Posted by: Kevin Coyle
“They weren’t allowed to talk to me, except when we had lunch,” Tracey Moffatt tells the gaggle of surrounding reporters. She is talking about her interns.
“I’m real strict when I go to work. When you enter the studio, it’s like a temple and you have to respect my silence. Just because I’m not talking doesn’t mean I’m a grump. It means I’m concentrating.”
At this moment, wearing a bright shirt and an even brighter expression, it’s hard to imagine Moffatt being a grump. We are at her temporary studio, waiting for a preview of the work she will be unveiling in May at the 57th Venice Biennale. In an email earlier this week, Moffatt says she has been “cleaning and cooking for days!” anticipating our arrival. (It may be at least half true – the studio is certainly spotless.)
For the past 12 months Moffatt has been working on her show in one of the old military cottages in Mosman’s Middle Head national park in Sydney. The residency, arranged by Mosman Art Gallery, is not only in a picturesque location with breathtaking views of Sydney Harbour’s North and South heads, but is a significant site for Indigenous people – particularly in relation to the story of Bungaree, the Aboriginal man who circumnavigated Australia with Matthew Flinders.
The park is muddy and the sky threatens rain as we traipse down the point, near the old fortifications, where a handful of artists are sketching and painting – an intriguingly convenient addition to the atmosphere. Moffatt is far from the shy, retiring type; she is warm and engaging and clearly at home in front of a crowd. She takes questions and poses for photos in front of the spectacular scenery and the event feels rather like theatre, with Moffatt, its star, at the centre.
But the theatrical is, perhaps, not so out of place. Moffatt’s photography and cinematography is renowned for its storytelling, its drama. From the influential Something More suite (1989), with its fusion of glamour and gaudiness and its sinister underscore, to the harrowing Laudanum (1998), the strength of Moffatt’s work is in its implied narrative. Even her 2001 series, Fourth – a collection of portraits of Olympic athletes who just missed out on winning a bronze medal – suggests a contained narrative arc within each image.
Moffatt’s work has been shown in Milan, Paris, Prague; at the Guggenheim and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Moderna Museet in Stockholm and the Tate Gallery in London. Her CV is about to become more impressive still: she will be the 39th Australian artist, and the first Indigenous artist, to exhibit a solo show at the Venice Biennale this year. She will also be the second artist to exhibit in the new Australian pavilion, after Fiona Hall’s haunting Wrong Way Time installation in 2015.
Moffatt’s exhibition, titled My Horizon, will feature two new large-scale photographic suites and two films. Commissioned by Naomi Milgrom and curated by Natalie King, the exact nature of the works in this exhibition is still a tightly guarded secret, but Moffatt says she used a lot of natural light – often shooting directly into the sun – and that her inspirations came primarily from 1940s-era imagery.
I draw on cinema, old movies, particularly film noir, late 40s film noir,” she says. “It’s before the 50s started, so it’s not that sharp or stylish; it’s sort of poor film noir.”
A fascination with the history of photography has always infused Moffatt’s work. The vintage inspiration is clear, even in the single image from the exhibition that has been released to the press so far, titled Hell.
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