind of mourning for what cannot be historicised-hence their melancholic tone. And in later Moffatt works- Bedevil and Laudanum- we have figures precisely for this non-historicisable: apparitions, ghosts, hauntings, stories that cannot be finished and yet insistently return.

Again, how can we try to bring this out through an analysis of some specific images? Moffatt's two Scarred for Life series of 1994 and 1999 are undoubtedly amongst her best known works. (And it is significant that, exceptionally, Moffatt returns to Scarred for Life several years after the first series, as though she cannot leave it behind- this work which is precisely about what keeps coming back.) What we see there are episodes of humiliation-- everything from seemingly minor slights and put-downs to actual physical abuse- where the effect of a word or gesture coming from a figure of authority marks a kind of passage from childhood to adulthood. These incidents are idiosyncratic, incongruous, odd, not at all what we tend to think of as 'normal' or as having occurred to us- and yet it is also true to say that they summon up something universal, something that seems particularly meant for us. (This 'recognition' is perhaps indicated by the sheer amount of criticism the works have received.) In a way, beyond the ' sensus communis' of the earlier works, here there is an even more acute sense of simultaneous singularity and universality. But, again, it is crucial to realise that this ethical or second tonality in the work is not simply to be opposed to the beautiful. So how do the two relate? What relationship between the beautiful and the sublime, the aesthetic and the ethical, is being declared here?

First of all, let us think of bow these episodes of pain or 'scarring' that mark an end to childhood and the advent of adulthood as the ethical or law are presented. In a recent analysis of Scarred for Life, Toni Ross perceptively notes that in fact we never actually see the events described in the captions to the photographs, that there is a kind of disjunction between image and text. Thus, she argues, in Heart Attack we don't observe what Moffatt's caption describes- the father beating the child or his subsequent death. This opens up the question of the way what we see cannot be narrated or, inversely- and it is fascinating that this image involves both a kind of primal father and a child being beaten- it is not a matter of an event that once actually took place; as Ross says, there is not here the psychological verisimilitude of either a 'realistic or imaginary recreation of stored memories' .19 This is a profound insight, which opens up the problem of the relationship between word and image in these works; but if we could add here to Ross' remarks, we would say that it is not simply that these photographs are out of time, that they miss or withdraw from the 'event of the trauma' itself, but rather that two different temporalities are marked in them (as well as in their accompanying texts). That is, it is not so much that there is a mismatch between the image and the traumatic event recounted in the caption as that both image and caption may be seen as a sort of delayed, traumatic reaction to the other. In fact, we would suggest that it is the images here which are decisive in rendering traumatic what is generally given in the text as a neutral, indifferent reporting of an incident or sequence of incidents. The particular treatment of the photographic image, and the adoption of the visual style found in the early Life magazines, is crucial here. These photographs thus impress on us the feeling of a literally anachronistic temporality (in contrast to the sheer 'thisness', the play of the moment, that we saw in Some Lads, for example). More than this, the desaturated colour and at times almost milky consistency of the photographs (again, recalling Life magazine) introduces into these generally understated and matter- of-fact-looking settings what we might call a visual anaesthesia. The photographs thus appear to exhibit two different and conflicting effects: both the anaesthesia that is the initial effect of the shock or trauma and the frozen aesthetic imprint that is its 'report' (in the same way that we might speak of the report of a gun). This double movement in the photographs then affects the way we read the captions above and below them, so that the detachment with which they report  the 'event', rather than being entirely distanced and neutral, may seem instead laconic and restrained. The captions suggest a deflection or discursive rationalization of the aesthetic 'blow' (or double-blow) registered in the photographs~no longer providing the 'key' to the traumatic event but symptomatic of a withdrawal from it. In this sense, the 'event of the trauma' itself never appears except as an effect of the ellipsis between image and text. The relationship between the one and the other is at once necessary and impossible to draw.20

The temporality of the works, therefore, is like that of trauma, deferred reaction, Nachtriiglickheit. The interval opened up within each image and between image and word elaborates this double trait, this double blow. On the one hand, this scarring attests to the 'touch' of the law, marking the moment of individuation and induction into the social. On the other, it is a melancholic con juration of the aesthetic intensity of childhood, the very susceptibility to touch, to sensation, to injury, that in a way constitutes childhood as the very 'offence' that requires the intervention of the law. The real enigma of the work, then, perhaps turns on the order of precedence between the initiation of birth and childhood and our induction into the law. Is it the (aesthetic) blow that leads to the (ethical) law or the (ethical) law that allows us to grasp the (aesthetic) blow? Is there a kind of preexisting disposition to the events that befall their lives in the various episodes Moffatt depicts (as we might ask is there a pre-existing disposition that allows us to experience them for ourselves) or is this disposition only revealed in retrospect? Might not Moffatt in her title for the series be implying not simply that we are scarred by these kinds of events at some point in our lives, but that there is a kind of 'scarring' occurring at the very beginning of life that means we are open to them in the first place? (And again in all of this we see that the ethical subject is not merely beyond or opposed to aesthetic beauty but also as it were a supplement to it, allowing it to be what it already was).

