Allegorical Australia

Hamza Walker, 1998

Although Britain granted Australia its status as a self-governing commonwealth in 1901, it was not until 1913 that Australia’s young parliament could agree upon a site and a name for its capital. Canberra, a designation used by the native aboriginals in referring to the chosen site, was a surprisingly sober pick in relation to names such as Paradise, Wheatwoolgold, Kookaburra, Eucalypta, Greatstirringburough, Thirstyville, Cooee Commons, Sydbourne and Shakespeare, all of which were responses to a contest run by a Sydney newspaper. This humorous mixture of names, from the overtly anglophile to the staunchly regionalist, however, reveals the paradoxical nature of Australian nationalism which was inextricably bound to British imperialism. On the one hand, Australian nationalism is characterized by its belief in a distinct culture rooted in the frontier myths of its untamed landscape, the bush-the home of its native aboriginal population and exotic animals like the emu, koala bear, platypus, and kangaroo. On the other hand, the pride that would bolster a national consciousness was derived from Australia’s sense of place within the British Empire. The young nation thought of itself as a loyal outpost of British civilization, proud to serve as a ‘farm to the empire.’ Paradoxically, Australian nationalism was defined not by its resistance but its acquiescence to the goals of empire. Australia’s political autonomy was an extension of the social, cultural, economic and military ties it had established with Britain-ties which had grown increasingly secure over the century between the arrival of the first white settlers in 1788 and the dawn of an Australian republicanism in the late 19th century. But Australia’s bid to forge a nation within the constraints imperialism came at a precarious moment. Canberra, its capital, was founded on the eve of World War 1. In short, Australia’s identity emerged in the midst of a waning British Empire.

Using film, photo and video, Tracey Moffatt has created a body of work, which serves as an allegorical Australia. Based on Moffatt’s work, the aspirations of a waning British Empire were never fully reconciled with Australia’s complex colonial history. Free-Falling, Moffatt’s museum debut, consists of four bodies of work she has produced over the past decade. Two of these works, Heaven, a 28 minute video in which Moffatt shamelessly plays voyeur to a succession of surfers changing into their wetsuits in parking lots, and Up In the Sky, a twenty-five part photo-tableau executed in the rural Australian outback, were commissioned specifically for this exhibition. These new works are accompanied by a short 1989 film entitled Night Cries: A Rural Tragedy-a highly subjective, psychological sketch of futility, longing, desperation and loss experienced by an aboriginal woman trapped by her obligation to care for her aging white mother-and GUAPA (Good Looking), a 1995 suite of soft-focus monochrome photographs re-enacting the rough and tumble exploits of bruised and battle-scarred rollerderby divas.

Allegory is often criticized for its role in the construction of myth and reducing history to fable. Part of the reason allegory has been considered a problem for artists and critics throughout the ages is that its status varies depending upon whether it is understood as a distinct literary form or as a way of reading. As a literary form, its status is akin to that of the fable, a symbolically over determined narrative having little to do with reality. However, as a way of reading that demands a narrative be interpreted as something other than what is presented at ‘face-value’ allegory is a complex form of representation that obstinately places fiction at the service of fact. In this respect, allegory is the great divide between artists who see themselves as reality’s faithful servant and those who consider their job the distillation and deploying of myth. But at a moment when fact and fiction are equally mediated constructs, allegory cannot be said to give either precedent. If a single medium were given credit for rendering allegory an ambivalent mediator between fact and fiction, it would be photography.

Rather than refer directly to life, much of Moffatt’s work draws from cinema. Born in 1960 and currently a resident of Sydney, Moffatt belongs to a Generation of artist for whom an interest in cinematic narrative conventions is a given. Although her use of staged photography invites comparisons with a host of contemporary artists (Sharon Lockhart, Cindy Sherman, Jeff Wall, Carrie Mae Weems) Moffatt’s work is distinguished by its complex weave of the subjective and the social. Unlike most of the artists with whom she is compared, Moffatt is as well versed in documentary filmmaking as she is staged photography. In fact, two of her earliest works were three-hour documentaries produced for Australian Television. Whereas many photo-based artists of the last two decades have been respectful of the boundaries between a documentary/photo-journalist based practice and a staged/fictionalized art practice, Moffatt’s work strives for the fragmentary feeling of an elaborate dream in which it is hard to determine if her strains of the bizarre are any less accurate a reflection of an Australia that lends itself to allegories ranging from Old Testament fatalism to New World encounters with otherness. Whether the formal strategies she uses openly signify artifice, as in the highly saturated colors of Night Cries, or memory, as in the faded monochromatic hues of Up In the Sky, Moffatt’s provocative narratives are stranger than fiction and more than truth.

Photographed near Broken Hill in the rural Australian Outback, Up In the Sky, is an epic narrative conveyed in twenty live still photographs. The series is dramatic, psychological, and symbolic all at once and is the work, which most directly refers to the flavor of Australia’s colonial legacy. The vignettes are simultaneously strange and familiar, social and subjective. Mother and child, civilization and its depraved discontents, Cain and Abel, a shallow grave, sinister nuns doubling as remnants of an older New World Order, the breakers yard, and still no burning bush-Up In the Sky follows the logic of a dream infected with reference to an Australia mediated through popular films such as Mad Max, and images of freakish alienation captured in Diane Arbus’ photographs. The occasional signs of progress-a Range Rover, a cement buttress-are references to a transient civilization that abandoned the frontier leaving only a sense of struggle and desperation in the wake of its withdrawal.

Up In the Sky actually echoes many of the themes in Moffatt’s film Night Cries: A Rural Tragedy which is given over almost exclusively to the relationship between a mother and daughter. Although it was shot entirely on an indoor stage, Night Cries is made to look as though it is set in the Australian Outback. Underlying the sense of loneliness and despair of the daughter left to care for her aging mother is a sense of Calvinist fatalism. This is echoed in the film’s soundtrack Royal Telephone, which is sung by an Aboriginal crooner who serves as an archetype of the missionaries’ success in selling Christianity to the native population.

If Night Cries and Up in the Sky can be considered allegories of struggle and frontier regression then GUAPA and Heaven are allegories of desire and female Aggression. Three years prior Rollerderby’s current success, Moffatt revived it in the form of a nightmarish, racialized, femmebrawl that tapped into the sport’s symbolic potential. As a working class spectacle, Rollerderby serves as a fantasy for violent struggles taking place at the bottom of the class ladder. The suite of nine photos progresses from a series of brutal push and pull confrontations, one of which is mediated by a paternal referee, to a calm group photo in which order appears to be restored as the skaters glide in unison. The three gashes which run down the cheek of the blonde, lead skater, however, are still a gory reminder of havoc perhaps instigated by simple petty jealousy, suggest by the title ‘Good Looking’.

Heaven is Moffatt’s tribute to both the female gaze and amateur video. Moffatt gave several of her friends video cameras and asked them to shoot footage of surfers changing into their wet-suits. She then compiled the footage, which follows a very simple structure. The takes go from long shots, to medium shots and finally to a series of direct confrontations with surfers who are often all too glad to crack perform for the camera. Whereas Degas described his paintings of bathers as reflecting the joy experienced by a boy peaking through the keyhole, one century later, Moffatt is able to reverse fortunes and dispense with the door. Clearly, Mel Gibson is one out of many.