The Mystery Dies

Uncategorized Aug 02, 2005 No Comments

Is it really a year since Tracey Moffatt’s last Oxley exhibition? Just last August we wandered in to the gallery for a taste of her new series Adventure Story and marveled at the incredible number of people in the streets, jammed on to the balcony and waltzing around inside the big space like landed gentry in a Jane Austen novel. So here we are again, a year later, and the imminent opening of Moffatt’s Under the Signs of Scorpio at Roslyn Oxley 9 Gallery this Thursday from 6pm to 8pm, be there, be part of the crowd!

Moffatt has been working hard in her New York apartment and despite its small size she’s used it as a stage setting for her new, theatrical works in which she embodies the essence and spirit of 40 women born under the sign of Scorpio – from Hilary Clinton, Sally Field and Indira Ghandi to Billie Jean King, Shane Gould and Doris Lessing. The full explanation by the artist of the new work was sent out to journalists and the Oxley Gallery mailing list in the form of a rambling and incoherent press release which we reproduced here in full last month. Here are its first two paragraphs of that press release just to refresh our memories:

My photo series, Under the Sign of Scorpio, depicts me appearing as forty well-known extraordinary, women from history and popular culture, all born under the astrological sign of Scorpio. Since I was born on November 12th and am also a Scorpio, I have been intrigued about what makes the Scorpio tick. It is such a powerful and intense sign: Scorpios can ‘cross over’ into dark worlds and come back unscathed. They are fearless and listen to no-one. I know that I often stare at people with their mouths moving and I am amazed that they are actually talking and giving me advice; I always have to say “Sorry, I didn’t catch that”.

The shooting of this Scorpio series, as well as the printing, has taken me six months. Six months taking in the entire New York winter of 2005. Six months cooped up in my small New York loft with Miyuki, my faithful assistant. (Miyuki has put up with my excitement over the making of this new work, plus all my whining and insecurities, which would greet her every morning as she walked in the door.) The actual shooting of each of the famous Scorpio characters would take two minutes, but the thinking and planning would take a couple of weeks. For example, becoming Georgia O’Keeffe required me to take on her ‘attitude’. It isn’t easy to present ‘attitude’ with your back to the camera. I thought about her morning Kimono-like dress, and what she would be doing with her hands (she’s admiring them, of course).

It is an extremely hard piece of writing to read in its entirety. It jumps from place to place, idea to explanation, from gossipy girl talk about her house and friends and then back to her fannish catalogue of Scorpio women she no doubt looked up on the internet and said “oooh, she looks good” and then added them to her “to do” list. Perhaps we have always missed the sense of humour in Moffatt’s work, perhaps we just don’t get the jokes, but we have always taken her artistic project to be one of high seriousness even when – such as in the last series – she was delving into high camp. Either way, this latest press release is an egregious mistake. Like last year’s embarrassing artist’s statement in which she condescendingly described her travails making the work in “dear Brisbane”, this should never have been allowed out.

On the other hand, someone obviously thought it was a good idea and one that a compliant media would lap up without question. Moffatt has a publicist whose job is to ramp up media interest in everything the artist does and feed information to magazines and newspapers who are happy to support the mythology of Moffatt as Australia’s leading artist. Any article would obviously include mentioning her work’s auction records, her movies, quotes from high profile admirers and the links between her ethnicity and the subject of identity in her work that binds all her disparate pieces together. It should have come as no surprise that the Sydney Morning Herald’s Spectrum ran a sycophantically unquestioning piece on Moffatt and the new work under the title The Secret Lives of Tracey Moffatt.

Tracey Moffatt, Hilary R. Clinton,
archival pigment ink on acid-free rag paper 43.2 × 58.4cm.
Courtesy Roslyn Oxley Gallery.

Written by Samantha Selinger-Morris the piece touched on every single one of the standard points of a Moffatt article but opened with a mistake. Stating that Tracey Moffatt rarely gives interviews, the writer clearly overlooked Peter Hill’s Spectrum interview with the artist last year [and which, if memory serves, opened with the same gambit]. We then dutifully trudged through the opening paragraphs in which the author mentions Something More and Moffatt’s auction record of $227,050 before launching into her CV of films including her feature film Bedevil. Elsewhere the author describes Moffatt’s love of dress ups when she grew up an Indigenous child in a white family, but before we get to that, there is a paragraph that is rather curious:

[Moffatt will] say she’s comfortable “that journalists and writers can go to town and say what they want without my interference or controlling nature”, but quite benign comment on her work has been known to anger her, as her long-time friend Reg Richardson discovered when he gave a talk about her work at Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery five years ago. “She was there, and she told me I had told them too much,” he recalls. “She never tells you if you’re right or wrong. She likes to maintain the element of mystery.”

Ahem. We got into trouble from Moffatt’s PR person last year when we said that she personally controls – and vetoes – unflattering coverage by refusing to allow magazines to reproduce her work unless she has approval of the articles. The PR lady, speaking to us via Comments, claimed that this was not true although we had direct, first hand experience that this was the case…
Reg Richardson gets another mention, this time as a high profile ‘friend’ [with no mention of the fact that it was he who paid the big bucks at auction for Moffatt’s work] and a claim is made for “record breaking” attendance figures supposedly set by Moffatt’s MCA retrospective. For the record, Moffatt’s 2003/2004 exhibition is the second highest ranked exhibition in terms of attendance at the MCA with 108,671 people through the door while it is Ron Mueck’s show in 2002/03 that had 110, 871 people attending making it the most popular show.

