Interview: Tracey Moffatt operates in the world of art

For over three decades Tracey Moffatt has created videos, films and photographic series that prompt all kinds of emotive, political, surreal, and aesthetic reflections. She was the first solo Indigenous artist to represent Australia at the 2017 Venice Biennale; has shown at galleries like Tate Modern and the Museum of Modern Art; has her art in a staggering number of esteemed collections; and has screened her films at Cannes Film Festival. Not to mention how admired she is for her fearless attitude, which is never without humour.

For the Biennale of Sydney, Moffatt is exhibiting DOOMED, 2007—a short film created with Gary Hillberg. It’s part of a cinematic montage series that cuts up iconic, repetitive tropes of film, spanning themes of revolution, love and matriarchy—for Ten Thousand Suns, it is scenes of blockbuster disaster.

In conversation with editor-in-chief Tiarney Miekus, Moffatt talks about her penchant for the staged and surreal, growing up in Brisbane and moving to New York in her thirties (she currently works from Sydney), and the importance of imagination.

Tracey Moffatt, Doomed (still), 2007, from the series Montages, DVD, Screening Format: DVD (colour, sound), duration 10 minutes, continuous loop, Edition of 499. Courtesy of the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney.

Tiarney Miekus:

I understand there’s a reluctance to go into personal background, but like yourself I’m from Brisbane and artists who come from Queensland often have this special process of thinking and experimentalism—something playful yet serious, and often anti-authoritative. Can location be linked to an artist’s work?

Tracey Moffatt:

I agree about radical people being produced from the oppressive state of Queensland, with its violent history—extreme environments produce extreme people. In my era one could not do a thing without getting arrested. My first political protest was in 1977 when I was 16 years old—my last year of high school, while wearing my school uniform. It was the “right to march” marches. We paraded single file around Brisbane’s King George Square and along Elizabeth Street.

Later, when one is a hipster cool art student living in a group share house in Red Hill, we had to close the front door for fear of marijuana smoke drifting onto the streets and that the police would catch on. But I did not really do drugs—mainly because by 20 years old I was seriously ambitious and knew that a prison term for drug possession would ruin my planned international art career. Then, of course, my extreme radical experiences came in the years to follow with Indigenous street battles for land rights and everything else.

Your comment about playfulness rings true— we really knew how to party and play dress ups from an early age. It was about making one’s own fun on little money: op shop clothes and antique shops— we became knowledgeable about certain things.

But your suggestion about location influencing my art is incorrect. Most of my art comes from my vivid imagination. I do not make art about a “place” or location. If I use a location or landscape, it is merely as a backdrop. I use it like a theatrical prop. My landscapes become fiction—a universal look of bleakness or lushness that can be read by audiences the world over. Making artworks about a place becomes documentary and you may as well turn on SBS television—though, I have always adored watching documentaries over the years.

TM: That hesitancy about conflating biography with your art practice—is that a stance that you have just for yourself, or something you also separate when thinking about another artist’s work?

T MOFFATT: Well, mostly I don’t think about the artist. I look purely at the artist’s work. But I am obsessed with artist biographies. I read all the time. Like the one on Agnes Martin is just fantastic. I’ve recently read a Virginia Woolf biography and one on Stanley Kubrick. There’s Patti Smith and—just looking at my book stack here—I can see Diane Arbus, which I would have read in the 80s. I’m intrigued by artists’ lives, but I go from their artworks to them. It’s always the work creations first.

TM: Perhaps it’s different for the artist and the viewer—the viewer conflates biography and art to give a narrative. But for some artists it doesn’t feel so linear.

T MOFFATT: This is the thing about biography: I don’t want to make art about me and what I am, or what I know. I want to make art about what I don’t know, about what I want to see. I’m not interested in me. I’m interested in what I don’t see: I want to see it, create it. It is coming out of my subconscious imagination.

Tracey Moffatt, Shadow Dream, 2017, from the series Body Remembers, digital pigment print on rag paper, 152 x 227 cm, Edition of 6 + AP 2 Courtesy line: Courtesy of the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney

TM: You’ve said that you’re not interested in realism. Did that preference for the staged and surreal come early in your practice?

