Tracey Moffatt’s new series of tone gravure prints, Laudanum, presents an elegant world simmering on the verge of madness. Like Moffatt’s previous series, Something More (1989) and Up In The Sky (1997), Laudanum’s narrative never quite adds up, with the potential for the viewer to interpret the story any number of ways. Two women, one a white mistress, the other her Asian maid, play out a series of strange games in a grand, dusty mansion, where the power-play is never quite clear. The images are rich in cinematic, literary and art-historical references, from the films of Murnau, Griffith and Lang to Pauline Reage’s book The Story of O and the photographs of Julia Margaret Cameron.
Shot on location in great colonial homes, Laudanum teases out a different kind of history from these edifices of the past. The relationship between master and servant, as well as that between women is highlighted, often with startling results. There is at times the brutality and eros that drove pulp novels such as Mandingo and Drum. Coupled with the drug of the work’s title (laudanum was a commonly-used opiate at the end of the 19th century), the characters enact their roles with barely contained hysteria.
Showing in conjunction with Laudanum is Lip, an experimental video collaboration between Moffatt and Gary Hillberg. Hillberg’s editing of clips of Hollywood films depicts talented Black women actresses playing the role of the maid. Lip is both serious and comic to watch. “It’s okay to laugh,” says Moffatt. “In choosing these particular segments where the maids are putting their women bosses in their place we are trying to restore a feeling of power to them and to break away from the ‘Black woman actress as victim Hollywood’ idea.
“Gary and I want to say that these women, who sometimes play the subservient roles of maids, were often glorious scene stealers in the true Hollywood sense. Regardless of the role, one could never not notice them. We want to pay homage to them; Lip is our gesture of R.E.S.P.E.C.T.”
Tracey Moffatt is arguably Australia’s most successful artist internationally. She has had over 30 solo exhibitions in Europe and the U.S., and is regularly curated into major group shows, including the 1997 Venice Biennale, the 1992/93 and 1996 Sydney Biennales, Prospect ’96, and the 1996 and 1998 Sao Paulo Biennales. Her films have been screened at Cannes, and hundreds of articles and several books have been written about her work. Her last major photo series, Up In The Sky (1997) was commissioned by the Dia Center for the Arts, New York and was subsequently shown throughout the world to high acclaim. Tracey Moffatt lives and works in both Sydney and New York.