Tracey Moffatt

Published March 3, 2017
Tracey Moffatt, Up In The Sky # 18, 1997, series of 25 images, off set print, 61 × 76cm, 72 x 102 paper size, Edition of 60

“Make it up! Make it up!” says Tracey Moffatt when we start to talk about her background. “Miss Moffatt said: Go ahead and make it up. Give ‘em a great story.”
It may be the era of post-truth and ‘alternative facts’ but I’m still not ready to fictionalise the artist who will represent Australia in the 57th Venice Biennale, starting on 10 May. Miss Moffatt hardly needs fictionalising. She’s larger-than-life, charismatic and incredibly complicated. She talks in the most confident manner, but her public life is no less guarded than her private life.
We’re meeting in a borrowed studio in Mosman in close proximity to Sydney Heads. Moffatt has been here for three months, preparing her work for the Biennale. It’s a place full of history and character, but she laments the mess she’s made, and the many failures she’s endured. If the speech about failure sounds a little studied it’s only one part of a scenario that Moffatt-the-director has already stage-managed.
She’s wearing slacks and a casual brown shirt, but always manages to look vaguely glamorous. A pile of books has been artfully arranged for my visit. There’s the new Diane Arbus biography, Donald Woodman’s memoir of Agnes Martin, a collection of photos of the French Riviera in the 1920s, and so on. She’s crafted a suitably contemporary persona for this meeting, demonstrating the cosmopolitan range of her reading and influences. She has no desire to go dredging up the past.
“Do we have to do all this stuff?” she complains. “Why has Australian journalism always got to go towards The Childhood? It’s all been written about. Make it up! Make it up, because I love fiction. Here’s one to start: I don’t know who my father is – and this is the truth. Three names have come up over the years because Daddy never came around knocking on the door. Bad Daddy! I’ve never found out who it is, and I love it that way. I love it. It’s Oliver Twist! It’s Dickens!”
For the record, Moffatt was a foster child in Brisbane, who took up photography, arriving on the Australian art scene in the mid 1980s as part of a wave of urban-based indigenous artists. She identifies strongly as Aboriginal, but has never painted a dot in her life. Her chosen media are film and photography. She has shown with indigenous collectives, and with some of the leading dealers in New York. Most artists are what might be called ‘conflicted personalities’ but Moffatt could be a whole room full of people.
We’ve known each other for decades, but this is our first conversation of the century. In the early 1990s Moffatt would schlump around Glebe in op shop clothes, acting as official photographer for the Aboriginal Islander Dance Theatre (AIDT). She had already had a taste of success with the 1989 photo series, Something More, from which came the now-iconic image of the artist in a slinky red cheongsam, straight from The World of Susie Wong. It was the first glimpse of her distinctive technique of “photodrama”, in which she tells a story in fragments that keeps the viewer guessing.
Despite her reluctance to look back on the past there’s much reminiscing about Queensland in the Bjelke-Petersen era, when people marched for the right to march. Next we’re talking about Sydney in the 1980s, when Moffatt was “this little punk black girl” who hung out with the lefties at the Sydney Filmmakers Co-Op and dreamt of making avant-garde cinema. She’s nostalgic for those days when terrace houses could be rented for $100 a week, and artists made work in concrete backyards. “I just became an artist,” she recalls. “It was never my intention. It developed in an organic way.”
Years later, after her 1996 move to New York, I saw Moffatt at one of the Venice Biennales and found she had become the complete international art sophisticate in designer-label suit and shades. Back in Australia since 2010 she is a strange, volatile hybrid: professing her passion for the beach and the bush while sounding like she stepped out of a New York sit com.
The stream of talk conceals as much as it reveals. Under no circumstances will Moffatt tell me about the work she is making for the Australian pavilion. “I’m thrilled, I’m excited!” she announces. “I love my commissioner, Naomi Milgrom. I love my team.”
Yes, but what exactly will she be showing?
