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Interview

July 23, 2008

Tracey Moffatt

Australian artist Tracey Moffatt creates visually arresting serial photography and video works exploring narrative modes, social conventions, and identity. Recipient of the International Center for Photography's 2007 Infinity Award for Art, Moffatt has exhibited her work in museums, galleries, biennials, and art fairs worldwide. Artkush editor Paul Laster recently caught up with the peripatetic Moffatt, who maintains studios in Brisbane, Sydney, and New York, to discuss her recent work and her collaborative contribution to the 2008 Biennale of Sydney.

AK:  Who or what inspired you to become an artist?

TM:  I cringe at the title of "artist," yet I guess I must be one, as I sleep in until 9:30am, I make images and films, I have exhibitions, and people write about my "work." I have a lot to say — most artists have a lot to say — and because we are not especially verbal and consider ourselves terribly inarticulate, we make things and exhibit them.

No one person ever inspired me to make art, but art itself has; I've been inspired by an extraordinary film or a novel that stayed with me for days, or weeks, or years, or my whole life — like the other day, when I needed to watch David Lean's 1946 Great Expectations again. I've always seriously studied the history of photography and film, or just generally picture books, encyclopedias, etc., even before I started to exhibit my own photography and short films in Sydney in the mid '80s.

AK:  It took me several viewings to get into your 2001 photographic series Fourth, but once I did, I became fascinated with your subjects — the Sydney 2000 Olympics' fourth-place athletes, who had come so close to winning medals, yet lost. What were you looking for in highlighting those moments of defeat?

TM:  Ever since I was kid, I've always loved the human drama of the Olympics, especially when an unknown athlete from some tiny country wins, and the stadium erupts — I always burst into tears. But I thought it would be interesting to focus instead on the athletes who don't win — to lose in front of the world is a brave thing.

I photographed Fourth directly off the television screen. I had people in three different countries record the entire 2000 Olympics and send me the tapes — 30 of them — which I scanned for fourth-place athletes. It was so hard to find them because the camera, of course, only focuses on the winners.

I was looking for some great moment of disappointment and despair, but I didn't find it. Instead, the faces of fourth-place athletes after events are rather blank, as if they're still in shock, waiting for the moment to register.

However, I want to add that some of the fourth-place athletes I photographed went to the next Olympic Games in Athens in 2004, kicked ass, and came in first! Which shows that we all just have to keep plugging away and not give up.

AK:  You took a very different approach to your 2004 Adventure Series photographs, which explore various camp narratives through comic-book layouts. Is there significance to that style?

TM:  I love constructed scenarios, like old fashion displays and dioramas, and shooting with painted backdrops, props, and costumes. I also love the hard-edged, cut-out/cut-and-paste aesthetic of comics. I've always found comic strips erotic, in particular Archie, which I read as a kid. If you were to remove, say, the speech bubbles from a scene with Jughead and Betty, you could read the gestures between them as sexual. Similarly, in my Adventure Series, the storylines are open to multiple readings; but the colors are hot and bleeding.

AK:  The contact sheets for your 2005 Under the Sign of Scorpio series, where you portray 40 different celebrated women with the help of costumes and wigs, are spectacular, and your persona is totally transformed in the final composite photograph. How much magic — both from technical and spiritual realms — goes into making your work?

TM:  For Scorpio, I wanted to make a body of work inside my cramped New York apartment, where one's working studio begins the second you roll out of bed. With a digital camera and Photoshop, almost anything can be achieved.

I had to pray and meditate to summon the spirits of all the extraordinary Scorpio women I portrayed. At times, if only for a split second, I even felt I looked like them — it was spooky. Astrology is so out there, yet we all know deep down that elements of it are true.

AK:  There's a playful spirit expressed in your video collaborations with film editor Gary Hillberg, which use found film footage to explore social stereotypes. Lips (1999) shows subordinate black women sounding off; Artist (2000) reveals Hollywood's twisted view of art making; Love (2003) captures the various passions of relationships; and Doomed (2007) addresses current fears of impending disaster. All of these films handle their subjects from an ironic point of view; how important are humor and play to your life and work, and particularly to this series of films?

TM:  I like to think that I'm terribly funny. At parties, I hold court and keep people in stitches — this is so I don't have to talk seriously about my life, or about important things, as life can be shit.

But in regard to the film montages I make with Gary, I'm just reveling in the gorgeousness of cinema. Big-screen cinema is going away, never to be seen again, but how glorious is old-fashioned Hollywood melodrama?

AK:  Can you tell us about REVOLUTION, the new found-film montage you and Hillberg are showing in the 2008 Biennale of Sydney?

TM:  REVOLUTION shows scenes of royalty and aristocrats nervous and terrified because common folk are trying to break into their homes and kill them — basically, it's a film about rich people on the run. After the masses revolt and get rid of the upper classes, the land is in ruins, but the last sequences show the birth of a new plump royal baby — people are once again overcome by the royal grandeur of it all and begin bowing down again. So it all comes full circle.

AK:  The First Jobs photographic series, which you will show at Roslyn Oxley9 in Sydney in August, incorporates found imagery with some masterful Photoshop work for compositions resembling hand-colored postcards from another era. What does the series address?

TM:  First Jobs is about the early jobs I had as a teenager and young art student. I had some unforgettable jobs, such as peeling pineapples in the local cannery, packing meat, and selling aluminum siding, and so I found vintage photos of those places and matted myself back into the scene.

The series is just about life. Though some jobs can be hideous or banal, work is life, and it can be beautiful to work. I like thinking back on those jobs and the people I met and the camaraderie between us. A lot of us were students with big dreams, but life was so uncomplicated — I remember the joy of getting our paychecks and going out on the town together. Not like being a full-time artist and never knowing where your next buck is coming from. Though if I were forced to work back in a factory now, I'd slit my wrists.

AK:  Looking back at those jobs, it's clear you've come a long way. What is it that keeps you going?

TM:  Growing up in a working-class suburb of Australia only made me hungry to get out and experience the world. I have this nagging voice in my head, this need to try new things that won't let me relax. Nothing excites me more than trying to make something work — whether it's making an image "talk," or a film montage "speak." But I still buy old picture books, and I still watch movies. I follow all my obsessions — it's all I've ever done, and I don't think I'll ever change.

Tracey Moffatt and Gary Hillberg are exhibiting their new video REVOLUTION in the 2008 Biennale of Sydney through September 7. Moffatt's photo series First Jobs is on view at Sydney's Roslyn Oxley9 from August 21 to September 13. Two recent monographs — Tracey Moffatt: Between Dreams and Reality, published by Skira, and The Moving Images of Tracey Moffatt, published by Charta — celebrate the artist's work.

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