Artpace, San Antonio
Through September 11
by Wendy Atwell
Tracey Moffatt locks her radar vision onto poignant narratives both small and grand in Handmade, on view at Artpace in the Hudson (Show)Room. These stories are presented non-judgmentally, like how one imagines God looking down upon creation (think Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life). In this case, however, it is Moffatt who remains anonymous while framing a myriad of lives being lived. First Job (2008), a series of photographs, documents women engaged in the menial work of entry-level jobs, while her thematic videos, the standout work in the exhibition, represent epic moments in people’s lives. Using appropriated footage, Moffatt juxtaposes scenes from different films. Together with editor Gary Hillberg, Moffatt has undertaken an immense job, plucking scenes like needles out of a haystack of 3,000 found footage hours.
Moffatt’s photographs, archival pigments on rice paper with gel medium, feature women (including Moffatt herself) busy selling aluminum siding or working at a pineapple cannery in vividly colored settings. Imagining their futures, or what to do with their first paychecks, they are awash in florid expectations and brilliant hopes against the dull reality of the corner store or the washing machine. These clear scenes of smiling women possess the saccharine arrangement of a picture postcard or stock advertising photography. Moffatt uses the gel medium to mark these images by hand but the effect is nearly invisible, merely a clue to look further for the artist’s intervention.
In contrast, Moffatt’s videos deal with mythical cinema. Working in the archive of popular culture, Moffatt creates montages of clips culled from one thousand movies and TV shows, each clip just long enough to allow the audience to experience a single moment in the story’s narrative. The videos are projected on the four walls of the room, timed to play one after another. The works are titled by theme: Lip (1999), Artist (2000), Love (2003), Doomed (2007), Revolution (2008), Mother (2009) and Other (2010). Ranging from eight to twenty-one minutes, the appropriated scenes in the videos gather exponential power when placed together, especially because Moffatt picks the strongest narrative elements from each movie.
The longest montage, Love, begins with a series of kissing scenes, but affection is soon followed by bitterness and betrayal. Couples reveal to one another “I just don’t feel it anymore” and yell “Get out!” The video transitions to an astounding number of scenes in which women are slapping men across the face, generating little to no effect on the men. Yet when men hit women in the next sequence of scenes, the effect is drastic, disturbing and violent. A woman ultimately says, “I’m not going to take it anymore,” and gets a gun. A barrage of women shooting men ensues. The order and pace of these scenes moves viewers’ emotions precariously up and down, yet Moffatt tempers this volatility with humor and absurdity.
The videos highlight the “male gaze” as described by psychoanalytic feminist film critics such as Laura Mulvey as well as the “oppositional gaze” as described by feminist bell hooks, who also deals with race and class issues. Moffatt’s own gaze extends beyond voyeurism, scopophilia, objectification and stereotyping. By diverting these stories’ original planned narratives, her videos embolden the viewer, who embarks instead on a journey via Moffatt’s own direction. This overreaching vision, afforded by seeing all of these actions side by side, reveals how certain stories get constantly repeated, a truth otherwise buried within each story’s narrative. It is a testament to Moffatt’s wisdom that she leaves it to the audience to consider the uncanny similarities. Moffatt’s alternative framing and presentation of these scenes lays bare a fundamental dynamic of movie viewing: how one can lose oneself in the narrative, and in this process, skim blissfully on the surface of the screen, remaining dangerously ignorant of the truth that lies beneath it.
Wendy Atwell received her M.A. in Art History and Criticism from The University of Texas at San Antonio.