I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
It is not easy to get Tracey Moffatt to talk about the secret of her success. Nonetheless, evidence of her status as Australia’s hottest visual artist abounds. In 1995, she won a prize at the Kwangju Biennial in Korea: then came invitations to biennials in Venice and São Paulo, a residency at ArtPace in San Antonio, sell out shows throughout Europe, and most recently a one-woman exhibition at the Dia Center for the Arts in New York. Along with other prominent young artists working in photography and video these days, Moffatt creates images in real settings with “real people,” but the combination of artful composition and elusive referencing of cinema reconfigure that realism as an “effect of the real.” In her photographs, she returns over and over again to themes that evoke social and cultural complexities of rural Australian life, but she insists that her images aren’t just about the world she comes from or who she is.
I was actually most interested in talking to Tracey about how she does it. I had something of a hunch. Last year, during a visit I made to Sydney, Tracey invited me, along with several other friends, to her “little shack in the bush.” After an afternoon of champagne and dim sum in the garden, and a fire show by a bunch of circus performers in a graveyard, our very international troupe ended up in a 19th-century pub. There we hooked up with a local who sang us old Australian convict songs while banging on his drum—which he just happened to have under the table. Then, under the direction of Ms. Moffatt, all the guests launched into their own renditions of songs that expressed their cultural uniqueness, one by one. I remember watching as a museum director slapped his legs and chanted about the joys of life in the British Army, and realizing that only Tracey could have gotten us all to act so silly and enjoy it. She was beaming and giving orders throughout. The sign of a consummate director.
Coco Fusco Let’s talk about Up in the Sky. Last fall, when you were hanging the show at Dia, you mentioned that Lynne Cook arranged the photos vis á vis your direction in a purposely non-linear way so as to avoid a give-away narrative, and yet, the photos do suggest a story. Could you give as a sense of that story?
Tracey Moffatt In all the photo series I create, narratives happen, but they are always twisted narratives. In reality, the story lines are very simple. I work in clichés.
CF What were you thinking with Up in the Sky? What did you start with?
TM As an artist I never like to really pinpoint that. You kill a work when you say what it is.
CF You brought people, or rather characters, to that outback setting. Tell me the story of your process. Who were the people you chose? Why did you bring them there?
TM I was looking for a classic wasteland setting. There was nothing spectacular about that desert landscape or anything about it that was particularly Australian. I drove 16 hours from Sydney into the desert and during the drive, constructed a narrative. I was traveling across the countryside and would come across an abandoned house … I invented characters or spun a yarn around a location.
CF But did you chose to go to a particular town?
TM I’ve never wanted the series to read as a document of that particular town. Choosing a town on the edge of the Australian desert gave me a nowhere space. People here in America think it’s Texas, some Jewish people have thought that the images of the women on rusted cars with sledge hammers were of the Israeli Army. Those readings only come about when I don’t say exactly what things are.
CF Certain motifs can cue us in to key aspects of Australian history and culture, and to key themes appearing in Australian film and photography, such as rural poverty, and interracial unions. The Australian outback looks like the southwestern United States, so I can see the connection with Texas. But there is a tendency, in the writing I’ve read about the work, to identify the place as Australia.
TM I can’t control what critics think. I’m just telling you what my original idea was: I was looking for a nowhere space. Australia is multi-cultural and it is completely natural for me to represent that mixing of races. I’ve always done that without trying to make some grand statement about race.
CF Why nowhere?
TM Because I wanted the story to transcend what is literally there. Like the title, Up in the Sky, the story hovers above what you see. What are you seeing? A woman with a baby. Boys wrestling in the dirt …
CF You might say that that nowhere landscape is like a blank canvas. Though the landscape signifies nowhere to you, to me it seems to be chosen to represent stark bleakness.
TM That’s nice what you said, the blank canvas. I’ve always aspired to painting. In art school I failed at painting and drawing, and really got into image making because I’m hopeless with a paintbrush.
If I had wanted to pinpoint the location, I would have chosen a more spectacular landscape, there are far more spectacular landscapes in Australia. I could have shot it here in the Grand Canyon—if I wanted the place to evoke a sense of drama. There’s actually no drama in the landscape I chose. The drama’s in the faces of the people.
