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 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