Australian filmmaker and photographer Tracey Moffatt is a picture-maker, rather than a picture-taker. Whether she is shooting 35mm features, shorts or documentary films; color or black and white photos; or music videos for MTV, her role is directorial. Depending on the mise-en-scène, each pursuit results in convincing fictions that are more or less transparent. Aligned with Cindy Sherman and Jeff Wall in contemporary art, or Madonna, who endlessly remakes her image, Moffatt is immersed in the popular culture of television, movies and magazines. In its deception, Moffatt’s work is about role-playing, and its effects on identity and autobiography. Deriving from personal experiences and memories, its scope is universal: we all play roles most of our lives.
In the past, Moffatt has investigated the cultural myths of rural Australia, whose Outback is not unlike the Deep South of the United States. Mimicking the genre of novels and films such as Baby Doll and Tobacco Road, Moffatt’s photographic series Something More (1989) weaves a steamy tale of a young woman’s desire for escape. In garish color or gritty black and white, the photographs detail our heroine’s trashy, violent life, which comes to a conclusion on the deserted road to Brisbane. More tender, but equally tragic, is Moffatt’s short film Night Cries (1990), a dream-like investigation–in glowing artificial color–of the intimacies and frustrations complicating the relationship of a woman and her invalid mother. The strange, fictional tone of Night Cries extends to Bedevil (1993), Moffatt’s first feature length film, based on ghost stories circulated in her family.
The compelling staginess of Moffatt’s work is subdued in more recent projects. While she continues to deal with real life issues and crises through the technique of fiction, the works elide the distinction between reality and artifice. In the convincingly documentary Scarred for Life, which was exhibited at ArtPace in the spring of 1995, Moffatt narrates the anxieties of children and teenagers through nine captioned and pseudo-candid photographs. The Life magazine style layout of the series evokes the believability and the concomitant manipulation of emotions of the picture magazine.
Fusing the gritty aggression of real life and the comforting memories of black and white TV, Moffatt’s GUAPA (Good Looking), produced during her residency in San Antonio, is a series of ten photographs inspired by the American phenomenon of roller derby. Last televised some decades ago, roller derby contests–with their snarling, bumptious skaters engaged in what appeared to be mortal combat–exemplify Moffatt’s identification of sport as the synthesis of theatre and violence. To emulate roller derby’s tough female competitors, Moffatt hired models with thick, muscular bodies, and clothed them in costumes produced by a local seamstress. The artifice of the costumes, conveyed by the hand stitching on kneepads and numbers, and the locationless landscape of the stark white studio in which the models were photographed mediate the convincing violence of the skaters’ belligerent encounters. The filmy, magenta-tinged photographs, printed from black and white negatives on color photographic paper, describe a nostalgic scenario of gladiatorial dimensions. GUAPA offers a revision of feminine beauty and heroism, beyond but still contingent upon the degradation effected by the spectacle.