In a fascinating way, these questions are also addressed in another essay on the question of the cut~the ethical sublime as a type of 'cut' to the aesthetic beautiful~Lyotard's 'Prescription', an analysis of Kafka's famous short story 'In the Penal Colony' . Lyotard speaks there of the way that it is in fact aesthetics that precedes ethics: it is the possibility of being touched, cut or cut into, that allows the law to be realised by the Commandant's Harrow. It is this initial touch that the law repeats or writes over. (A close reading of Kafka's tale reveals that the stylus inscribes twice, and it is only on the second time~ after about six hours~that the offender realises his wrong.) As Lyotard writes:

The law prescribes, but not in the sense that it is inscribed in the rubric or the heading. The beading, what comes first, is not the commandment; it is the birth or infancy, the aesthetic body. The latter is inscribed so much in advance that the law can only inscribe itself by reiterating on the body and in the body an inscription analogous to the one that instituted it. The law is always the body's afterword.21

Perhaps here two things particularly need to be noted. First, that this 'aesthetic susceptibility' is associated with birth or infancy.22 Second, connected with this, is the idea that properly speaking there is no subject who is present at this first touch, this time of aesthetic infancy. In a paradoxical way, it is the second touch, the touch of law and language, that produces the subject who receives it~hence the eternal split between the subject and the infancy that remains with it.23 (And, in a sense, as Lyotard goes on to argue, the law never ceases to revenge itself for this supercession, never ceases to codify, repay the debt to, what precedes it, although it never finally can because this 'touch' is the very means it has to do so.24)

How to think this~only one aspect of Lyotard's very rich analysis~in terms of Moffatt's Scarred for Life? To continue Lyotard's observations concerning the temporal paradox of this inscription of the law on the body, we could say that we always see twice in these two series~in the gap or divide between what we might call the scar of the aesthetic touch and the scar of the law's cut which copies it. (We might also think here of those figures of scarring, wounding, and the mortified, even skeletal, bodies that appear alongside words or letters of authority, in Gordon Bennett's later paintings.) In Scarred for Life as well, it is this 'aesthetic' ability to be touched that allows the force of the law to be felt, but this can only be realized when we are retouched by the law: that childhood or in fancy, if it makes the inscription of the law possible, also exists only in retrospect. This insistent infancy is in a sense what every law has to be just to, is what any principle of human dignity returns to; but it is always lost, the law can only betray it. This is the extraordinarily moving, touching, aspect of Moffatt's photographs: they point to a childhood or innocence that exists only in retrospect. And this childhood 'outside' or 'before' the law is precisely defined by its ability to be inscribed by the law. What her images paradoxically make clear is at once that childhood never exists as such~it is a kind of primal scene that it is necessary to suppose in order to explain our subjection to the moral law~and that, in our very ability to be touched by these images, it never entirely disappears. (Suicide Threat from the series , in which a middle-aged woman is going through the trials of an unwanted pregnancy, which we associated with much younger women, exactly brings this out.) It is the idea that, as we began by saying, there is only the beautiful~the play of forms and tones, visual pleasure~but this emphasisonly because of an impossible sublime. The beautiful is only beautiful or is most beautiful when passing away from itself.25 Moffatt's Scarred for Life series testifies to this intractable aesthetic touch that allows/resists all prescription.

