LIFE STO­RIES IN STILLS

Tracey Mof­fatt is the coun­try’s cho­sen artist at the Venice Bi­en­nale but, as Matthew West­wood dis­cov­ers, she’s not es­pe­cially forth­com­ing on what she has in store

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story -

The Venice Bi­en­nale, which opens next month, is just about the hottest ticket in the art world, but who needs La Serenis­sima when you can have Syd­ney’s Mid­dle Head? It’s gor­geous, even on an over­cast day. No va­poret­tos or gon­do­las on the Grand Canal, just the Manly ferry chug­ging by and the wa­ter of Syd­ney Har­bour re­flect­ing sil­very blue.

Artists love the place. Ju­lian Ash­ton brought stu­dents to paint at Bal­moral Beach. Stree­ton and Roberts had their artist camp nearby. Even to­day, a group of stu­dents from the Na­tional Art School is here, paint­ing en plein air, as gen­er­a­tions have done at this mag­nif­i­cent spot.

We’re here to meet Tracey Mof­fatt, the pho­tog­ra­pher and film­maker who is Aus­tralia’s cho­sen artist for the Venice Bi­en­nale. She has in­vited a posse of jour­nal­ists to Mid­dle Head to visit her tem­po­rary stu­dio, the Old Gover­nor’s Cot­tage within the na­tional park. As we ven­ture down from the house to a scenic spot that looks across to Manly and the heads, Mof­fatt plays the tour guide, point­ing out the sights and re­lay­ing bits of lo­cal his­tory.

Mof­fatt cuts a glam­orous fig­ure — she’s dressed to­day in a brightly printed top — and ex­udes con­fi­dence, but in other ways she is in­tensely pri­vate and has a rep­u­ta­tion for snap­pi­ness. She has al­ready told the as­sem­bled re­porters that she nor­mally wouldn’t bother do­ing press in­ter­views. She lived in New York for 12 years among the Chelsea gallery scene, and af­ter re­turn­ing to Aus­tralia in 2010 has kept largely out of the pub­lic eye.

That may ex­plain why Mof­fatt is less a pub­lic fig­ure than some other Aus­tralian artists who have not had her in­ter­na­tional suc­cess. Even the art stu­dents, when I ask them if they recog­nise the woman at the cen­tre of at­ten­tion, have no idea who she is, un­til it’s pointed out that she’s Tracey Mof­fatt, the cel­e­brated pho­tog­ra­pher, soon headed for Venice.

There’s an air of mys­tery, too, around to­day’s event that is flagged as a visit to Mof­fatt’s stu­dio and a pre­view of her Bi­en­nale ex­hi­bi­tion, called My Hori­zon. In fact, there is dis­ap­point­ingly lit­tle to see.

The cot­tage where Mof­fatt has been work­ing shows no ev­i­dence of hav­ing been an artist’s stu­dio. Mof­fatt makes nar­ra­tive pho­to­graphs, or “photo dra­mas”, that are a bit like movie stills. She works like a film di­rec­tor, mov­ing her ac­tors around the scene to tell a story and cre­ate at­mos­phere. But to­day there is no sign of cos­tumes or props, pho­to­graphic equip­ment or, in­deed, of pic­tures. The two se­ries of large-scale pho­to­graphs and two short films that com­prise her ex­hi­bi­tion have been shipped to Venice.

Ap­par­ently the se­crecy is to do with the Bi­en­nale, and rules that seem more like a doge’s dic­tum. Mof­fatt’s work, to be in­stalled in the new Aus­tralian Pavil­ion, can­not be un­veiled un­til the of­fi­cial pre­view on May 10. But per­haps the rules also suit Mof­fatt’s pref­er­ence for pri­vacy, al­low­ing her to skirt ques­tions about the ideas be­hind her work and about what the pic­tures rep­re­sent.

For now she is able to re­veal just one of the im­ages, on a TV screen. The pic­ture called Hell shows three fig­ures in sil­hou­ette, wear­ing hats and clothes that could be from the 1940s or 50s. They are stand­ing on a bridge or be­tween two low walls, and beams of sun­light cut through the haze, an ef­fect achieved with a smoke ma­chine. There are few nar­ra­tive clues un­til Mof­fatt points out the fig­ure on the left is a mother. There’s a man in a trench coat, smok­ing a cigarette — Mof­fatt refers to him as a devil, or mid­dle­man — and stand­ing in the back­ground what ap­pears to be a po­lice­man.

What’s go­ing on? A hint is in the ti­tle of the se­ries, called Pas­sage, and a printed state­ment that refers to le­gal and il­le­gal jour­neys. The mind races ahead, try­ing to con­nect the fig­ures into a story. Per­haps it’s about peo­plesmug­gling, or an es­cape from a vi­o­lent place.

“You’ll see a baby, which isn’t in that shot,” Mof­fatt says later. “A mother want­ing es­cape, she wants pas­sage. Or it could be read that she’s ar­rived, if it’s a dock­land, a port. It’s a time of day when it’s not quite day­light, not quite night ... enough to give me the the­atrics of the shoot­ing rays. The slip­page: the char­ac­ters slip­ping in and out of shad­ows, and al­ley­ways, and clan­des­tine meet­ings and dis­cus­sions.”

It may or may not be im­por­tant that Mof­fatt is the first Abo­rig­i­nal artist to be given a solo show at the Venice Bi­en­nale. Pre­vi­ously artists in­clud­ing Rover Thomas and Emily Kame Kng­war­r­eye have shown in group ex­hi­bi­tions, and Mof­fatt also fea­tured in an in­ter­na­tional group show, in 1997. But in­di­gene­ity was not a fac­tor in Mof­fatt be­ing se­lected for a solo show at the high-pro­file event. Busi­ness­woman and arts pa­tron Naomi Mil­grom, who heads the com­mis­sion­ing panel, says she is sim­ply a great Aus­tralian artist. “She had in her mind very clearly what she wanted to do, what she wanted to ex­press,” Mil­grom says of her ex­hi­bi­tion pro­posal. “It was just a knock­out.”

Mof­fatt, 56, has spo­ken be­fore of her up­bring­ing in sub­ur­ban Bris­bane: how she was born to an Abo­rig­i­nal mother, was fos­tered to a poor white fam­ily and didn’t know her fa­ther. Race, iden­tity, sex­u­al­ity, gen­der — the whole box and dice of iden­tity pol­i­tics — are themes that re­cur through her work. But Mof­fatt doesn’t go at it with a polem­i­cal sledge­ham­mer. If any­thing, her photo dra­mas have a cer­tain de­tach­ment, even irony and hu­mour. They are about sto­ries, dreams, sen­sa­tions.

A se­ries such as Up in the Sky (1997) in­cludes scenes of pri­mal out­back vi­o­lence, and im­ages

Tracey Mof­fatt at Mid­dle Head, Syd­ney; Hell, from her Pas­sage se­ries, be­low

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