CF But the bleakness of the landscape seems to match the haggard look of the characters. Can you tell me who they are?
TM They’ve come out of my imagination. I dreamt them. Perhaps they’re coming from memory—things I’ve seen or an exaggerated version of things I think I’ve seen.
CF But what sort of people are they? I don’t see people like that in Sydney except on Oxford Street late at night when the drunks are out. Who is the really skinny man? Who is the mother?
TM Well, the mother is the girl in school, the one in class who matured early and got pregnant and left. We all know someone like that. I always have a look in mind when I cast people for my photographs. Some of those pictures are real, some of them are actually what I saw while there. It’s a combination of documentary and staged, and I like that you can’t quite tell what is what …
CF And why the choice of black and white?
TM I’m always looking to the past for inspiration, poring over old photography books and thinking of turn-of-the-century photography—Alfred Stieglitz and another wonderful photographer, Annie Brigman, who was part of the Californian Pictorialist group. Those pictures were printed with the platinum process, a very beautiful, romanticized photography before hard-edged modernist photography was invented. Like the Depression photography of Walker Evans or Dorothea Lange.
CF They are often mentioned in reference to your work.
TM Yes. Stieglitz was thought of as a romantic. Their approach was anti-documentary in a sense. They weren’t out to capture reality. The look of my pictures in the Dia show emulates that soft tone. I shot straight black and white but then I put a color through them in the offset printing process. It’s really a non-color; blue and then a golden brown.
CF Let’s go back to the story, I want to know why this woman got pregnant. Who is the child in the arms of the nuns? Why is that child being taken away? Why is this strange, seemingly deranged looking thin man wrestling on the ground?
TM The reading’s got to come from the viewer. The minute I say what the narrative is, I really believe it’s the end of an art work. I never say what it is.
CF What most critics refer to in discussing your work is the fact that Aboriginal children are taken away and put up for adoption or put in foster homes. In one of your photographs, it seems that the nuns are taking the baby away. It seems that the white woman has had a relationship with an Aboriginal man because she’s carrying a brown baby in her arms. You’ve touched upon that history and that interracial scenario so many times in your earlier photographic work, and in your films Night Cries and Bedevil. At this point, I feel you’re treating this scenario as an allegory of the formulation of a nation. It’s not just about anybody or just about Aboriginal genocide. It’s about how interracial unions and Aboriginal genocide are the structuring narratives of Australian identify.
TM That’s all great. You can write that—there are no wrong readings.
CF So then you would concede that this work is about Australia?
TM No. There could be other readings. As an artist you try to have more than one thing going on in the image. I am very careful with composition and gesture, hoping that the work can generate many readings.
CF What is the difference between what you can do with a composition in a photograph and what you’re able to do with composition in film?
TM With photography you’ve got to say it all in one image, so it’s a real challenge.
CF But you never show only one image. You always present sequences.
TM Yes, but it’s my hope that the images can stand alone, and that they don’t have to always be exhibited as a group.
CF Most of the photos in Up in the Sky point to the story of this woman and her child. There’s also a narrative linking the photos in Something More, from 1989, and another that holds together the images in your Guapas series from 1985. Wouldn’t you say that you’re using a filmmaker’s approach here?
TM Yes, sure.
CF Do you storyboard your shoots?
TM I storyboard everything. I work in a very organized, controlled way when I’m making the pictures. But when I’m in the middle of taking the pictures something else can happen so I’ve got to be open to change. The image I end up with isn’t always what I planned.
CF Give me a sense of how you prep a person who you will shoot. What do you tell them?
TM Shooting Up in the Sky really was a lot like a film shoot. My actors were people I found on the street. I also brought a camera assistant, a technician, hair and make-up, wardrobe, a caterer …
CF I want to know more of the intimate stuff. You approach somebody on the street and you say: “I like you, I want to use you for a photo shoot?” Tell me what the dialogue is like.
TM “You’ve got a great face and you’re nice and skinny. Will you wrestle with another boy in the dirt for me? And turn up at a certain time, or we’ll pick you up.” It’s as simple as that.
CF You found the skinny guy in Sydney?
TM I don’t want to reveal which pictures were set up and which were taken of what I saw. I don’t want to tell you.
