Courtesy of the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery
Tracey Moffatt
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Tracey Moffatt’s Free Spirit

Published in The Saturday Paper

Artist Tracey Moffatt’s latest exhibition represents a homecoming for the one-time New York resident.

Tracey Moffatt has never enjoyed discussing her work. Throughout an esteemed career, spanning more than three decades, the filmmaker-turned-photographer has maintained the same stance: if she spells out what her art might mean, then she shuts off other interpretations. So the news that she had agreed to take part in public talks for her new exhibition, Spirited, which opened in October at Queensland’s Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA), was received with vague surprise.

Assistant director Simon Wright introduced her on stage. “Tracey’s arguably – I love that word… Bugger it, you are the most prominent Australian artist exhibiting nationally and internationally today. It’s true.” This is difficult to dispute: at 54 years old, Moffatt is a bona fide art star. She’s had more than 150 solo shows, exhibiting her work at landmarks from the Venice Biennale to New York’s Museum of Modern Art and Dia Art Foundation; her short film Night Cries (1989) and feature Bedevil (1993) premiered at Cannes. On the home front, a retrospective of her work at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art in 2003 trumped attendance records; the following year her breakthrough photography series Something More (1989) was sold at auction for $227,050, making them Australia’s most valuable photographs to go under the hammer.

Still, after 12 years abroad, residing in the heart of New York’s gallery district, Spirited represents something of a homecoming. Moffatt created this body of work after relocating back to Australia four years ago. What’s more, the series returns to the landscapes of both her ancestors and her childhood, in suburban Brisbane. The Moffatt siblings grew up in working-class Mount Gravatt East with an Irish-Australian foster mother; their Aboriginal birth mother would visit occasionally, but Moffatt has said in the past, “She wasn’t one for looking after kids.” Returning to these personal landscapes feels like something of a statement: Moffatt’s early period dealt explicitly with the politics of a divided heritage, but she’s since spent the intervening decades struggling to shake the mantle of black female artist.

Perhaps it’s because of her conflicted relationship with her birthplace that, in Australia at least, qualifiers such as Wright’s “arguably” always seem to accompany descriptions of Moffatt’s career. “I wanted to be read as an artist,” she says, “and I could only do it by getting out of this country; by not being confined to the basement of an art museum where they’re showing Aboriginal art.” She’s referring to her escape to New York in 1998. “I wanted my work up there with Rothko – not that I have been.”

Moffatt tells me this over lunch at GOMA Restaurant, where all of the dishes are inspired by artworks in the gallery’s collection. Moffatt has barely finished her train of thought when the waitress brings our dessert. Traditional custard has been trussed up to look like a dot painting: infused with wattle seed, spray-painted with Daintree chocolate, dabbed with fresh vanilla curd. Moffatt has insisted we share one after spying someone eating it as we came in.

The waitress explains the design. “As you can see that rippling is reminiscent of the Australian outback. You’re really lucky,” she says, pointing out a tiny imperfection in the chocolate’s surface. Apparently this is rare. “I had a lady come in who said that it reminds her of a little native animal who’s just jumped across the plate.”

Moffatt isn’t shy about tucking in. “Oh my God, it’s so fun to eat,” she exclaims. “Wow, they really invent here, don’t they?” With a sense of humour that’s just as dry in person as it is in her art, this is one of many times during our conversation that I can’t tell if she’s taking the piss. It’s only later I remember the scene in Bedevil where the women serve “bush cuisine” such as snake terrine with a walnut vinaigrette.

“Let’s divide it. That’s your half,” Moffatt says, carving a line across the chocolate topography with her spoon. “Go for it.”

Read more at The Saturday Paper.

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Lovers and Sons

[Published in The Lifted Brow, Issue #21 (The Sex Issue), February 2014]

AdorationPerhaps the worst kept secret in film history is what ‘Rosebud’ really signified for Orson Welles. Citizen Kane’s (1941) central enigma—the dying words of inscrutable newspaper magnate Charles Foster Kane—was in fact Welles’ pet name for mistress Marion Davies’ nethers. Is his magnum opus not an attempt to understand the Great Man after all, but rather one to solve the mystery of woman? As a term of endearment Rosebud is heavy with symbolism, saying much about abiding attitudes toward female sexuality. For if a woman’s sex is a flower, they surely share a life cycle too: bud, bloom, wilt, decay.