“All my work is going to be new,” she replies. “All new! Large scale photography and some video. I’ve appreciated the deadlines, and please note that I’ve met every one. I’m very proud of it.”
When I ask if all the photos and footage have been shot in Australia, she grows instantly solemn: “I cannot reveal my locations, and do not want my work to be read as Australian. It’s coming out my imagination.” She may not want the work to be seen as Australiana but this seems unnecessarily secretive. “I just find it limiting,” she explains. “I favour places one could read as many different places. You could say it’s from here if you want to go that way, but I’m not making a documentary. I’m not allowed to say too much about it.”
Like the artist herself it seems the work is neither one thing nor the other. It’s Australian, but not narrowly so. This sense of having one foot in Australia and one in the great world has become a keynote of Moffatt’s personality. She seems terrified of being categorised but responds by embracing all categorisations. She may be proudly indigenous but doesn’t want to be known merely as “an indigenous artist”. She is showing in the Australian pavilion, but doesn’t believe she is making “Australian art”.
“I always say there is not one wrong reading. Nothing can be wrong. My work can be read as Australian, but I think the reason it’s travelled and crossed borders is because it can be appreciated by a vast audience. I know it’s cliched but it has a universal aspect. It deals with the human condition, and so resonates with many cultures. My early short film, Night Cries – a very surreal mother and daughter story – has gone all over the world. I still get letters from people in Asia or Latin America saying: “Oh, they were the same feelings I had about my mum.”
‘The human condition’ may be a cliché, but it applies to photo series such as Scarred for Life (1994), an anthology of traumatic childhood experiences gathered from the artist and her friends. More humorous, but equally universal, is the series First Jobs (2008), where Moffatt puts herself into a series of hand-tinted scenarios each representing a very ordinary day at work.
These series are totally different from Gothic melodramas such as Laudaum (1998), or desolate narratives such as Up in the Sky (1997).
Moffatt is proud that she doesn’t have a signature style. “When I’ve done a work,” she says, “I’m not interested in repeating it. It would bore me to revisit it – the technique, the look of it, which might have taken me a year to develop. Once the work’s out there I don’t look at it any more. I try to create another look. All my career I’ve explored various themes, constantly referencing the history of photography. Realism is of no interest to me.
It could be argued that not having a signature style is a drawback in a world that views contemporary art as a branded commodity, but Moffatt doesn’t agree.
“I’ve never been that sort of artist,” she says. “Doing the same thing over and over would be too boring. I’m not like those painters who say that for the past 30 years they’ve been exploring red.
“It’s also to do with my attention span, which jumps around constantly. I’m always looking. My mind never stops. That’s why I bought some books in today.”
She picks up a book to return to today’s chosen topic, of failure. From Woodman’s Agnes Martin and Me she reads: “As was her habit, Agnes started jumping from one subject to another, making it difficult to follow her train of thought.” This felt completely relevant.
In the quotation Martin exclaims: “I make lots of things that I fail at. An artist needs to be able to constantly fail.”
“So welcome to my studio,” Moffatt continues, striking a darker note. “It’s very messy. These large tables with this painted paper represent an idea that did not work – something I was developing for Venice. I was on one track, and spent weeks, no, months, failing. A lot of my Venice Biennale grant was spent on failure.
“The artistic process is very frustrating and not fun. I’m thrilled to be picked for Venice, but it hasn’t been a fun ride.”
It’s axiomatic that every artist flirts with failure. The very intention of making a work of art is fraught with uncertainty, but it feels as if Moffatt is dwelling on the topic as a way of immunising the interview against any deeper engagement with her history.
One big question is why Moffatt decided to return to Australia after a riotous decade in New York when she hob-nobbed with the celebrities most of us only read about in magazines. A brief Internet search will uncover a photograph of fashion designer, Tom Ford, autographing Moffatt’s cleavage at a function at Bergdorf Goodman. She throws her head back like Bernini’s St. Theresa in ecstasy.