CF What’s the difference?
TM Because that takes the mystery and magic away from the images. You can explain too much and once people know they’re not going to look anymore and the writing stops.
CF Have people stopped writing about Picasso or Rafael or Michelangelo?
TM It has to do with the images and the ideas coming from my unconscious. For me to get into that is so hard. Often I don’t know why I made an image.
CF You work with non-professionals. How do you get them to behave the way you want? I look at some of these pictures—like the one I’ve got in my hand now, where everybody’s in their bathrobe on the street as if somebody’s woken them up at five o’clock in the morning—and they’re all performing in unison. What did you say?
TM I’m just a really good director, darling.
CF Give me an example.
TM I work with actors exactly the way a film director works: Look a certain way, stand there, shift your arm, move to the background …
CF But that’s very mechanical. How do you get people enthusiastic if you just tell them to move their arm and stand over there?
TM I can rope people in. It’s sheer force of personality and enthusiasm and getting people excited about being in art.
CF Are you purposely seeking out those who wouldn’t otherwise have access? For someone who hasn’t been a professional model or actor, this becomes an opportunity to explore celebrity.
TM I just cast. I look for the right face.
CF What are the kinds of faces you’re looking for? The people in your photographs are not beautiful in a conventional sense. They have character, and they look like they belong in the place where you put them. You know how to create an effect of the real. What are you looking for?
TM A certain something that again is coming from my subconscious … or a memory.
CF So with Up in the Sky, did you go there first, pick the spot, and then come back and find the actors?
TM I went there, found the location and then I used local people. I couldn’t afford to bring in people from Sydney.
CF But the blonde mother looks like a woman in earlier work of yours. She’s not somebody you worked with before?
TM No, not at all.
CF Who is this blonde woman in your imagination who’s a bit frumpy, a bit overweight and a bit haggard, sort of young but who has seen a lot, and has affairs with Aboriginal guys? Who is she?
TM It must be someone that I know.
CF (laughter) Why? It could be somebody in your imagination.
TM She comes from somewhere and I’ve never bothered to analyze it.
CF Can you contemplate who she might be?
TM There’s something familiar in her for everyone. It’s my take on the familiar. The earlier series, Something More, you could read as being about escape. In a sense it might be semi-autobiographical. I use myself in the pictures.
CF You consistently have an array of tough women in your work. Your women are not femme. I’m going back as early as Nice Colored Girls. They’re not delicate, they’re not frail, they’re not …
CF You’ve got women who look like they spend a lot of time in bars.
CF I see these sorts of women characters in a lot of British, Australian and New Zealander work. Sure, you’ll find some super-femme type in some of Jane Campion’s films, but you also find a lot of very tough women … Hollywood film directors may work with stories of tough women but the actresses won’t look tough. Take As Good As It Gets with Helen Hunt. She’s supposed to be a waitress and she looks like a model.
TM I’m not from a bourgeois background, and perhaps that’s reflected in my work. It could be as simple as that.
CF I’ve read some essays about your work that suggest there is an ongoing exploration of female subjectivity that’s implied by this variety of women. I know that you don’t want to be viewed as somebody who has an agenda, but it seems to me that you are searching for unconventional female characters. You’ve got hookers in Nice Colored Girls; street brawling pseudo-roller-derby-types in Guapas; cigarette smoking, pregnant, tough women in Something More and in Up in the Sky. The women in Night Cries are really on the edge. It’s not about glamor, it’s about force. I suppose you could call some if these characters gender bending.
TM Those faces represent something that I know, that I must think I know. That’s probably coming, as I said, from a working class background.
CF But lots of artists have represented working-class people; artists who may or may not come from that background, who tend to romanticize them, who want to beautify them in some way.
TM I think they’re beautiful.
CF I would call them incredibly evocative, very powerful people. In that sense they have a different sort of beauty. Tell me about your version of beautiful. You want to make beautiful pictures, I know that, but you also want to make pictures about people. What do you want them to say?
TM There’s that line, “the landscape of the face,” which I think is really beautiful. The face was enough for me with these pictures, I didn’t need a spectacular landscape.
