Sydney

Tracey Moffatt

Museum of Contemporary Art, Australia

Back in 1992, in a note to an overly earnest museum curator, Tracey Moffatt wrote: “As an artist, I have never been on a mission to educate. If people are racist, sexist, homophobic or out of step with issues I say bad luck. Let them stay dumb. Art exhibitions do not aid in correcting prejudice, not a bit.” Moffatt’s best works—the unforgettable twenty-five photographs that compose the series “Up in the Sky,” 1997, first shown at her Dia Center for the Arts survey that year, and her earlier, breakthrough “Something More,” 1989—are clear-sighted, bleak, and luminously global in conception. They disavow any sense of a regional celebration of place and evade the antiseptic link between redemptive art and identity that the unfortunate curator had wanted to establish. Even so, Moffatt’s photographs and films focus on interracial tension and tragic, cinematic love—grand ethical allegories about social connection. In Up in the Sky #1, 1997, for example, black-clad nuns ominously emerge from an indeterminate desert waste toward a mother and child; there’s no clear narrative but a spectacularly artificial, carefully choreographed, hyperdetermined surplus of cues and hot issues. Memorably iconic, indeterminately sexy, profound image grabs are Moffatt’s great gift.

Moffatt’s worst photographs, on the other hand, include her two recent series, “Fourth,” 2001, pseudopainterly portraits printed on canvas of athlete losers, conceived in the wake of the 2000 Sydney Olympics, and “Invocations,” 2000, a fluorescent-ink, overheated morass of swirling witches, lost children, and B-grade art-house movie starlets falling through the aesthetic safety net. Add to this reject list her recent video compilations made with Gary Hillberg, Artist, 2000, and Love, 2003, and you’d be forgiven for forgetting the driven intensity of her own 35 mm films, Night Cries—A Rural Tragedy, 1989, and beDevil, 1993, traces of which persist faintly in her vampiric surfer documentary, Heaven, 1997. Both Night Cries and beDevil are at first viewing so shockingly original they might have been made on Mars, though their dense weirdness is structured through Moffatt’s highly original appropriation of midcentury film pioneer Charles Chauvel’s feature Jedda (1955), about an Aboriginal girl brought up by a white family on a remote Outback cattle station, and Japanese director Masaki Kobayashi’s four-episode ghost story, Kaidan (1964), respectively. Cindy Sherman may have been the artist to whom Moffatt was most indebted at the start of her career, but Moffatt’s cinephilia was even more thorough than her American model’s, and the quality of her films demands that she be considered no less an auteur than an artist.

This survey was the most comprehensive exhibition of Moffatt’s work to date, bringing together all of her major photographs and films from the mid-’80s to the present—not a lot of work in all, though the cluttered hang unintentionally hid the fact—and attracting record numbers of visitors. Moffatt’s work from Nice Coloured Girls, 1987, to Scarred for Life II, 1999, often looks as if it should be understood through the culture of redemption and as the experience of a very contemporary Aboriginality—of indigenous families forcibly separated by racist social policies that persisted well into the ’60s, affecting the Stolen Generation to this day. Such a quasi-biographical reading, though well intentioned, is misguided. Instead, if Moffatt’s art collectively communicates any message, it is a powerful, consistent, and bleakly sexy feminism. Even then, in her major works, identity is less important than her cosmopolitan, directorial aestheticism.

Charles Green