Tracey Moffatt at 2017 Venice Biennale

Tracey Moffatt’s exhibition in Venice

I still admire Tracey Moffatt’s early series of photographs and films. They have stood the test of time and are viewed today as being successful artworks.

Following those successes came more recent works of screen prints and other mixed media. I was not alone in thinking that they were not so successful. And I did not consider that Tracey Moffatt should have continued to been seen as a photographic artists. Like so many others, she had moved into the more populist practice of ‘contemporary art’ (whatever that is).

Despite this slide, she benefitted from the publicity and marketing spin of galleries and by the frequent exhibitions in public art galleries of these later works alongside the earlier successful series.

Alas Tracey Moffatt’s reputation was sustained. She was viewed as an important artist but with a cloud of doubt about her future.

Then came the opportunity to be the official artist to the Venice Biennale in May 2017. She was commissioned to produce a new body of work.

Anyone who knew her work well wondered what impact this new work would have…. Would she return to photography or would she be swayed by the market driven moves to be a ‘contemporary artist’ not bound by any medium.


Here’s the Australia Council’s learned words:

Tracey Moffatt MY HORIZON 

The Australian Pavilion at the Biennale Arte 2017 is proud to present MY HORIZON, a solo exhibition by by Tracey Moffatt at the Venice Biennale. Evoking tantalising, open-ended narratives, MY HORIZON comprises two new series of large-scale photographs, Body Remembers and Passage, and two new video works, Vigiland 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.

It is worth reading John MacDonald’s comments on Tracey Moffatt – here’s it in the Financial Times

if that link does not work here’s the same text on John’s own site.


Following the opening at Venice came a first review by The Guardian’s Adrian Searle. He was positive and allocated a rating of 3 out of 5.

Here’s a link to images taken by John Gollings of the Tracey Moffatt’s exhibition – click here.

The exhibition looks good. I wish I was paid to go and have a look alongside the many who were. This ‘Venice’ thing sure does cost a lot of money – which is a little rough when arts budgets are generally being squeezed and cut. Has its success ever been independently assessed?

Here’s a selection of images taken from the official biennale site: (with more reviews below)

MY HORIZON: Body Remembers Series

1.  Spirit House


3. Touch


4. Rock Shadow


5. Bedroom


6. Weep


7.  Shadow Dream


MY HORIZON: Passage Series

1. Mother & Baby

3. Hell

4. Window and Man

5. Tug

8. Mad Captain

11. Indian

12. Cop and Baby


MY HORIZON: The White Ghosts Sailed In

Frame with Ghost Stills #1

Frame with Ghost Stills #3

Frame with Ghost Stills #7


My reaction? Very early Tracey Moffatt.

It is great to see her producing the tableaux photographs again. While she has been constantly listed as a contemporary photographic artist, I had been coming to the conclusion that she had ventured into other media and was not necessarily any longer to be regarded as a photography artist.

However having seen a few of the new works online – I think she is back to making some engaging artwork again – possibly.

I am making this judgement based on seeing online images of her work – the truth has to be that I need to wait to see them on a wall somewhere sometime soon – I hope.

A thought. The Venice Biennale exhibition is a national exhibition whereby Australia showcases an Australian artist to the world.

The next logical step should be that following the exhibition in Venice that the exhibition, and every Venice Biennale exhibition, should be automatically shown at the National Gallery in Canberra.

Is that too logical an initiative for the NGA?


Here’s a review by John MacDonald in the Fairfax Press.

and for more – although it is a long piece with many tangents – here’s a review written in the online Daily Review.

The judgement call from several sources is that the new works are not a new direction- but that may not necessarily be a bad thing.

Any artist that accepts a seriously heavy commission is always going to be challenged – as you now have a commissioning agent to satisfy rather than being an artist totally free to express a totally independent view through your art practice.

In the years since her early work, many other photographic artists have moved into the space she occupied and are producing works similar or better. Based on seeing Tracey Moffatt’s work as seen online (admit I need to see them in the flesh) – it seems she has revisited themes with a dose of contemporary issues (eg migrants).

I suspect Adrian Searle’s judgement in his article is close to the mark. I have heard others rate it about the same – being 3/5 or maybe 3.5/5


an if you want more I have taken the following from the Australia Council’s own site:

BODY REMEMBERS (digital pigment prints on rag paper 162 x 244 cm)
Body Remembers is 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,” Ms Moffatt said. “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)
Passage is 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. In the opening photograph, Mother and Baby, the young mother enveloped in yellow fog nurses a squirming baby and points to the horizon – perhaps representing the baby’s future, with or without her. In Tug, the policeman stands in the foreground either preventing the young mother’s escape or assisting her. Later, in Cop and Baby, the policeman holds the child in a heroic stance – raising the question, is he a saviour or a snatcher?

“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,” Ms Moffatt said. “Passage is a story as old as time itself. People throughout history and across cultures have always escaped across borders to seek new lives.”

In Passage, Moffatt alludes to the current global crisis of displacement and its impact on the human condition. We are reminded of mass human movement across borders and terrain: the timeless narrative of forced migration.

VIGIL (digital video with sound, 2 minutes)
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.

Moffatt has spoken of how the misery of migrants and refugees often becomes a spectacle for the television and movie audience, “white people gawking at desperate poor brown people in boats.” The cut-out graphics of Vigil highlight the crisis of refugees and migrants, but they can also be read, Moffatt said, as “a blatant commentary on ‘race.’ There is nothing subtle in the editing and construction of Vigil.”

THE WHITE GHOSTS SAILED IN (digital video with sound, 2 minutes)
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.



Tracey Moffatt (b. 1960, Brisbane, Australia) studied visual communications at the Queensland College of Art.

Since her first solo exhibition at the Australian Centre for Photography in Sydney in 1989, Moffatt has exhibited extensively in museums all over the world. She first gained significant critical acclaim when her short film Night Cries: A Rural Tragedy was selected for official competition at the 1990 Cannes Film Festival.

Her first feature film, beDevil, was also selected for Cannes in 1993. In 1997, she was invited to exhibit in the Aperto section of the Venice Biennale.

A major exhibition of Moffatt’s work – Tracey Moffatt: Free-Falling – was later held at the Dia Center for the Arts in New York in 1997–98, consolidating her international reputation.

Moffatt is the recipient of numerous honours and awards, and her work is held in major international collections across the Asia Pacific, North America, Europe and Scandinavia.

Major survey exhibitions of Moffatt’s work have been held at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney (2003–4), the Hasselblad Centre in Göteburg, Sweden (2004), the Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide (2011), the Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane (2014) and the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney (2016).

In 2006, she had her first retrospective exhibition Tracey Moffatt: Between Dreams and Reality in Italy, at Spazio Oberdan, Milan. In 2007 a major monograph, The Moving Images of Tracey Moffatt by Catherine Summerhayes, was published by Charta Publishers, Milan. A solo survey exhibition featuring all seven video montage works at the Museum of Modern Art, New York opened in May 2012.

In 2016, Christine Macel curated Moffatt’s montage film Love in Prospectif Cinéma at the Centre Pompidou, Paris. She has been selected for the Biennales of Gwangju, Prague, São Paulo, Sharjah, Singapore and Sydney.



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