To conclude, let us return to that question we began with: Moffatt's relationship to a politics of hybrid, post-colonial relativity. For what is at stake in these last works- which make sense of Moffatt's remarks that she is not making 'any grand statements about race' but 'statements about the human condition'- is the question of a kind of universal 'justice' that is actually aesthetic before it is ethical; that, if it 'fulfils itself only in passing ' ,26 is nevertheless the intractable, imprescribable condition for all legislation of the law and the social. It is a law that 'succeeds only by failing', that is experienced only as a 'contradiction, that of justice as a wrong• .27 That is, we experience the social as a wrong, as judged by aesthetics. Scarred for Life is a great work about the unspeakable- aesthetic not ethical- pain of the social. It is a pain, an injustice- and a justice that allows us to feel this- that always occurs singularly, idiomatically, and at the same time is the mark of the human condition. And, again, if in one sense this returns us to the victimality of those earlier post-colonial readings, it is also 'beyond' this in that it is not an injustice mediated by ethics, knowledge, the social, etcetera, but the injustice that is these things. It is an injustice that is ' felt' before it is 'known ' . And yet something in this 'touch' is communicated to us. Something touches or cuts us. Can we even link this to other forms of contemporary Aboriginal art that seem even more remote than the work we have been speaking of here? In a painting from Kintore or Yuendumu there is, again, an attempt to communicate something incommunicable- the artist can count on the 'relative ' cultural ignorance of his or her addressee. And yet the art nevertheless defies this reality; it plays on its audience, it demands something more of it. It gambles on there being ' something' in the work that exceeds or cuts across the real social and cultural limitations which condition its reception. Something singular perhaps takes place- in the face of, and in the midst of, history, cultural difference and post-colonialism.

notes: 

1. Robert Stam, 'Multiculturalism and the Nee-Conservatives', in Dangerous Liaisons, eds. Anne McCiintock, Aamir Mufti and Ella Shohat, University of Minnesota Press, 1997, pp. 200-201 .

2. See on this Moffatt's statement: 'Within my work I want to create a world, a general world ... I'm trying for a "universal" quality, not just "black Australian"', in Tracey Moffatt, Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane, 1999, p, 67.

3I an McLean, 'Gordon Ben nett's Home Deccr: The Joker in the Pack', Law, Text, Culture, Vol. 4, No. 1, Autumn 1998, pp. 291 , 292. We draw here on an excellent unpublished article by Toni Ross, 'Towards a Postrnodern Ethics: Being and the Law in Gordon Bennett's Art'.

4. Close observation will reveal that he is listening also to a tape of another such 'hybrid', Michael Jackson.

5. Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe, Beauty and the Contemporary Sublime, Allworth Press, New York, 1999, p. 69.

6. One might think also of the casual fall of the paint-spattered drapecloth behind the dancers that echoes the looseness and stretch of their own clothes. This might be compared to the surfers' towels in Heaven and, indeed, to the whole question of the ornamentation of statues in Kant (Critique of Aesthetic Judgement, Oxford University Press, 1989, § 14). Heaven concludes with Moffatt reaching out to touch one of the surfers, in a gesture that might remind us of God (Michelangelo) touching the just-created Adam in the Sistine Chapel. The significance of this will become clear in a moment.

7. Gael Newton and Tracey Moffatt, Fever Pitch , Piper Press, Annandale, 1995, p. 7.

8. Jacques Derrida, 'Parergon ', in The Truth in Painting, University of Chicago Press, 1987, pp. 109-110.

9. Jean-Fran9ois Lyotard, 'Sensus Communis', in Judging Lyotard, ed. Andrew Benjamin, Routledge, London, 1992, p. 11. See also Derrida on the way that beauty is to be distinguished from any 'norm-idea' (The Truth in Painting, p. 114).

10. Here we might grasp the exact dimensions of Moffatt's insistence that she wants her art to be 'universal ': it is a claim for the inclusion of a (hitherto excluded) Aboriginal experience along with other experiences, a claim that it too is universalisable. In this, we find an analogy with what Slavoj Zizek speaks of as the essence of democracy: 'a kind of short-circuit between the universal and the particular ... in which a group without any fixed place in the social edifice not only demands to be heard on equal footing with the ruling oligarchy or aristocracy but, even more, presents itself as the immediate embodiment of society as such, in its universality' ('A Leftist Plea for "Eurocentrism"', Critical Inquiry, Summer 1998, pp. 988-89). lt is a democracy, as aesthetic consensus, that is in a sense 'transcendental', always to arrive. This is what Lyotard emphasises too in his 'Sensus Communis': that the universal is not given apodictically, as the conclusion to a piece of reasoning, but 'always remains to be found, is never found' ('Sensus Communis', p. 11). And all of this has important consequences for the thinking of black-white 'reconciliation' in contemporary Australia: that it is not to be understood as something that can definitively be accomplished once and for all; that, if it is always being realised , is also unrealisable. Incidentally, the idea that taste could ever be objectively demonstrated was Greenberg's error in his late seminar 'Can Taste Be Objective?', as pointed out by Thierry de Duve in his Clement Greenberg: Between the Lines, Editions Dis Voir, Paris, 1996, pp, 107-110.

