Tracey Moffatt's Fourth explores the agony of defeat
Tracey Moffatt is a well-regarded international artist whose career has included films screened at the Cannes Film Festival and a diverse range of photographic work. She was born in Brisbane, Australia, as the half-Aboriginal adopted child of a white family, and her work often examines a sense of life on the margins, of outsiders and pariahs, themes that reoccur in her show Fourth at Fay Gold Gallery.
Moffatt's work documents the kinky and the banal from the sadomasochistic exchange between a lady motorcycle rider clutching a leather whip in her polished fingertips in the large-scale cibachrome image "Something More" to the equally perverse relationship between children and parents in a tiny sampling from her 1994 "Scarred for Life" series. Also included in the exhibition are two hand-tinted photogravures from a series Moffatt created in 1998 titled "Laudanum" (after an opiate given to women in the late 19th century to calm their nerves), which depicts the heady, psychological relationship between a Victorian lady and her Asian servant girl. As with "Scarred for Life," it is hard to get a sense of the larger narrative substance of these individual projects. Instead, the show draws out a common element of supplication, submission and defeat in the artist's work as a whole.
The largest representation of work on display is from Moffatt's series titled Fourth, which documents athletic non-medalists at the moment of their public failure. Drawn from television images of the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games, these 26 14-by-18-inch works are color ink prints on canvas, which retain the tawdry, lousy-looking quality of televised sporting events. Moffatt has highlighted in color the runner, swimmer or weightlifter who placed fourth, making them appear as if they're blushing with their shameful notoriety. The rest of the image has a sickly greenish-blue tint. The irony is that, while Moffatt's color tinting of the fourth placers makes them suddenly conspicuous, their failure means that they have never been more inconspicuous and irrelevant.
Some of the losers look simply mildly confused, like a runner who glances off frame, perhaps at his score, but who otherwise shows no visible signs of distress. Other failures are more glaring, like the runner who buries his face in his hands in a universal shorthand for the great "Dohhhhh!" or the bodily giveaways of slumping shoulders and downcast eyes of obvious disappointment. Many wear a stunned, unfocused expression that suggests a brain dragging several steps behind a severely taxed body. Failure is the great equalizer in Moffatt's images, doled out to the lithe and beautiful and to the already shortchanged, like the wheelchair racer pictured from behind, slumped into his chair.
Few of us can identify with the chest beating, flag-waving glory of a gold medal victory, but there is something very human and very familiar in these athlete's expressions. They cannot be reduced to promo spots or ads for Wheaties or packaged Moments. Gelled and preserved in the televised gaze, these people are not arrested within the usual narrative of fame and victory, and because of that circumstance, something melancholy and tender arises. There is nothing personal or intimate in boasting, ecstatic victory, but Moffatt reveals something exquisitely vulnerable and fragile in defeat.
There are moments of touching pathos in these images, like the exhausted-looking swimmer in a hot pink rubber swim cap whose head bobs at the water's surface while two jubilant winners engage in a frat party bout of high-fives and pumped-up smiles. Several of the images depend upon a relationship unfolding within the picture's frame — of one gymnast joyfully interviewed by a reporter while the loser looks down at her feet, or a handsome, sad-but-dignified swimmer who gazes off into space while a coach stares raptly at his face. In another image, one runner's hand is tenderly extended toward another's in the kind of subdued, halting gesture generally lost in the frantic madness of televised sport.
The larger culture of sports is caught in Moffatt's analytical cross hairs as an enterprise that rains glory and adulation down upon its winners and leaves the rest out in the cold. By using the televised image so prominently in her work, Moffatt questions the very notion of sports spectatorship as a way to feel vicariously triumphant. And, perversely, while everyone loves a winner, it is those in fourth, the ones not quite good enough, whom most of us should identify with.
?Fourth, featuring photographs by Tracey Moffatt, runs through March 30 at Fay Gold Gallery, 764 Miami Circle. Tues.-Sat. 9:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. 404-233-3843.??