Moffatt says: “I was simply in love with New York. I’ve got great friends there and I miss them. It’s such a dynamic place to live. I think I spent ten years just going out. I didn’t want to miss a thing. Art exhibitions, music, everything. I swallowed it all up. But I’d always come back to Australia and work. I love working here. It’s great to shoot here, but you don’t get the calibre of technicians and printers. In New York you can find someone to print anything you want.
Moffatt says that it was nature that dragged her back to Australia. “I missed nature,” she says. It was my Aboriginal side kicking in, I couldn’t deny it. I couldn’t stand looking at that brick wall outside my window any longer. That’s all it was.”
“And so I returned to the Sunshine Coast where I’d spent my childhood, and I thought it would all be so great – I could live in my beach house and be an artist – but it didn’t turn out that way because it was just too pretty. The Sunshine Coast is associated with holidays and there was no working vibe. So I had to come back to a city and put myself into a room again. And get a bit depressed.”
“If I wasn’t driven and didn’t have an imagination, if I didn’t want to be an artist, I could live on the beach forever. I’d collect shells and make shell art like those ladies in La Perouse.”
Living in the city dreaming of the country, or vice versa, Moffatt seems destined never to reconcile these two sides of her personality, but she denies having to keep coming back to Australia for subject matter, like Sidney Nolan did.
It’s possible that the reason she left New York was not so much a longing for the Australian bush but a realisation that her international career had stalled. Although Moffatt produced one series after another during her time in New York, very few works had the impact of earlier projects such as Night Cries, Something More, or Scarred for Life. In a series such as Under the Sign of Scorpio (2005), in which she impersonated famous female Scorpios, the humour felt strained and the images seemed merely tacky.
The Adventure series of 2004, with its lurid B-movie imagery, felt equally flat. The works that sustained Moffatt’s profile over this period were a series of eight hilarious film montages made in collaboration with Melbourne movie buff, Gary Hillberg. The most recent, called The Art (2015) was produced for the Sydney Contemporary art fair.
Moffatt is adamant The Art will be the last of the sequence as she worries that these works are simply “too illegal”. All the film clips have been used without  permission and she doesn’t want to end up in court for infringing copyright.
The success of the film montages owes a lot to their comedy. When one comes across something genuinely funny in the midst of a vast contemporary art show, it has an enormous impact. Taking these breezy, accessible works out of the equation means Moffatt has to find something special for the Biennale, which is shaping up as a life-defining moment.
She admits to a Warholian desire to have her work seen everywhere, but ultimately feels that she hasn’t handled her career very well. “Art dealers are only interested in you if you sell,” she says. “They don’t care about what you are, it’s only the work.” Over the course of a decade Moffatt showed with some very good New York galleries, the most prestigious being Matthew Marks. With her work exhibited everywhere from Korea and Taiwan to Sweden and Germany, as well as the US, she was throughout the 2000s widely considered Australia’s most successful contemporary artist abroad. But she appears to have changed New York dealers fairly regularly and today shows with Tyler Rollins Fine Art, a smaller but well-respected gallery in Chelsea. The one consistent part of a crowded CV has been her regular exhibitions with Roslyn Oxley in Sydney. Notably, the highest price paid at auction for her work, a $190,000 hammer, was set in 2002 and 2004 at Christie’s Melbourne and Sydney respectively.
“New York is only interested in you if you’re different,” she says, hastening to add: “That’s what I love about it.”The problem is that you can’t be different forever, not when you’ve become a fixture on the local scene and there are young, ambitious artists snapping at your heels.
This is not an idea that can make headway in this roundabout conversation, which leaps from topic to topic. Moffatt wants me to know that she’s still in love with New York, but equally in love with Australia. “I don’t feel so isolated now in Australia because the world has changed. I came back because it just felt different. It was always very possible to live here and that’s precisely why I left. It was too easy. Too easy for me. I wanted to be looking at a lot more art. And meeting the world! I think, like I said, my work was dealing with the human condition, and that’s why it’s been embraced… Sorry I’m not more articulate, but did you like my books?”
Published in the Australian Financial Review Magazine, March 2017