T MOFFATT: Absolutely, yes—but it didn’t mean that I didn’t work in documentary television and independent cinema. In Sydney there was the Sydney Filmmakers Co-op which I was involved in [during the early 1980s], and they were making political documentaries about land rights and anti-uranium mining. But deep down I knew that I had my own vision and that I wanted to say things in a non-realistic way. It was far more interesting to delve into my own brain and imaginings. I was always confident about it and didn’t care what the critics would think.

TM: Did you feel there was a critical preference for realist works?

T MOFFATT: Yes. And in fact, I made a short film called Night Cries in 1990. It’s quite famous now—a mother and daughter story set in a surreal outback landscape with the old mother in the wheelchair. I remember being interviewed by a Marxist critic on the ABC who criticised me, saying that there were more urgent things in the world and why wasn’t I addressing those political issues. Whereas I was off in my cinematic, avant-garde world, playing with imagery and haunting soundtracks. She didn’t realise that what I had created was completely radical. The leftist reading of my work was like they were wearing blinkers, thinking that I wasn’t political enough with my magic realism. They could not see past me. They couldn’t address what I was saying.

I don’t want to make art about me and what I am, or what I know. I want to make art about what I don’t know, about what I want to see.

TM: Do you mean that being an Aboriginal woman, you felt there was a pressure that by virtue of your identity you had to be making explicitly political art?

T MOFFATT: Yes, just pigeonholing me. It was the reason why I got out of the country. This is what you do if you don’t like it here is: you leave! You go to New York, and you reinvent yourself. That is what I did and continue to do. Even though I live in Australia now, again. But that’s what you do, you go away.

TM: Did the move to New York in the 1990s have anything to do with the idea that to make it in Australia, you first needed to leave Australia?

T MOFFATT: I know what you’re saying. Sometimes that is true, but I was very well established here. Things were going just dandy for me. I could have stayed, but where would that have led me? I went to New York and behaved like a teenager. I was 36 years old and got into mischief and spent 10 years going out to every art event and party and bar. I did make art, but I also immersed myself in the city. I think post 9/11 things did change, but when the Clintons were in power in the late 90s there was money. The galleries were fabulous. I was meeting all the ex-Warhol factory people. This was one of the things that dragged me to New York, but also the 1950s abstract expressionists. I love reading about it all, and the great women artists of that era like Helen Frankenthaler, Joan Mitchell. I still have that romantic idea about New York, although the city has changed a lot.

Tracey Moffatt, Scissor Cut, 1980, 1999, from the series Scarred for Life II, offset print, 80 x 60 cm, Edition of 60 + 10 APs Courtesy line: Courtesy of the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney

TM: To go back to those thoughts on realism, you’ve talked about how while the form might not be real, the emotions are—it’s such a beautifully succinct way of describing the impact of “unreal” imagery. How do you know you’ve hit that point between an image that’s unreal, but feels emotionally real?

T MOFFATT: I have certain ideas that I go after when I’m creating work, but as you develop it, it sometimes becomes something different. You realise, “Oh, that’s what it was about. Is that why I did that?” In a recent series I made called Portals, 2019, one image is about a very close relative of mine. I don’t want to discuss my family because I don’t think it’s fair on them—family are not there as information for me to take from. But a relative did come to my exhibition opening and saw this work. She turned to me, and her eyes were filled with tears. I knew I touched a nerve because it was our shared history.

But I don’t think there is any one way of creating—it’s that emotional response, it just manifests. It is not deliberate. Like in music, the famous quote I often use is from Björk. She talked about when she started producing music in the 90s people criticised her use of techno instead of acoustic, Icelandic instruments. She was a child music star, but later got into techno and someone criticised her, saying if an artist uses electronics there’s no soul. But, as Björk said, it is the artist’s job to put the soul in it. It is the way the instrument is played. Or like Jimi Hendrix playing ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’. He was the last act of the Woodstock concert, early in the morning, and he made the guitar sound like Vietnam, like jets coming in and bombing. It is unbelievable as a piece of music.