All of that aside, it’s the statement about Moffatt trying to “maintain an element of mystery” that’s the most perplexing. Here she is apparently not given to granting interviews while lifting the veil in public. It’s an inconsistency not lost on the author:

She’s agreed to be interviewed because we share the same star sign. “I thought, well, she’s probably a little twisted anyway to begin with,” she says. “Scorpios are not afraid of intensity, not at all. We actually think it’s normal and we don’t understand people who aren’t.”

This explains Moffatt’s interest in one of the feistiest women in the series.
“What do you think of the Hillary Clinton one, tell me?” she asks. Her low, lipped voice has a slightly nasal quality, as though she has consorted only with Yiddish speakers during her past six years in New York. “What do you think she’s doing in it?” she presses.

I look at the image of Moffatt with her head thrown back, wearing a blonde wig and oversized black sunglasses. She stares meaningfully up to the heavens, bathed in a beatific yellow light. I say it looks as though Hillary is wondering how she’ll manage to nab the American presidency.

“Ohhh, brilliant!” says Moffatt, sounding pleased. “That’s exactly it. That’s what I’m trying to say in that photograph.”

Moffatt’s desire to be understood is the first of several surprises in our long conversation. When, days after we speak, I read the transcript of our interview, Moffatt’s intimate disclosures – on everything from her love life to her traumatic childhood and deep-seated shame – seem like breadcrumbs she’s dropped on purpose in order to be discovered.

Just at the moment it looked as though the article might be on to something, it changed tack into a description of how the artist made the works. According to the article, Moffatt “transforms” herself into these women through:

…gargantuan amount of Photoshopping, clever wardrobe choices and, most importantly, by nailing tiniest but most distinguishing of visual cues. With a demure turn of the head, she is instantly the French doyenne Catherine Deneuve. With a stern stare and arms crossed just so, she becomes Vogue editor Anna Wintour.

Would it be too reductive to point out that the image of Hilary Clinton looks nothing like the actual woman? Moffatt’s work has always been a mirage of intentions in which the audience has had to unravel just what – if anything – the artist was saying. With Adventure Series last year it became obvious that Moffatt was starting to run out of steam – referencing your own work, especially going right back to Something More [albeit with a bigger budget] – simply served to reveal how conceptually thin her works are. Dressing up as Hilary Clinton may indeed slot nicely into the perception that Moffatt’s work is about examining identity but as Joan Cusack said in Working Girl, you can dance around in your underwear all you like but it doesn’t make you Madonna. What we have then is Moffatt as Hilary Clinton and like any actor playing a role, we have to ask, just what is she bringing to this persona?

We have for a long time struggled with the notions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ in art. Since we are reformed relativists we are tempted to throw around absolutes as though there was some higher value to which art can be compared while knowing full well that artist’s choices are entirely subjective. We were once asked why video art and photography aren’t compared to mainstream cinema and advertising? Why is that they aren’t seen as part of the same spectrum? Good question, we thought, and one that needs an answer. Artists work from a much reduced production base; they simply don’t have the money to take on the production values of Hollywood and the world of advertising. In the final analysis, however, it should be the idea or concept that stands out beyond production values. Good ideas are free and if you can express them then art can take on anything.

Moffatt has been one to utilise the talents of others to help her achieve her vision. From her film and video works to the casts of her big photo series to the backdrop painter who gave most of the life to the Adventure Series images, there works have achieved a slick gloss that many have found appealing. But now, with Under The Sign of Scorpio, Moffatt working away in her little studio with reduced production values, has laid her ideas bare. There may be some people who find these works aesthetically appealing with their hammy acting, bad wigs, garish colours and crappy Photoshopping. We however do not and are sorely tempted to just label them bad but we know that is subjective. What is far more disturbing is that now that the production gloss is gone her ideas are there for all to see – and she has none. This sense of exhaustion is one that the artist shares:

Moffatt is moving on, creatively and personally. In what is perhaps symbolic of her desire to finally separate herself from the shame of her childhood, she is, at 44, planning on giving up the alternative personas that have been a constant in her work.
“I don’t even want to do it any more,” she says. “I’ve had it. This is the last time I’m going to do it. It’s too … it’s very hard work, very hard. Performance is very hard to do. I’d much rather direct it than do it.”

She’s also planning on leaving her beloved New York – at least for half of every year – to come home.

“My theory is that in Australian culture it’s Australian to tease and put down, and it’s American to build you up.” she says. “So I find it refreshing to live in America. [But] I miss Australia. I miss the great food, the weather and my friends. And I miss the humour. So, spiritually, I have to be in Australia more. There comes a time when you know you just have to be.”

She will be living in a beach house being built for her – in the shape of a revolver – on Castaways Beach on the Sunshine Coast.

For the first time, she’ll have her very own studio.

The Art Life

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