CF I don’t care if it doesn’t have really impressive mountains or rock formations, your landscape does signify. You don’t live in a place like that anymore and yet you return to these spaces, to that emptiness, to that void, to small town rural settings, and to people who certainly don’t look like the people who populate the art world in Sydney. I’m trying to figure out what it is about that world that interests you.
TM Literature often influences my work. I’m thinking of Southern American writers like Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, Carson McCullers in particular. Her stories remind me of where I come from. Queensland and the northern part of Australia is a very beautiful place, but also very redneck; a kind of paradise to grow up in, but you can’t wait to get the hell out.
CF Is it economically depressed there, or very backward, or …
CF People don’t change?
CF Life looks hard in these pictures. There are no rewards.
TM A lot of the people are looking up and out of it. They’re looking up at the sky, and away.
CF They often look at you. Are you a character here, and if so, who are you?
TM That’s interesting. They’re aware of me. I’m a presence.
CF And what did they say as individuals—as real people now—what did they say to you about your being there?
TM It was a great town to work in.
CF So Tracey Moffatt drives in her car from Sydney to this town 16 hours away, parks, gets out and goes to the local pub and starts chatting people up: “Hi, I’m a photographer from Sydney and I want to do a photo essay and I’m looking for people and would you like to be in the picture?” And everybody just goes, “Jolly good, I’ll do it”?
TM Yeah. Or they insult me. (laughter) I’m chasing people on the street, all the time. That’s the way I’ve always worked. Like I said, the ideas come from somewhere in me that I can’t describe and that means that I can’t describe it to them.
CF Many directors describe what’s going on in the story to get an actor to understand motive and all of that. Are you saying that for photography it’s not necessary for them to understand the motivational component?
TM No. For example, a series which I’m working on right now is very erotic. To get the actors to get this ecstatic erotic expression, I got them to do other things. I said, “Pretend you’re really high, like you’ve had the best cocaine of your life.” So—click—and it’s the same expression.
CF It’s the way you work with actors.
TM An interesting director would never tell an actor exactly what it is, they’d talk around it. It’s very hard for an actor to get to a certain spot. You have to use psychology to get to what you want. A bad director would explain exactly what the scene was and how you had to be. And most actors wouldn’t know where to start. A more interesting director would go somewhere else with an actor.
CF So how did you get your actors to look sad? How did you get them to look so mournful? I’m looking at a picture now where the pregnant woman is standing with someone by the side of a house and the really skinny guy is in the foreground with a chicken. What did you tell that guy to get him to make a face like that?
TM We were actually having a good time when we shot that image.
CF But they’re not laughing. They look very serious.
TM The guy in the foreground with the chicken could be read both ways. He could be ecstatic. Bergman’s films are so serious but apparently on the set they never stopped laughing, they cracked up all the time. Woody Allen, apparently, when he’s making his comedies is dead serious, he’s completely straight.
CF So you’re joking with these guys?
CF So who takes care of putting everything in order?
TM I use a production manager. I always create a space for myself where it’s just the actors and me.
CF How many days did you spend in this town?
TM I went there three times alone—three visits. And then I went back for two weeks to make the pictures.
CF And what sort of equipment did you work with?
TM A 6 × 7 centimeter Fuji camera. The camera is very simple, it has a lens that you can’t remove, it doesn’t even have a light meter. I don’t have any fancy equipment. I’m technically very stupid. I had a technician take the light meter readings. I don’t even know how to take a reading.
CF (laughter) Tracey, don’t pretend to be so dumb.
TM I’m not. I don’t know how to take a light reading. Not at all. I supervise. I don’t do a thing. I don’t even load the film, darling. Often I required extra light, so my technician would plug in the generator and throw more light on the subjects. It’s very hard when you work in the desert because you get extreme shadows and eyes become dark sockets. In photography class the first thing you learn is you must have a perfect black, a gray and a white. There’s got to be that range. But I was going for just a gray really, a tone. It had to be completely tonal so that you could see into the shadows. It is important to look into the shadows in these pictures.
In the end what worked was a very straight approach. I could have been more clever with the pictures as far as angles go, but there was no need for it. The straightforward quality was what worked.
CF Everything here seems pretty much eye level, tableau …
TM It’s very nice what you said about my presence, that I’m really a presence in the pictures …
Coco Fusco is a New York based writer and performance artist.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee