July 2016

by Julie Ewington

Tracey Moffatt’s ‘Laudanum and Other Works’
Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, until 4 September 2016

Laudanum 13 by Tracey Moffatt. Image courtesy of Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney

Tracey Moffatt is the mistress of the unexpected. Famous from the late 1980s for ambitious quasi-narrative photo suites and films that circle around Aboriginal life in more or less contemporary Australia, she has always refused pigeonholing as an “Aboriginal artist”. This concise, thoughtful selection from the AGNSW’s holdings, one of the regular solo shows in the photography gallery, highlights Moffatt’s preference for the unpredictable move.

Laudanum, a suite of 19 images in the archaic print medium of photogravure, was first shown in 1999. Its dreamlike claustrophobia evokes the drug’s use by Romantic poets like Coleridge – his Kubla Khan was famously inspired by the opiate. Set inside a grand historic house, Laudanum summons a nightmarish scenario of ambiguous relations between women who are variously mistress, servant and languid exoticised beauty. To underscore this internal drama, one shot of the mansion’s forbidding exterior recurs in three diptychs, paired with voyeuristic scenes of the psychic spectacles inside. These disjunctions are deliberate: the paired images originated in 19th-century stereoscopes, where two images melded into something like 3D. In Moffatt’s hands, though, reality is skewed.

The menacing atmosphere returns in Plantation (2009), originally commissioned for the 6th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art. This grand house, and its lush subtropical surrounds, could be located in the American South or in Moffatt’s home state of Queensland, or anywhere that power and beauty are unequal. The burning cane fields and the powerful shadowy man watching from the margins suggest Mandingo as much as Mackay, and this is purposeful: as a teenager in the 1970s, Moffatt read the Southern novelists, including greats such as William Faulkner and Eudora Welty.

Moffatt does know how to mix it up: the video montages Love (2003) and Other (2009), projected large to the evident delight of gallery visitors, bring her themes of desire and the exotic up to date. With an encyclopaedic knowledge of cinema and TV, she constructs sequences from “the opiate of the masses” Marx never knew. Moffatt shows “love” by turn sentimental, unrequited, vicious and violent, and fascination with “the other” in revealing plenitude – we are seduced into confronting cherished stereotypes.

Importantly, this knowing mischief is informed by Moffatt’s passionate examination of the opportunities and constraints of her own history, but her art has never been determined by her biography. In December, long after curator Judy Annear scheduled this show, Moffatt was announced as the artist for Australia’s pavilion at the 2017 Venice Biennale. Given that Moffatt is always playing with expectations, always evading them, her Venice exhibition is likely to surprise.

Julie Ewington

Julie Ewington is an independent writer, curator and broadcaster, now living in Sydney.

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