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Tracey Moffatt

Born, 1960 in Australia

Tracey Moffatt is a very successful, Australian artist, born on 1960. Moffatt has a sizeable number of major exhibitions to her name, shown in Europe, North America and Australia. These exhibitions are evidence of the artist’s popularity and the ways in which her work is well able to appeal to curators and gallery directors throughout the world.

Moffatt may indeed be Australian, but her work defies attempts to locate or label it as such, in much the same way as the artist herself defies labeling. Moffatt is a filmmaker and a photographer and within her work, these two distinct art forms continually overlap and cross-reference each other.

Moffatt’s pictures do not make statements. Instead, they offer the viewer an open-ended invitation to participate in the photograph; they offer the viewer (and in some cases, they demand from the viewer) a range of readings that hinge largely on the ways in which each viewer constructs his or her own historical and contemporary realities. Moffatt has been quoted as saying that “I am not concerned with capturing reality, I’m concerned with making it myself”. Precisely the same sentiment can be applied to those who view and engage with Moffatt’s pictures.

Moffatt takes as her subjects landscape, environment and people and devotes considerable energy to developing narratives about how these things impact and interact with each other. Her photographs are not documentary. Neither are they merely arranged still-lifes. Instead, as indicated earlier, Moffatt, through stunning use of composition, depth of field and colour, constructs her own fascinating pictorial realities, before inviting us to validate or question these realities.

Her photographs are meticulously composed and constructed affairs, in which nothing is incidental. Every element is precisely placed. And Moffatt takes her photographs several stages further by re-photographing precisely the same constructed arrangement from different angles, thereby heightening our visual interest. The intriguing question that these bodies of work throw up is this: to what end does Moffatt’s work point? Is it autobiography? Is it narrative for its own sake? Is it a critique of history, identity? Geography or culture? Religion perhaps? To what end has Moffatt produced what one person has called “out-takes from a film yet to be made”?

There is of course no set or satisfactory answer to this question, because Moffatt’s work deals with ambiguous or fluid fragments, rather than with definitive clues. As Adrian Martin has argued (regarding Moffatt’s work) “We get not stories but pieces of stories - painfully broken pieces, testifying to manifold kinds of lacerations upon personal, sexual, racial and national identity… Moffatt brings out the ambiguities, the half-gestures, the unreadable looks and undecidable postures that sabotage any attempt at a linear, literal synopsis.”

One of the artist’s photographs shows two women dressed as nuns, bandying a baby between them. Is the activity playful? Or is it sinister? For Moffatt, there is an interesting and perhaps unavoidable tension between the benign and the malignant. Another image depicts several nuns walking towards a room in which a mother sits on bed, clutching a baby. Are these nuns coming to take the baby away? Such photographs bring to mind the concerted historical effort of church agencies to take Aboriginal children away from their mothers, in a vicious programme of ‘destroying paganism’ and ‘civilising’ or ‘integrating’ the aboriginal peoples. Does such a reading concur with Moffatt’s intentions? Who knows? One of the only certain clues we have in reading Moffatt’s work is that for the artist there is no one definitive reading and that multiple readings “only come about when I don’t say exactly what things are.”

Moffatt’s work (particularly the monochromatic images) is presented in an understated, almost unassuming way, thereby running the considerable risk of failing to engage the casual or the lazy viewer. But there is much more to these photographs than may initially meet the eye. After all, many people remain complacent in the ways in which they read the photographic image. The so-called ‘authenticity’ of the photographic image stubbornly and unconsciously persists. We have been encouraged to believe that (when viewing photography) we are encountering some sort of ‘reality’. But Moffatt has no time for these ultimately bogus promises of certainty and reality. We might be used to looking at photographs as definitive and truthful statements, but Moffatt’s work does nothing less than challenge, critique and undermine this cultural and historical edifice that photography has constructed for itself.

Moffatt carries this device of studious ambiguity into her cinematic work. Her videos such as Heaven and her films such as Night Cries lack synchronised verbal narratives. She has left silent spaces for the viewer to fill.

In more recent years, Moffatt has turned her attention to the playful splicing and re-editing of sequences and narratives from commercial cinema, to create humourous gallery works that critique mainstream cinematic depictions of human emotions.

Related items

click to show details of Tracey Moffatt - Modern Painters review

»  Tracey Moffatt - Modern Painters review

Review relating to an exhibition, 1998

Related exhibitions

»  Tracey Moffatt

Solo show at Arnolfini. 1998

Related venues

»  Arnolfini

Bristol, United Kingdom