Tracey Moffatt: Spirited

Tracey Moffatt, Australia b.1960 / Night spirits no.1 ‘Nunnery in red, by the orange tree in blue, desert in yellow’ (from ‘Spirit landscapes’ series) 2013 / Digital print mounted behind acrylic / Paul Eliadis Collection of Contemporary Art, Brisbane / © The artist

‘Spirited’ presents five photographic series and a video work from contemporary Australian artist Tracey Moffatt exploring relationships to place, alongside works selected by the artist from the Collection.

Born in Brisbane in 1960, Tracey Moffatt is a leading contemporary artist with a high international profile, whose work has featured in major survey exhibitions in North America, Australia and Europe. She has had a longstanding association with the Queensland Art Gallery, with major holdings in the Collection and works featured in the 2009 Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (APT6).

‘Tracey Moffatt: Spirited’ showcases her recent major body of work, ‘Spirit Landscapes’ 2013, completed since Moffatt moved back to Australia in 2010 after 12 years in New York. It comprises five photographic series and a moving image work, and each addresses aspects of relationship to place, delineating landscapes of the mind and spirit. Alongside these works, Moffatt has selected works from the QAGOMA Collection that are displayed in dialogue with her works, and which variously speak to a spiritual relationship to place.




‘Spirit Landscapes’ is an extended meditation on how we inhabit places and are inhabited by them. Moffatt’s ‘As I lay back on my ancestral land’ evokes a state of being where the quiet music of things in themselves becomes audible, when the noise of the self and the city dies down. Then it writes this state large and ecstatic: solarised outlines of leaf fringe and clouds zing in vibrant monochrome hues. Moffatt’s point-of-view landscape shots merge with superimposed floating images of her body to convey the experience of physically connecting with the land. The view from the ground of sky and trees is radical; photographic conventions favour the heroic tree portrait or the sweep of forest captured from above or yonder.

To move from New York to a Brisbane childhood’s ‘suburban landscapes’ — the title of another of her recent series — is to dive into the past and revisit the memories these places evoke. These childhood memories return coloured by the high-keyed emotions of first-time experiences. Moffatt speaks of how the stencilled, water crayon text over the works in this series acts like a semi-transparent veil of memory over the streets of her youth. What is remembered reflects a child’s fears and delights: the forbidden rush of stealing a chocolate bar; being pushed, terrified, against a wall by bullies; the act of throwing soft flower petals in the street, more remarkable than the squinting glimpse of a figure in a passing motorcade. A delicate beauty adheres to these prosaic streetscapes through their association with the bittersweet moments of personal history that unfolded there.

Moffatt finds beauty where it is least expected. In her collaged photographs from the ‘Picturesque Cherbourg’ series, bright flowers and white picket fences put a brave face on a traumatic history. The town of Cherbourg started as a mission and then became a government settlement in the early 1900s: Aboriginal people were transported there from all over Queensland and New South Wales after being forced off their land. ‘The old people don’t want to talk about it, like war veterans’, says Moffatt of members of her own family who were forced to live on the settlement. Yet, rather than photograph Cherbourg in black and white, or in the rain, to reflect its dark history, she chose to evoke the town’s complex fabric of pain and getting-on-with-it resilience in sun-saturated colour In her picture-postcard images, the collaged fractures and slippages only belatedly come into view.

In settler Australia, as is now extensively documented, the death and displacement of Aboriginal people everywhere attended the ‘opening up’ of land for European settlement. To create the photographs in her ‘Night Spirits’ triptychs, Moffatt drove alone at night along isolated roads in outback Queensland. She would stop the car and slowly and deliberately set up a camera while the small hairs rose on the back of her neck and a tingle of fear sharpened her senses. The resulting intense, luminous images show strange traces populating the night, suggesting some lingering residue of untold lives.

Screen grabs from classic Westerns show a woman gazing across the wide-open prairie with love in her eyes for the land and her man: Moffatt’s ‘Pioneer Dreaming’ series points to the consistent papering over and romanticisation of the occupation of Native American land. The photographic diptychs are hand-coloured in ochres that recall the attenuated tones of Albert Namatjira’s watercolour landscapes and the more recent canvases of Rover Thomas. The spare, abstracted beauty of the vistas, paired with each dreamy-eyed heroine, points to the power of the landscape and the elements to exceed pioneer zeal; Moffatt gestures beyond ideas of possession to leveling notions of awe and responsibility.

The relationship between sexual possession and the exploitation of the land is brought into focus in the work In and Out. A small digital frame shows a sequence of shaky stills, taken at night across a street, of figures at the door of a brothel in a mining town, their body language betraying an unwillingness to linger there on the threshold. The image of an immense open mine’s gem-like circular cut appears in counterpoint.

Each element in Moffatt’s major new body of work speaks differently to exploration of spirit and land, looking beyond instrumental relationships to other dimensions. The ‘Tracey Moffatt: Spirited’ exhibition also features works that the artist has selected from the Gallery’s Collection that play out her reflections on spiritual connections to place across different geographies and aesthetic histories. Additionally, the exhibition premieres a major new video work featuring Moffatt as an art-based talk-show host with attitude.

‘Tracey Moffatt: Spirited’ is at GOMA until 8 February 2015. An accompanying publication is available from the QAGOMA Store and online.

This project has been assisted by the Australian Government through the Australia Council for the Arts, its arts funding and advisory body.