‘Exposed Fictions: Anne Zahalka, Robyn Stacey, Tracey Moffat’, introductory essay for slide kit, 1992
Third Draft (Tertiary Version), Exposed Fictions, Three Australian Photographers
The three artists represented in this slide kit — Tracey Moffatt, Anne Zahalka, and Robyn Stacey — all grew up in Australia in the 1960s and 70s. And they each began to make art in the 1980s.
During the 1970s Australian art fragmented into a wider range of art practices. For example, artists became involved in community arts projects, performance art, political poster collectives, crafts and, for the first time, photography. Feminism played a key role in this assault on the traditional primacy of painting and sculpture. Younger artists saw mainstream disciplines as redundant, outdated and male dominated, and they began to be interested in Australia’s burgeoning mass media and popular culture.
In the 1980s many artists, particularly women artists, began to see these new ‘media environments’ or ‘cultural landscapes’ as sources for their most urgent subject matter. The image field of magazines, TV, films, and advertising was alluring and pleasurable, but it was also powerful and controlling. It was the site where what you were, or could be, as an Australian of a particular gender, race, class, age or ethnicity, was defined.
It’s not suprising, then, that in the 1980s, and through to the 1990s, some of the best Australian art was produced using photography, and that the most challenging photography is done by women. After all, the roles assigned to women within Australian culture, and their identities as defined by the mass media, are most fluid at this time. They have the most at stake in the image field to which photography is central.
The strategy of appropriation
Each of these photographers re-uses imagery which is already circulating in our media or culture. Robyn Stacey, for instance, directly copies images off the video screen to construct her works. Anne Zahalka, in the seriesThe Landscape Re-presented, 1982, copies and collages Australian painting ‘classics’. But images from the past do not have to be directly copied to appropriated, their surface appearance, visual style, and dramatic genre can be mimicked. The photographed tableaus in Tracey Moffatt’sSomething More, 1989, for instance, look like enlarged film stills from a Technicolor melodrama film that might have been made in the 1950s. While Robyn Stacey’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, 1987, evokes the 1940s Hollywood gangster genre of of the 1940s. In Resemblance, 1987, Anne Zahalka takes portraits of contemporary people, but in the manner of Dutch painters from the sixteenth century. And, in Some Lads, 1986, Tracey Moffatt’s portraits of young, spunky, Aboriginal men contain within them the visual memory of nineteenth century anthropological studies of Aborigines photographed by white colonisers. Tracey Moffatt said about this work: “Aborigines have been continually represented as ethnographic or documentary subjects. The idea behind my Some Lads series is an attempt to dispense with the seriousness and preciousness…which a lot of photographers…have cloaked us in…The images are intentionally posey and sensual. These are traits rarely assigned to Aborigines and rarely sought out and captured within photographs.”
In some cases these artists are using appropriation as a political strategy, a lever to prise apart things which are normally assumed to be glued together. For instance, the ‘golden summers’ paintings of the Heidelberg School, which celebrate the pastoral wealth of turn-of-the-century British colonisers, are often still used in advertising and the media as images of ‘Our Australia’. But where does this leave other Australias? Aboriginal Australia for instance? Or Migrant Australia? Or even Australia as a cultural satellite of the USA? In The Landscape Re-presented Anne Zahalka’s collaged interventions into these seamless Australian arcadias ask these questions on the level of the ‘truth’ of the image itself. At first the image appears familiar, then we notice a subtle alteration. Our momentary confusion forces us to re-think the familiar message of the original painting.
At other times appropriated visual genres are used as a powerful, shared language in which to talk about the artist’s personal emotions and desires. In a way we are all, as members the same culture, pre-programmed with a shared knowledge of the visual codes and rhetorics of the past. For instance the dramatic characters and spectacular scenarios of Robyn Stacey’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Redline 7000, 1989, and All the Sounds of Fear, 1990, immediately seem familiar to us because they are condensed and refined out of the phosphorescent soup of media images, genre types, character poses, cityscapes and special effects in which we are all electronically emersed. But not only do we recognise them, we also directly feel them because, to a certain extent, our shared experience of the media has helped to form us all as the kind of people we are. Robyn Stacey has said: “By reducing or abbreviating the imagery to the very skeletal aspects of narrative, I could concentrate on the more sinister, or more potent aspects of each symbol … I was fascinated by the fact that now, so litle information is needed to tell a story. It is sufficient to simply signpost sitiuations because viewers bring their own associations to images … I wanted to leave space in the work for this to happen.”
