The Presence of Absence
Tracey Moffatt: My Horizon
57th Biennale di Venezia 2017
words & photos
There is nothing more magical or powerful than that instance when a work of art turns your world upside down. When preconceived perspectives on life, beliefs and personal philosophies are challenged and replaced by questions, doubts and alternate ways of looking and thinking. That is one of the reasons why every two years since 1895 art communities from all over the world go on pilgrimage to the Venice Biennali. This year’s pilgrimage, for most, also coincides with Documenta in Kassel, and the sculptures in Munster … a smorgasbord of aesthetics for seekers of truth, politics and beauty.
Paolo Baratta, President of the 57th Biennale of Venice, entitled Viva Arte Viva, states that most Biennali are places of research, where method is often the main raison d’etre of the offerings, and the outcome is to open dialogues between artists, and between artists and the public. But this year, it is also about encounters and a celebration of artists as initiators of worlds which expand our perspectives and our awareness of positive and negative spaces. The theme was proposed by Christine Macel, its curator, who, inspired by humanism and the process of journeying, sees the need to investigate a form of modern defiance of institutional domination and nationalism. Of 120 artists invited to the exhibition, 103 are participating here for the first time, many have never been embraced by established art institutions, and those who gained some degree of commercial and/or critical success went on to be forgotten, and rediscovered here. This year’s theme challenges assumptions and expectation, which attribute worth to one artist and oblivion to another. It challenges the right of institutional machines and their curatorial representatives to unashamedly promote some artists and exclude others based on personal biases, friendships and seasonal artistic trends. But most of all it celebrates the underdog, the lone wolf stuck in a studio, the ones history forgot. She is the artist who, no matter what, feels a compulsion to create, to comment on inequities, to rewrite social histories, to challenge authorities, often in isolation and poverty. She is the majority that privately and quietly celebrate their own presence in the world of art, in spite of its absence in societal institutions.
Although, Tracey Moffatt is by no means an unknown, unappreciated, or overlooked artist, her photographic investigations often deal with social inequities, the abuse of minorities in constructed histories, the disenfranchised, the marginalized and, yes, the forgotten. Her solo exhibition at the 57th Venice Biennale, in the Australian Pavilion, is this year’s Australia Council choice to represent Australia. The exhibition is curated by Natalie King.
For the Venice Biennale 2017 Moffatt has created two new photographic series – Body Remembers (derived from C. P. Cavafy poem) and Passage – as well as two videos – Vigil and The White Ghosts Sailed In. The title of this collection is My Horizon. Moffatt’s main body of work, a series of ten large, sepia photographs reminiscent of 50s vintage album snaps, are notable for their subtle minimalism and their subject’s anonymity. In her curatorial essay, Natalie King tells us that in this collection of works, the poetic and personal meld as we ponder how to look out beyond towards the unobtainable. She adds that the series is open expansive, and personal, inspired by Cavafy’s poem of the power of desire and passion and forbidden love. Although we infer that Moffat is the model, the woman’s face in the photographs is never in full view. In some cases, her face is hidden by a wall, in others she is shot from behind, or her presence is just implied by her bodiless shadow. Moffatt often draws on her own personal life and childhood memories in her work and here the photographs replace the selfies we have become accustomed to seeing on social media. These self portraits in shadow allude to the presence of the photographer, but also to her literal absence. The subject is the photographer, but she is also everywoman. Absence is not total erasure. Presence is also quiet participation. In her essence, and not her corporality, she becomes part of the earth from which she has emerged. It is an automatic blending of subject, object and creator, inviting the spectator in to complete the equation.
An indigenous woman in a western maid’s outfit revisits what appears to be the ruins of rooms which were once inhabited by her. King tells us that the maid is taking refuge within the ruinous intimacy of her mind. She may indeed be revisiting her personal journey, but the treatment, framing, colour and angles of the images seem to tell a broader story, one of a journey and the loss of a whole population who became invisible – allegorically, literally and physically – after Australia’s colonisation.
On an individual basis, the diaristic subject matter hints at personal nostalgia. Even the choice of title connects the photographs with the idea of lost and/or forbidden love, but the aesthetics and subtle tones of these sepia photographs, together with their large size, similar to Renaissance paintings, give a sense of depth and gravitas to what could have been just representations of past domestic life and servitude.
As a series, the photographs emanate a sense of loss. There is the reminiscence of lost time, but also the hint of a narrative which is more universal than individual, of invisibility of those in plain sight and the individual’s presence in a society which attributes little value to those that are judged as marginalized. There is enforced and imposed absence, of being made to feel excluded by xenophobic prejudices, the them and us mentality, of history’s ability to obliterate into insignificance whole populations of individuals, as if they had no worth, of bullying on a massive scale.
The positioning of these photographs in a horizontal line also leads to a possible interpretation of ambiguities. Is it a fictional narrative in film? On the charcoal background the photographs hung together resemble an old film strip, or analogue photograph negatives. They could be snippets of frozen moments in time, realities where the prime protagonist fades in and out of existence and by association becomes insignificant. Shadows replace bodies, bodies turn away from the spectator, feelings and emotions are visibly hidden or suppressed, words remain silent, endurance and suffering prevail.