TM: They’re also examples of when a formal decision becomes political.

T MOFFATT: Well yes, but I think there’s also something about the authentic, social document that it must look raw, real and untouched—whereas I go the opposite way. I put a dreamy softness on it: fade the image out so it looks like a memory or a feeling, or a memory of a feeling, not a photograph. But this comes from a lifetime of looking at cinema and the history of photography. It depends on what you want to say as an artist.

Tracey Moffatt, The Hospital Ship, 2019, from the series Portals, c-type print, 79 x 117 cm, 79 x 73 cm, edition of 6 + 2 AP Courtesy line: Courtesy of the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney.

TM: When you’re creating are you thinking, “What do I want to say?”

T MOFFATT: Oh, yes. But I’ll say it in a roundabout way, and then the audience puts their own interpretation on it. To me that is the most fascinating thing.

TM: Currently there are many great revisionist exhibitions and contemporary artists bringing their cultural histories and oppressions to light—often centered on overturning colonial settler narratives. I feel like your work fits into that. But then I also feel that you don’t want your work to be read solely as that either.

T MOFFATT: No, not at all. I like to think my work goes beyond that—and that is why my work goes around the world. My work can be reduced to that reading that you’re talking about, that it sits as postcolonial and so on, but I like to think I’m more inventive than that. It isn’t just one line. My ideas operate in the world of art. For me it is about pushing the form. What I do when I’m making art is trying to create something that hasn’t been seen before. That’s the real challenge as an artist. And I like to think I do have some success. I reinvent form, especially the photographic form which has been around for 200 years.

TM: You also play with the history of cinema, especially in the video montages with Gary Hillberg, where you take cinematic tropes and cut them together, repeating famous film moments that somehow feel both less and more significant with each successive clip. DOOMED, showing for the Biennale, centres moments of disaster—what feels significant about that repetition?

T MOFFATT: My concepts and the editing with my collaborator Gary Hillberg, in our Hollywood film cut-up series, is appealing to many. It is old school industry training in the language of film and the build-up to the terror of climactic catastrophe—disasters, earthquakes and tidal waves are so appealing to the human brain. We cannot look away. A lot of those clips are taken from old VHS formats, but that’s the appeal. The over-the-top repetition has an energy.

TM: Another work I love is Art Calls, 2014, where you host a mock TV show asking other artists questions we all want to know; like does an artist realise how hot he is, or can we see another artist’s chest tattoo? I wish it was a real show. But I wondered if you were on that show, what would you ask yourself?

T MOFFATT: I love that you have even seen Art Calls, which I made for an exhibition at GOMA in Brisbane. I interviewed artists and some really are “hot” aren’t they. I am not talking about looks, but rather talent and intensity— I think real talent and intensity is very sexy.

What question would I ask myself? “Hey Tracey, when are you going to ease off with the art making and have a ‘real life’? Don’t you get bored?” My answer: “No, never bored. I wake up totally curious—one can never predict what the day will bring. As far as having a ‘real life’: this is real—you are staring at it.”

Tracey Moffatt, Art Calls, 2014, video still. courtesy of the artist.

TM: When I was telling people I was going to interview you, your sense of freedom and outright coolness was often commented upon. So, my question would be, “How can we all have some Tracey Moffatt energy in our lives?”

T MOFFATT: [Laughs] That is very nice. I’ve always felt that I have every right to be the way I am. I grew up in a huge family and I was always told, “Shush up, big mouth!” Then you finally get out into the world and you have a voice. There is nothing better. I don’t think I was allowed to speak my mind and be vocal about the world until I was 18, but that was that generation.

I still have a lot of bold energy—the secret is to be yourself and ignore any boring male critic “articles” written about you. Like the comic Tina Fey said, “But they are so easy to ignore.”

TM: I suppose if you kept getting told to shut up, you weren’t totally shutting up then.

T MOFFATT: Perhaps not. That must be why I became a visual artist. That it is a silent practice.

Tracey Moffatt with Gary Hillberg

Museum of Contemporary Art
24th Biennale of Sydney: Ten Thousand Suns
9 March—10 June

Interview Words by Tiarney Miekus