Toronto-based painter David Morrow viewed Tracey Moffat’s Heaven for the first time at Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery in Sydney last winter. During that viewing – despite the tape’s seriously crafted construction and its dead-on address of many contemporary art issues – it was really Heaven’s surface charms that provided its immediate appeal, inspiring a fellow viewer to the pronouncement that provides the title below. But, as his reflections on Moffat’s most recent work make clear, art was never in question.
In Heaven, Tracey Moffat slyly shifts the line dividing polite voyeur and invasive provocateur. The videotape opens with the image of shimmering ocean surf off Sydney’s Manly and Bondi beaches. It then cuts to an interior view of a beachside cabin. The shot moves in on the window, revealing a balcony, the ocean view and a seaside parking lot below where surfers are changing out of (or into) speedos, wet-suits and jams. From the borrowed vantage point of a friend’s cabin, Moffat’s looking seems innocent-enough fun – an innocence echoed in the towels that these well-built men modestly wrap about their waists while changing. Strangely delicate colours and somewhat absurd motifs seem to indicate that some, if not all, of these existential heroes still get their towels from mom. Flowers, dolphins, palm trees and patterns reminiscent of 50s tea towels are abstracted and contorted by the movements necessary in removing or putting on appropriate clothing. At times, the towels seem destined to sail off as winds rise up off the beach. Watching the surfers struggle with the triad of clothes, towels and modesty, we anticipate the possibilities with glee from our comfortable and concealed view of the parking lot.
Moffat then takes her camera down and out onto the beach itself, in full view of her intended prey. At first the boys seem oblivious to Moffat’s presence or, more to the point, they feign indifference as they vainly preen: proudly strutting, flaring feathers, in control.
Ten minutes into the video, the mood begins to shift. We move in closer. Their lips are moving. She seems to be talking with the surf cowboys, but we can’t hear what they are saying. There is no sync sound. The soundtrack of surf, drums and tibetan chants seems enhanced. Moffat’s headon interaction with the surfer boys proceeds. They have been successfully stripped of their voices and she moves in for the kill. Looks of confusion begin to appear; their responses become more apprehensive as suspicion of this videographer’s full intentions to dawn on these beautiful faces. As the camera falls more predominantly on the surfer’s privates, some of the guys are more than willing to moon and flash for Moffat’s camera. Others are not so thrilled with the idea. They scurry into hot-rods to try to conceal themselves from Moffat’s full-on approaches. Windows roll up and then down again as the boys try to wave off this now-irritating woman.
The physical tension builds. Some are angry, some nervously laugh her off. But in the end, most of these beautiful men fall victim to our heroine’s persistent curiosity, dropping whatever has concealed the “family jewels.” Most, save one; and here persistence turns to assault: Moffat’s hand grabs and finally succeeds in pulling away the chump’s towel, though he deftly repositions himself behind a well-placed surfboard. The moment, repeated in slow-mo, pushes home all of the transgressively aggressive (woman-artist as stalker) and comically phallic (surfboard – always stiff, sleek and huge) potential of the scene.
The aggressive and comic tension of Heaven is of course one key to its success. And despite the tape’s obvious departures, this achievement has roots in earlier film and photographic works. For example, Night Cries provides evidence of Moffat’s instinct for melding style and content. In that brilliant short film, which explores the feelings of an aboriginal woman as she cares for her dying foster mother, highly stylized and boldly coloured sets create an exquisite framing device for her actors. The sets take on a life of their own that runs in tandem with that of the central character. Similarly, the deceptively natural framing of Heaven parallels its plot. As Moffat sweeps around her real-life characters, she knowingly constructs tableaus for their physiques in natural and artificial backgrounds, while her increasingly invasive camera-as-weapon zeroes in on its initially unsuspecting subjects.
Of course for many Moffat fans, Heaven’s sexualized “looking” may more readily remind them of Guapa (Goodlooking) – her romantically staged images of female roller-derby contestants. There is an enticing tongue-in-cheek sexiness evident in both works. The chest and butt checks of roller-derby contestants find humorous parallel in the stand-and-model chest and butt checks of Heaven’s surf heros. But perhaps the more subtle link between these works is the way that they play with our assumptions. Moffat placed her Guapa characters in a soft void, as if they were roller-skating in mid-air, coming at us through a fog. The sepia photographs of what we generally think of as barbaric sporting-event/sitcom subvert received wisdom. Similarly, Heaven may remind us that most of us seldom see surfers other than through televized events: Moffat takes advantage of this reality by presenting the work on a 27-inch monitor, in a domestic setting complete with couch and faux-ornate rug. But the gritty reality of parking lots as changing rooms in Heaven is a vision at odds with our romantic ideal of these heroic icons.
Moffat’s own earlier writing about Guapa hints at the possibilities that can develop from one project to the next: “I can take all the black out of the images and shoot white and airy. It’s like I’m taking the girls from hell into heaven. It’s a spiritual enlightenment.” And ah, if they knew what heaven had in store.
But for me, the most direct reminder of previous work is in Heaven’s connection to a photograph from 1985, The Movie Star. In it, David Gulpilil (Aborginal star of Nicholas Roeg’s 1971 film, Walkabout) reclines on the hood of a bright yellow car, wearing full ritual dance makeup and surf jams. He clutches a can of beer and seems to listen to a boom-box – angled to pull our eyes seductively toward his bare chest. The setting is, of course, Bondi beach. Moffat was addressing aboriginal displacement, unemployment, alcoholism and representation – issues seen in art and life again and again. Layered into The Movie Star is the reality that this laze-about stud once played the young man who accompanied the little white girl in Walkabout.
Twelve years later Moffat returns to Bondi, not to talk about displacement, but to do some serious displacing of her own. She uses her own Native and worldly sex-appeal along with a wiley camera finesse to get a bunch of knock-dead macho surfers to unwittingly mock themselves while luring and coercing them into the full monty. Her candid and immediate style, enhanced by some excited editing, has resulted in a sophisticated, complex and wonderfully hilarious 28-minute towel trauma that we won’t soon forget.