On the opposite wall, Vigil, is a video construction/collage of asylum seekers on the Christmas Island boat wreck on 15th December 2010 and their tragic demise as onlookers, recognizable Hollywood icons and celebrities hidden or separated by a glass window, curtains, or shutters, look on in horror, unable or unwilling to assist. Moffatt’s genius in researching and referencing cinematic history and visual clichés creates a poignant collage of fantasy colliding with brutal and violent reality. It is an invitation to viewers not believe constructed and fictitious historical fantasies. It is a video about the dispossessed, reminiscent of another controversial Hollywood video construct Moffatt exhibited at the MCA a few Sydney Biennales ago, dealing with the equally challenging theme of domestic violence.
The line of sepia photographs lead the spectator’s eye to The White Ghosts Sailed In, a “documentation” of the horizon line just before Australia’s invasion in 1788. We hear, but not see, a community talking amongst themselves unaware of their impending doom. The absence of people, the absence of ships on the horizon, the scratchy sepia tones, create a believable fiction which is not specific, didactic or explicit, but its power comes from the felt and heard presence of the visibly absent.
In the centre of the pavilion are a set of twelve coloured photographs, Passage, a nostalgic and critical view of various protagonists as travellers in outback Australia reminiscent of the 40s and the social rebellion films of Marlon Brando, misfits and outcasts in the midday sun. Moffatt’s use of juxtaposing memories of Hollywood icons with scenes of violence is employed in a clever way of visually linking the superficiality of the city of dreams with the brutal reality of the world of inequality in which her protagonists barely function. There is poverty here and hints of abuse, and yet her photographs have a cinematic beauty and aesthetics all their own. They are the photographs closest to those of past works we have come to know and love, revealing Moffatt’s idiosyncratic and politically critical eye. They are powerful images, seeped in mysterious smoke or dust, with unconventional compositions and angles. They ooze atmosphere, light, heat, male dominance, female submission. They illustrate a macho world, which by association disempowers women.
Natalie King’s curatorial intelligence shines in this Australian offering. On first entering the Pavilion something seems wrong. The photographs are hung higher than at traditional eye level. They challenge our comfort zone, our acquired perspective of how a good photographic exhibition should look. But this exhibition is about horizons, oblique perspectives, challenging accepted histories and skewed realities. On further inspection, the sepia photographs are hung equidistant from the ceiling to the ground. They create their own horizon, their own perspectives. They demand to be viewed on their own terms. They lead the eye to the horizon line of the invasion “documentation” on film, The White Ghosts Sailed In on the adjacent wall. They challenge art conventions. They write their own histories.
King’s use of positive and negative space entices a type of spectatorial complicity in the photograph s subject matter and placement, especially the ten sepia ones discussed above. The walls are charcoal grey, similar to photo albums of the past, or museum documentation by white anthropologists of indigenous communities, as if they were detatched, scientific specimens without souls. As spectators we become part of the album. We are tiny voyeurs dwarfed by the large size of the photographs and the photographic pages of the album represented by the high walls.
As we walk from wall to wall we participate in a performance of shifting gazes, flickering from acknowledgement of the physical presence, even if only partial, of the female subject and wondering about her interior world, to acceptance of her anonymity and eventual absence in history and life, never being in quite the right position to read her face or her emotions and thoughts. The outcome of such a journey and performance, at times, totally erasing her physical body leaving behind only her essence in the form of a spirit-like shadow.
The result is a type of Romanticism of images and curatorial empathy and understanding, of blending of existences, narratives and histories, where nature and humanity share the same space, but also where constructed fictions and brutal realities create frictions and enigmas left intentionally for the viewer to question and resolve. Who creates the environments in which whole populations become invisible? Who decides the worth. or otherwise, of individuals to form hierarchies of importance, relevance or insignificance, often dictated by social positioning, master servant relationships, colonialisation, or on an individual level race, colour, gender or even age?
The Moffatt/King team presents a visually rich and cinematically beautiful aesthetics, with a sting. They entice the spectator into silent complicity though scale, colour and subject matter, provoking encounters with their audience, challenging them to question their own individual views of accepted histories, beliefs, perspectives and their relationship to physical and metaphorical spaces.
The success of this exhibition is that it opens up dialogues which are totally relevant in contemporary society, not just in Australia. The question of the individual’s presence in absence is a universal issue. It effects not only populations but also individuals on a gender, age, and cultural level. Subjugation of minorities by the powerful is as relevant today as it was in the days of the invasion. The treatment of refugees all over the world is of prime concern. Giving voice to those whom history has silenced should be a priority of all nations.
The exhibition in the Giardini finishes in November 2017.
Australia has been represented at the Venice Biennale since 1954, with Sidney Nolan, Russell Drysdale and William Dobell the first to exhibit. Since then thirty-seven Australian visual artists have exhibited, including Fiona Hall in 2015, who opened the New Pavilion designed by Melbourne architectural firm Denton Corker Marshall, replacing the temporary pavilion established in 1988. Eighty-eight countries exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 2015, and Australia is one of only twenty-nine countries to be granted a site in the historic Biennale Gardens.