Something More From a Distance
Daniel Mudie Cunningham
Twenty five years ago Tracey Moffatt’s series ‘Something More’ (1989) catapulted her into instant art stardom. The first image in the series of nine cibachrome prints is perhaps one of the most iconic photographs by a contemporary Australian artist and is now held in most major public collections, including that of Artbank. To even describe the image—Moffatt in a red dress playing a young aspirational woman from the sticks dreaming of a better life—feels anachronistic considering how widely it has been discussed.
Like most of Moffatt’s subsequent work, ‘Something More’ deployed narrative conventions appropriated from cinema and popular culture to tell a story drawing from personal experience, but imbued with universal resonances. Indeed Moffatt’s global success could be attributed to the canny way in which she has strategically positioned herself as an artist who refused to be pigeonholed by her Indigeneity, even though it is a strong anchor in much of what she has produced.
"My work has an uncool emotion and heat to it, my narratives have glaring clichéd aspects..."
Some writings on ‘Something More’ point out the ‘mixed race’ of the character played by Moffatt; some even going so far as to identify her as ‘Eurasian’, quite possibly because of her tattered red cheongsam. As much as its various racial signifiers are important to the image, it is in the way her work speaks to a universally shared ‘human condition’ that this character comes to stand in for the ‘everyperson’. Most of us would have played that role: poised at a crossroads between where we’ve come from and where we want to be, longing for more. The stylised artifice of these images, now very much a hallmark of her oeuvre, is suggestive of the ‘constructedness’ of identity itself and the way it can shapeshift through masquerade and playacting.
Emerging at the tail end of the twentieth century, amid the heady realm of postmodern culture and identity politics, ‘Something More’ heralded Moffatt as an artist with a deft ability to appropriate cinema and popular culture and make it entirely her own. Partly drawn from life in its references to her Queensland origins, Moffatt conjures the steamy clichés of 1950s Southern American pulp fiction. In a 1999 interview with curator Marta Gili, Moffatt reflected: “My work has an uncool emotion and heat to it, my narratives have glaring clichéd aspects. People feel that they’ve seen it before—but I’m giving it to them all over again with my slant on it. People recognise the ‘clichés’ and don’t seem to mind them.” (105)