Evoking tantalising, open-ended narratives, My Horizon comprises two new series of large-scale photographs, Body Remembers and Passage, and two new video works, Vigil and The White Ghosts Sailed In, which use carefully constructed scenarios while drawing upon inspirations as diverse as television news reports, poetry, Surrealist painting, documentary photography, Hollywood cinema and the artist’s personal memories.
“My fictional characters are seen to gaze out to the horizon line, possibly dreaming of escape, or reflecting on their memories, said Moffatt. “The title My Horizon can be interpreted as wanting to see beyond where one is: to have vision, to project out, to exist in the realm of one’s imagination, or to want to go beyond one’s limitations. There are times in life when we can all see what is ‘coming over the horizon,’ and those are the moments when we either make a move or do nothing and wait for whatever it is to arrive.”
Curator for the Australian Pavilion in 2017, Natalie King said that Tracey Moffatt’s new work sits somewhere between fiction and history, and is redolent with imaginative narratives as she works across photography, film and video in highly staged photo dramas.
“Tracey’s carefully constructed scenarios and vignettes are melodramatic and resonate with references to film, art and the epic history of photography, as well as aspects of her own family history,” said King. “Journeys and arrivals, occupation and dispossession, colonisation and massacres, loss and longing are alluded to in her choreographed cast of characters. My Horizon is capacious, open, expansive and personal.”
The works featured in the exhibition include: Body Remembers (digital pigment prints on rag paper 162 x 244 cm) – a suite of 10 free-floating photographs that evoke the lives of generations of women who have undertaken domestic and emotional labour. Staged in a remote desolate location, the photographs depict a woman, played by Moffatt herself, with upswept, 1950s-style hair and a black-and-white maid’s dress. She haunts the inside of a rustic house and its surrounding rough-hewn ruins.
“We don’t know if my maid character projects her life into the future, where the house she works in has become a ruin,” said Moffatt. “Or is it that my maid character returns to the ruin to relive a strong memory, perhaps of someone she knew in the house?”
With their ochre hues on rag paper, the photographs reference vintage sepia photographs and early Surrealist cinema. These large-scale works also suggest mural frescoes. Suspended in time and place, the dream-like, distilled images recall a history that for Moffatt is at once personal and universal. The narrative could also be staged in other countries with abandoned stone ruins such as North Africa, Mexico, the Middle East, Spain or Italy.
Passage (C prints on glossy paper 105.5 x 156cm) – a suite of 12 vivid large-scale photographs staged in raking late-afternoon sun or at twilight in a mysterious port. The composition is atmospheric and strongly reminiscent of film noir, while the painterly colour and omnipresent haze achieve a Turneresque effect.
The cast of characters – a mother, a baby, a policeman with a motorcycle and a slim, sharply dressed, cigarette-smoking character whom Moffatt calls ‘the middleman’ – act out a story of furtive encounters in a deserted port.
“I wanted the 40s-era, film-noir-images to read as being ‘of the past,’ but the storyline speaks about what is happening in the world today, with asylum seekers crossing borders,” said Moffatt. “Passage is a story as old as time itself. People throughout history and across cultures have always escaped across borders to seek new lives.”
A two-minute video, Vigil is the most recent montage in Moffatt’s ongoing series of riffs on cinematic imagery. It is inspired by the profound shock the artist felt at seeing television news coverage of the December 2010 drowning of dozens of asylum seekers, whose boat ran aground in rough seas off the coast of Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean.
Set to a foreboding soundtrack, Vigil juxtaposes two radically different kinds of imagery: news footage of dilapidated boats that overflow with dark-skinned refugees, and movie close-ups of white Hollywood actors – Elizabeth Taylor, Kathleen Turner, Julie Christie, Donald Sutherland – who are shown staring through windows. Moffatt has intensified the blood-like hue of the sea, accentuating the sense of carnage.
The White Ghosts Sailed In is also a two-minute-long video newly created by Moffatt for the Australian Pavilion. The artist claims that she recently discovered a fragment of old nitrate film in the vault of a former Aboriginal Mission in the centre of Sydney.
The footage, as Moffatt recounts, was recorded by Indigenous people using an early film camera that had been discarded by a member of Captain Cook’s crew. The film was allegedly taken on January 26, 1788: the day when English colonists of the First Fleet sailed into Sydney harbour to begin the settlement of Australia.
The White Ghosts Sailed In is a panoramic view of the entrance to Sydney Harbour. The degraded film is layered with ‘ghosts’ and decay reminiscent of old nitrate films. Projected onto the battered planks of an old Georgian picture frame, the moving image has a brooding, dark hue. The accompanying soundtrack features the sounds of a British military drumbeat, a howling wind and a baby’s cry.
“My Horizon is an exceptional experience, created with dedication, focus, discipline and a ferocious commitment by one of Australia’s most successful artists,” says Naomi Milgrom AO, Australian Commissioner for the 2017 Venice Biennale. “Tracey Moffatt has transformed and activated the Australian Pavilion with her poignant narratives, which position desperate human journeys, border crossings and belonging as global concerns independent of a particular time or place.”
My Horizon is on display in the Australian Pavilion at the 2017 Venice Biennale until 26 November 2017. For more information, visit: www.australiacouncil.gov.au for details.
Image: Tracey Moffatt in front of her exhibition, My Horizon at the Venice Biennale – photo by John Gollings