Australian artist Tracey Moffatt’s career is studded with firsts — from her breakthrough photo series, Something More 1989, the experimental short film Night Cries: A Rural Tragedy 1990, followed by her first feature beDevil 1993 (both selected for the Cannes Film Festival), to her first solo exhibition in New York City at the prestigious Dia Center for the Arts in 1997, her first retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney in 2003, and representing Australia at the Biennale of Venice in 2017. In between, she has exhibited all over Australia and the world.
The cleverness of Moffatt’s art lies in her apparently straightforward reflection of society and individuals — the hopes, fears, amusements, failures, rather than necessarily taking issue with the issues. This inclusive and transcendent aspect to her work is both deadly serious and, often, deeply ironic. Seemingly accidental collisions of information encourage our recognition of the many and various layers of human experience, and this is compelling. The work tends to not be evacuated of meaning over time because it often triggers a complex emotional response which retains currency precisely because of the intricacy of what we see. Further, there is the realisation that the material Moffatt works with has often been hiding in plain sight.
So it is with Body Remembers 2017. On the surface, this large-scale ten-part series shows a woman impeccably dressed as a maid. She is turned away from the camera and us. We see what she sees. The woman is variously inside looking toward a window, or in and around a ruined stone house, her shadow as much as her body is present. The surrounding landscape is arid, the light unremitting. Is the shadow the trace of a ghost, no longer attached to a living body? Has the woman physically returned to a place where she once worked as a maid, or are these dream images — a psychic return?
Moffatt has noted that her mother and her grandmother were in service, and that her forebears laboured at the remote and now derelict Mt Moffatt cattle station in Queensland from around 1910.1
Body Remembers was part of the exhibition Tracey Moffatt: My Horizon which was shown to much acclaim in the Australian Pavilion at the Biennale of Venice 2017. In the exhibition catalogue there is reference to Greek writer C. P. Cavafy’s poem Body, Remember 1918 — ‘Body, remember not only how much you were loved/not only the beds you lay on/but also those desires glowing openly/in eyes that looked at you/trembling for you in voices …’.2 Our eyes become those that scan this landscape, this house, this maid’s back, her neck and carefully coiffed hair. Touch is alive in all images in this series whether the texture of the ruins, the stony ground, or the maid’s hands themselves.
The woman’s hands touch her neck, adjust her prim lace collar. Is she remembering pleasure, pain, or both? Moffatt has worked with such ambiguities in many of her series — for example, Laudanum 1999 where the maid is tormented by the lady of the house, Something More 1989 where the young woman who wishes for freedom is lashed by a motorcyclist, and any number of her and Gary Hillberg’s video montages, most especially Love 2003, where the transition from romance to desperation and violence in the name of love is perhaps more shattering than any documentary.
In Body Remembers the maid, played by Moffatt, is older. Her hair, we can see, is streaked with grey. But still she remembers — her youth? her servitude? her home? her country? her love? her fear? all of these? As Italian art historian Germano Celant has written:
In [Moffatt’s] work, the connections between her own figure – a constant of her performances, often appearing in her films and photographs – and the multifarious interpretations of her account permit reflections on and analyses of ourselves and others … In Moffatt’s narratives, poised between the personal and the universal, the secret plays an essential role.3
That secret is not something engineered but to do with the uncanny residues of history and the self, and how we are haunted by them. This edge in Moffatt’s work differentiates her from a clear-cut socio-political understanding, not least as her work is often as much melodrama as melancholy. As an indigenous Australian, Moffatt has consistently refused to be pigeonholed though her work is inevitably inflected by her origins. In her extensive travels she has been seen as part of many different social and racial groups despite or perhaps because of her uncertain colonial heritage and parentage. British filmmaker and artist Isaac Julien has observed of Moffatt, ‘Opening the grave, freeing the ghosts whose presence haunts the living, is not only essential to understanding, it is also an essential part of her art.’4
1. Moffatt, T., Tracey Moffatt: My Horizon, Australia Council for the Arts, Sydney and Thames & Hudson, Melbourne, 2017, p.13. See also Mundine, D., ‘In Praise of Shadows and Otherness,’ ibid, p.20
2. Cavafy, C., ‘Body, Remember,’ quoted in Tracey Moffatt: My Horizon, p.24
3. Celant, G., ‘Emigration of identity,’ quoted in Tracey Moffatt: My Horizon, p.78
4. Julien, I. & Nash, M., ‘Only Angels have Wings,’ Tracey Moffatt: Free-falling, Dia Center for the Arts, New York, 1998, p.20
Judy Annear is Honorary Fellow at the University of Melbourne School of Culture & Communication. She has written extensively on Tracey Moffatt’s work including for the 2017 Venice Biennale catalogue, Tracey Moffatt: My Horizon.