This Artwork Changed My Life: Tracey Moffatt’s “Up in the Sky”

Laura Bannister
May 12, 2020 12:00PM

Tracey Moffatt, Up in the Sky #1, 1997. Courtesy of Tyler Rollins Fine Art.

Elephant and Artsy have come together to present This Artwork Changed My Life, a creative collaboration that shares the stories of life-changing encounters with art. A new piece will be published every two weeks on both Elephant and Artsy. Together, our publications want to celebrate the personal and transformative power of art.

Out today on Elephant is Chris Hayes on K-Hole’s trend reports.

All 25 images in Tracey Moffatt’s series “Up in the Sky” (1997) contain unsettling elements. There is the slain body of a bull, hanging limp over a tree branch. There is a figure standing atop a burnt-out car while brandishing a crowbar, thighs flexed triumphantly, evoking a wrestler. A boy and man tussle, topless, on a dirt track; for several shots, it’s just them, bodies entangled, but in another, a lurking figure masturbates. In a stark landscape dotted with weeds and low-growing brush, a woman holds her pregnant belly, and her raw-boned partner holds a shotgun. She appears upset, or at least unimpressed; he is pleased, grinning toothlessly. Behind them is a dilapidated house; rust dribbles down it, like bird poop on a car window. To the right of the frame is another man, as gaunt and sun-browned as any Henry Lawson character, holding a chicken by the neck. To viewers, the next action is self-evident: That chicken is going to die.

I was an undergraduate at the University of Sydney when I first saw these pictures, about a decade after Moffatt made them. I loved them immediately, the way they riffed on corny horror-film aesthetics, the way they were undercut by violence, even when seemingly tender. Back then, I was familiar with the Australian artist’s lurid, hyperpigmented films—like Nice Colored Girls (1987), Night Cries (1990), and Bedevil (1993)—but not so much her photographs. (Moffatt’s films are currently the subject of a virtual exhibition on The Bass’s satellite gallery on Instagram, @thebasssquared.)

The fictional staging of “Up in the Sky,” with its street-cast characters chosen to match impressions plucked from the artist’s subconscious, were redolent of jumbled film stills. Despite some characters appearing in multiple shots, the images were deliberately arranged in a non-linear fashion, eschewing any singular narrative reading. (Moffatt has said, “I wanted the story to transcend what is literally there. Like the title, ‘Up in the Sky,’ the story hovers above what you see. What are you seeing? A woman with a baby. Boys wrestling in the dirt.”)

Every artwork I’ve truly loved has tapped me roughly on the shoulder, demanding I climb inside of it. There was something slippery in these small-town, carceral tableaus—with their ocker, demolition-derby lawlessness, their unglamorous subjects—an emotional tenor that both flirted with and repulsed me, requested I come closer, then wriggled from my grasp. The characters’ expressions plumb the depths of the human condition: carnal pleasure, childlike delight, sexual power play, racial tension, fear, desperation, alienation. Often, multiple urges coexist within one frame. We are presented with small-town melodramas, sure, but Moffatt’s subjects—all archetypes—actually engage in the most universal of pursuits: gathering food, touching others, quelling boredom, considering outsiders with suspicion.

Soon after my initial encounter, I printed one of Moffatt’s images and stored it in my wallet for a year until the ink peeled off its fold lines. In it, three nuns hold a baby to the heavens. Their habits flap like dementor cloaks. The sky is bereft of clouds. It looked like a partial press clipping on Australia’s Stolen Generation, in which indigenous children were forcibly removed from their homes between 1910 and 1970, and rehomed with white families or religious organizations. It looked like a bad omen. It was a jarring reminder of the multiplicity of narratives around nationhood, and our tendency to flatten them out. I’d stare at it and feel (rightly) distraught: more connected to and separate from my Australian-ness, forced to look at the erasure of Australia’s black history, at the horrorshow of privilege flipped.

I decided to put discomfort in my pocket for a while, carry it around. It went wherever I did. I was an Australian ex-church kid, leaving at 20. The nuns got under my skin for a couple of reasons.

Moffatt—whose mother was Aboriginal—made these pictures in Broken Hill, a remote, predominantly working class mining town in the far west of outback New South Wales. Sprawling and semi-arid, it is the traditional land of the Wilyakali people, who still comprise the region’s major Aboriginal group. Since the late 1800s, it’s been a hub of trade unionism. Like anywhere, you can be wealthy in Broken Hill, but you can also be dirt poor—the median weekly household income is around a third below the nation’s average. Whatever you earn, you can’t escape the heat.

In high summer, the outback’s red soil hardens, then cracks beneath the sun. (It’s the kind of heat that drains a person, too, turning limbs sluggish.) Exaggerated hues are absent from Moffatt’s frames—they are mostly black and white; a few appear in sepia—and yet I still find myself filling in their colors from memory. I observe grey saltbush canvassing the brick-red soil. Great sheets of creamy, corrugated iron, rusted to the color of subway-floor pennies. Sheer, striated rock faces, looking like watered-down caramel. I’ve seen their backdrops infinitely: on road trips into the continent’s big sky interior, mythologized on television.

They always felt unmistakably Australian—the way it does when I see telegraph lines bisecting clouds, even in New York—but, as Moffatt told an interviewer, she intended exactly the opposite, choosing Broken Hill for its impreciseness. It is a nowhere space. “People here in America think it’s [shot in] Texas,” Moffatt said, “some Jewish people have thought that the images of the women on rusted cars with sledge hammers were of the Israeli Army. Those readings only come about when I don’t say exactly what things are.”

Like a lot of people, I had complicated (read: cliché) feelings about growing up in suburban Sydney—and about Australia itself. I was enamored but wanted to clamber out; I imagined myself elsewhere. The outback seemed to proffer its own breed of freedom in captivity. I liked that you could run in a straight line for a very long time before a wire fence interrupted; I also wanted to be anonymous, the way you never are in places where the sky is so big it might swallow you. I have not lived in Australia for some time, but return to these images constantly: cimmerian, theatrical, open-ended vignettes that wink at the eternal slipperiness of home.

Head to Elephant to read its latest story in the series Chris Hayes on K-Hole’s trend reports.

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Laura Bannister