11. That is, to return to Bennett's Home Decor series and that earlier reading of Moffatt's work, we would argue that those markings selected for levelling out are still overdetermined by the very system they are seeking to overcome. Or, to put this another way, that non-marked, neutral subject aimed at by multicultural hybridity in fact replicates the empty form of the Cartesian Cog ita. This unexpected coincidence between the most advanced forms of post-colonial discourse and the very emblem of Eurocentrism has been remarked upon by theorists as diverse as Slavoj Zizek ('Multiculturalism, or, The Cultural Logic of Multinational Capital', New Left Review 225, Sept-Oct 1 997) and Aijaz Ahmad (In Theory: Classes, Nations, Literatures, Verso, London, 1992, pp. 68-69).

12. Tracey Moffatt, op cit, 1999, p. 67.

13. We might compare Moffatt's use of colour here and Gordon Bennett's use of black, white and grey in his work Untffled (Nuance). We obviously cannot go into it in great detail, but the crucial point is that, despite the straightforward reading of this work as Bennett simply removing a white mask from his face to reveal the 'blackness' beneath, the work in fact excludes these two opposites. The panels spelling out the word 'NUANCE' sit between the black and the white. Nevertheless, we might see in its carefully gradated tones a kind of determined indeterminacy that is finally rational, as opposed to the more 'aesthetic' approach of Moffatt.

14. Jean-Luc Nancy, 'The Sublime Offering', in Jean-Fran9ois Courtineet al, Of the Sublime: Presence in Question, SUNY Press, Albany, 1993, p. 35.

15. Nancy, 'The Sublime Offering ', pp. 36, 41 . See also Derrida, 'Parergon', p. 127.

16. Derrida, 'Parergon ', p. 144.

17. Kant, The Crffique of Aesthetic Judgement, §39.

18. See The Critique of Aesthetic Judgement, §27.

19. Toni Ross, 'Scarring the Image', in Critical Readings: 12th Biennale of Sydney, eds. Sue Best and Charles Green, Artspace, Sydney, 2000. Ross also speaks in her review of Moffatt's Artist, a video shown at the Biennale, which consists of a montage of clips of popular and high-culture representations of artists, culminating in a sequence of artists slashing or smashing their paintings and sculptures. In a sense, all Moffatt adds here is a cut or edit-and this is enough to make the work sublime.

20. To put this another way, the fact that the captions are in the past tense while the photographs have a 'presentness' about them suggests at once that the captions are a response to or a description of a preexisting photograph and that these captions come 'before' any photograph. Both caption and photograph are divided internally by the presence of the other; we are caught between the specific injury (the 'aesthetic' photograph) and its generalised discursive consequence (the 'ethical' caption). We might even think of all this in terms of the split between the photographs' documentary nature and their obvious stylisation, the one highly specific (names, dates, places) and the other aspiring to the universal. Or, to complicate this further, we might suggest that in these two series-more than elsewhere in Moffatt's work-the presentness or 'thisness' of the photograph is crossed by a sense of its pastness (what we might call its anachronicity, what Barthes called its sense of This has been). Thus, again, the very form of the image registers this effect, this impression, of the traumatic recurrence of the past in the present.

21 . Jean-Fran9ois Lyotard , 'Prescription', in Toward the Postmodern, Robert Harvey and Mark S. Roberts (eds), Humanities Press, Atlantic Highlands, NJ, 1993, p. 182.

22. See also on this Lyotard: 'Each pleasure in beauty is a birth' ('Sensus Communis', p. 22); and Nancy: 'There is sometimes in today's art something of a childhood ' ('The Sublime Offering', p. 53).

23. Lyotard, 'Prescription', p. 187.

24. Lyotard , 'Prescription', pp. 184-5. And on the 'aporia of time' that this implies, p. 186.

25. See on this Nancy, 'The Sublime Offering ', p. 34. Nancy also addresses this question of 'touch' on pp. 44, 50, 52. As does Derrida in 'Parergon', p. 75.

26. Lyotard, 'Prescription', p. 188.

27. Lyotard, 'Prescription', p. 186. This obviously has some analogy to Derrida's distinction between 'justice' and the 'law', in 'Force of Law: The 'Mystical Foundation of Authority", in Deconstruction and the Possibility of Justice, eds. Druscilla Cornell , Michael Rosenfeld and David Gray Carlson, Routledge, New York, 1992.

 

Morgan Thomas and Rex Butler both lecture in the School of English, Media Studies and Art History at The University of Queensland.