God help the desiring older woman in pop culture then. Gone are the days of sitcoms like The Golden Girls, that geriatric foursome who dealt with sex and senescence with mordant wit. Monica from Friends (played by a young Courtney Cox) always longed to be a mother, but now Cox herself has passed that milestone she’s relegated to Cougar Town. The first scene shows her looking despondently in the mirror, jiggling her sagging arms and poking her drooping belly. “What the hell is that?” she says, tugging at excess elbow skin. “It looks like a farm animal.” The best she can hope for is to become an apex predator like Stifler’s Mom (played by the balloon-breasted Jennifer Coolidge) from American Pie (1999), ridiculed but lusted after too, who brought the term MILF into everyday parlance.

Through this frame, perhaps the critical disdain heaped upon Anne Fontaine’s Adoration isn’t surprising. Made by a female director in her 50s, this is a film where older women desire actively and selfishly satiate their urges. What’s more, they do so in a way that transgresses the social contract. The objects of these women’s affections are not only barely legal. In this French/Australian coproduction adapted from Doris Lessing’s 2003 novella The Grandmothers, best friends Roz (Robin Wright) and Lil (Naomi Watts) are inseparable since childhood. They share everything, do everything together. Over the course of the film, this comes to include sexual relationships with each other’s sons…

Want to read more? Buy The Lifted Brow‘s sealed salacious seductive Sex Issue here.

Photo by Luis Enrique Ascui
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100 Story Building opening up levels of creativity

[Published in The Age, February 10 2014]

Photo by Luis Enrique AscuiLooking at the shopfront of 100 Story Building, a new centre for young writers in Footscray Mall, you’d never know that there’s a trapdoor to other worlds hidden inside – 99 of them, to be precise.

”You can’t find that many places like this around,” says Lachlann Carter, the centre’s co-founder and program director. ”We haven’t been down to every single level, so we’re still not sure exactly what happens down there.”

On this particular morning, workshop participants clued Carter in on the ocean that roils just beneath his feet on level 99 – home to a ”big fat fish” that gobbles up orcas and sharks like they’re plankton – and the monks from Jupiter whose spaceship crash-landed on level 18. ”Apparently they’re not very friendly.”

The trapdoor is a portal to imaginative infinities for the many kids from Melbourne’s western suburbs who’ve visited 100 Story Building since the centre opened in September. Here Carter runs workshops to kick-start the creative process and enhance literacy, as do the authors, editors and publishers who come in to collaborate with school-aged storytellers.

One of the first programs in this year’s calendar is the Level 87 Book Club, which will be held every Monday after school. Each week a different children’s author will share some of their favourite reads. The club kicked off last week with Andy Griffiths, the mastermind behind The Day My Bum Went Psycho, to be followed by Michael Pryor on February 10 and Sally Rippin (one of the centre’s ambassadors, alongside Alice Pung) on March 10.

Griffiths says reading and writing can initiate a process of self-discovery. ”It’s a kind of therapy that’s available to everyone … Some of the less empowered people in our community can benefit the most from these types of workshops.”

The idea for the centre took seed when Carter and his partner, co-founder Jenna Williams, saw American writer Dave Eggers speak at the Melbourne Writers Festival in 2007. Eggers started a similar initiative in San Francisco, 826 Valencia, where the couple interned soon after.

After studying to be a primary school teacher and doing relief work in the western suburbs, Carter saw the barriers to literacy that kids in the ethnically diverse region were coming up against.

”For a lot of the children we work with, English might be their second, maybe their third or fourth language,” says Carter. But when kids don’t get a chance to become proficient in their first language, they will invariably struggle to become fluent in the new one – one of many problems faced by time and resource-poor teachers whose main goal is English proficiency.

While some of programs at 100 Story Building bring kids and parents together to share stories, others use more visual mediums such as film or comics that teach kids to craft narratives without the hurdle of written language. ”They can create a hugely sophisticated story without writing one word.”

Young storytellers are also taught the importance of revision and refinement, often working towards publication or joining the shelves of the centre’s library. ”They know that their story is published, not because they’re kids, but because they put in the hard yards and their story is worth being published now. That is a powerful, powerful thing.”

With more than 1000 children going through 100 Story Building’s programs in 2013 – they aim to increase that to 3000 a year – Carter and the team’s passion seems boundless.

”I just get huge joy collaborating with kids on creating stories,” he says. ”I can get lost in the worlds they create, and that’s really fun.”