In Something More Tracey Moffatt provisionally occupies the narrative space of that ‘familiar story’ of an ‘outsider’ girl leaving a brutal home for the big city. But she does not just re-tell this story one more time, rather she uses it as a kind of allegory for the dislocation, loss, desire and oppression felt by all colonised peoples everywhere.
Anne Zahalka’s Dutch-style portraits in Resemblance are of real people, but her portraits don’t claim to ‘plumb the depths of their souls’ in the way a traditional portrait might, rather we see her subjects as individuals constructed out of a present permeated by the past. As in all of her portraits, their individuality is not an inborn kernel of being, but is dependent on their social environment. The viewer is aware that Zahalka is re-using a particular visual rhetoric to construct a particular, provisional ‘portrait’. Another rhetoric could be used to construct another portrait of the same person. “In the nineteenth century it was thought that a good portrait should depict the character and being of a historical period. Such judgement assumes the objectivity of facts and the possibility of true perception. But in our time the solid historical reference points are threatened with dissolution, without exception. Time without a past, in which one can break off masonry from the ruin ‘history’ to adorn oneself in accordance with one’s own history and need.”
Similarly, in Bondi: Playground of the Pacific, 1989, Zahalka has documented Bondi, but she hasn’t documented it as a simple ‘place’, rather she has photographed Bondi as an ensemble of myths, histories, memories and prior images. And this ensemble, which is seen to somehow ‘reflect’ Australia, is always under contention. She has again used staged tableaus to show the provisional nature of such enactments of nationhood.
Our shared language of images
The relationship between the artist and the viewer in this kind of art is a special one. The viewer is not asked to ‘experience’ the art work as some kind of magical distillation of the artist themself; nor does the viewer simply read and ‘understand’ the image as though it was a direct copy of reality; rather there is a pleasurable complicity between artist and viewer. Both artist and viewer delight in the shared exploration of visual languages and in the enpowering thrill of role playing and masquerade. Both artist and viewer delight in raiding the citadels of history and trespassing on the gardens of culture.
But in the best examples of this kind of art such playful transgression has a very serious purpose. For women, for instance, it might have a political purpose. Women have usually been the subject of history and culture, not its object. That is, they have been the models and muses, rarely the artists or creators. They have been those who are desired, rarely those who desire. In short, women have usually been asked to ‘dress up’ as themselves for others. In these art works they ‘dress up’ as others for themselves. These artists do what they have always been asked to do — become seductive, spin a web of illusion — but now they do it on their own terms. “Feminist photographers … aim to unfix the pre-given truths of social and cultural discourses. They work on the assumption that woman has been excluded from any control over the truth and language of these texts in the first place. Therefore they have nothing to lose by destabilising the feminine performances of allegory, muse and model that have provided woman’s conditional access to social and cultural truth.”
The new reality of the mass media image world
This kind of art also takes a new approach to ‘reality’ itself. In looking at these pictures we take an almost connoisseurial pleasure in the ‘look’ and ‘feel’ of the mediated image. We almost palpably savour the Technicolor gloss of Tracey Moffatt’s large Something More images, or and the Renaissance nobility of Anne Zahalka’s detailed Resemblance tableaus, or the ‘cheap ‘n’ nasty’ inkiness of Robyn Stacey’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang series. Her All the Sounds of Fear incorporates the temporal dimension of the media flow into the images graphically: “Horizontal panels replace the jump cut linear sequence of television crime drama…”. Her computer generated and manipulated Infinity Gardens 1 & 11, 1992, seem to imply an entirely new spatiality of the image, no longer a perspectival projection of the world, but now a cold enveloping and undulating surface which electronically generates a virtual space all around us. “Each work becomes a ‘screen of knowledge’, the illusion of a well ordered, highly rational world. But this is merely staying on the surface of events and things; it is a window on the world that keeps distancing and making observers of us, rather than active, inventive participants.”
All this draws our attention to the mediated image as a new kind of fact. It is now an artefact from an image world which perhaps is becoming just as substantial as the physical world.
Our common sense notion of reality is that there is a real physical world which we are able know through our own visual perceptions of it and the representations of it in painting, photography, film, video etc. We think: “the world comes first, then we know it through representations of it, and the two together make up reality”. This art, however, argues that in fact the two now interpenetrate each other. It suggests that there is no prior truth — of the person, or of history, or of culture, or of gender, or of sexuality, or of desire, or of science — which we reach through representation. Rather, these artists claim, what we know as the truth is produced within representation, not revealed by it. Therefore the truth at any one time is always affected by its social political and historical context, so it is always under negotiation, and it is always up for grabs.
That is why the field of the image has become an important site for these artists to talk about their own reality. They are not so much exposing fictions as revealing the multiple truths within fiction.