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Tracey Moffatt

Solo show at Arnolfini. 1998
Date: 4 July, 1998 until 23 August, 1998
Curator: Denise Robinson
Organiser: Denise Robinson

This exhibition was one of the first opportunities in the UK to see a large body of work by Tracey Moffatt, a very successful, Australian artist who was born in 1960, By the time of this exhibition (1998), Moffatt already had a substantial number of exhibitions and catalogues to her name, produced in Europe, North America and Australia. These publications were evidence of the artist’s popularity with collectors, galleries and curators around the world and within her native Australia.

Moffatt’s work defies attempts to locate or label it, in much the same way as the artist herself defies labelling. Moffatt is a film-maker and a photographer and within her work, these two distinct art forms continually overlap and cross-reference each other. For her exhibition at Arnolfini, the artist presented one film, one video and four different photographic series.

Her 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 the exhibition curator, Denise Robinson has called “out-takes from a film yet to be made”?

There is 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 observes in the accompanying exhibition brochure “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 indecidable 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? Another image depicts several nuns walking towards a room in which a 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’ the natives. We have no idea if such readings concur with Moffatt’s intentions? 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. Moffatt has no time within her practice for promises of ‘certainty’ and ‘reality’. We might be used to looking at photographs as definitive and truthful statements, but Moffatt’s work sought to 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. Both her video (Heaven) and her film (Night Cries) lack synchronised verbal narratives.

Related items

click to show details of Tracey Moffatt - Modern Painters review

»  Tracey Moffatt - Modern Painters review

Review relating to an exhibition, 1998

People in this exhibition

»  Tracey Moffatt

Born, 1960 in Australia

Exhibition venues

»  Arnolfini

Bristol, United Kingdom