Returning to Night Cries: The personal and cultural influence of Tracey Moffatt
There are certain visual tropes iconic to Australian filmic and visual culture. A deep blue sky, contrasted against a rich expanse of ochre-red land. A modest mountain range on the horizon, rippled as if in an Albert Namatjira watercolour. The rusted corrugated iron of a neglected shed. The effects of the harsh sun, making the ground shimmer with mirrored reflections and the people wilt with exhaustion. These are images known to Australian audiences through years of depictions in art and cinema. Anyone who has studied Australian film and art would undeniably also know them from Tracey Moffatt's Night Cries: A Rural Tragedy (1989). For my part, the image of the unnamed daughter (played by Marcia Langton) leaning hunched against a run-down outhouse is etched into my personal visual catalogue of Australian visual culture.
In my undergraduate days, I remember many discussions about whether Australia had produced any truly international artists (whatever that means). Ron Mueck was often held up as one example, Tracey Moffatt another.1 Moffatt is clearly one of Australia's most successful and well-known artists within the global art landscape. More than this though, Moffatt is one of the most significant artists for those of us who study Australian cinema and visual art. Night Cries, in particular, has become an icon of Australian screen studies. It is introduced to early on and often leaves a lasting memory. I remember this image gracing the cover of my undergraduate "Australian Cinema" reader. Equally, her photographic series from the same period, Something More (1989), is a touchstone in Australian contemporary art – particularly for those practicing or studying in areas of photography, portraiture and contemporary Aboriginal art. Indeed her work is now regularly included in high school art syllabuses, making Moffatt one of the first contemporary Australian artists that many students are introduced to.2
Both Something More and Night Cries put Moffatt on the international map. They are bold and confident, with dense cultural references that mingle with hints of the personal. They are theatrical and over the top, created with a visual style that is as seductive to the viewer as it is fierce. In all these ways, Tracey Moffatt is a central artist in the ways that we as Australians come to learn about our creative cultures, past and present. However, Moffatt herself may feel ambivalent about this claim. At a rare artist talk organised through Melbourne's Centre for Contemporary Photography in 2015, Moffatt addressed the fact that a number of high school students were the audience, warning them with her characteristic humour and flair: "I'm not going to give you anything." Moffatt was not about to give these studious attendees any "easy answers" for their exams, nor was she about to neatly self-historicise her practice.3
Faced with Moffatt's larger-than-life presence (in more than ways than one) within Australian contemporary art and film, how does one say something about Night Cries that has not already been said? And yet, the image lingers. Not only this iconic still of a daughter's exasperation and exhaustion, but also the image of invalid mother and carer daughter seated inside their house, with its grimy windows and unkempt décor. The oppressive "landscape" seeps into this room, almost washing out the scene and the characters, their strained movements mirroring their strained relationship. As is well known, Night Cries was filmed entirely in a film studio, and Moffatt worked with crew such as art director Stephen Curtis to create its distinctive aesthetic. The act of recreating the Australian outback entirely within an interior setting remains audacious to this day. Moffatt obviously subverts the traditional representations of the Australian outback in art and film, but at the same time she celebrates it, theatrically magnifying and amplifying the iconic visual tropes that are ingrained into our visual consciousness.
Night Cries has not endured in Australia's cultural landscape simply because of its visual style, as striking and well composed as it is. Night Cries avoids a cultural cringe because it is equally cosmopolitan. Moffatt blends an appreciation of "Australiana" – think of the daughter flicking through a tourism brochure for South Molle Island – with her diverse and broad interest in cinema history. The film is often interpreted as a re-imagining of Charles Chauvel's Jedda (1955). However, the only precise filmic reference in the film is the quote at the start, not from Jedda, but from the 1955 Hollywood comedy–drama Picnic (Joshua Logan).
Night Cries is dense with cultural references, whose seductive exteriors often hide darker, haunting undercurrents. For instance, it is impossible for me to watch Night Cries and not have "Telephone to Glory" ringing in my head for days afterwards. Jimmy Little's smooth performance that bookends the film is the ultimate earworm. Moffatt undercuts this through Night Cries' sound design, which is possibly the film's most unsettling quality. But she also gives these references space to exert their own complexities and internal contradictions. As "Telephone to Glory" powerfully evokes Christianity, it also recalls traumatic histories of government and religious institutions trying to assimilate Indigenous people and cultures. Moffatt taps into the cultural memories of Australia – sometimes forgotten, maybe repressed – revisiting them with humour and style that are sympathetic, pointed and uncompromising.4
In 2017, Moffatt will be Australia's official artist representative at the prestigious Venice Biennale of art, which is one of the largest and most prestigious stages in the contemporary art world. She is the first Indigenous Australian artist to present a solo exhibition at the Biennale and only the twelfth woman to officially represent Australia at Venice.5 Moffatt has stated categorically that she is making new work for Venice, and with this major exhibition on the horizon, I cannot help but acknowledge the potential incongruence of returning to Night Cries. But in this issue of Peephole Journal focused on Australian women in film, returning to Night Cries was important to acknowledge the impact that Moffatt's work has had on myself and innumerable other artists, writers and filmmakers.6 It is for this reason that I was so pleased that Tracey Moffatt was chosen to represent Australia this year. Not because it will give her an international profile – she already has one through her own making - but because it will acknowledge on an international stage how significant a figure Tracey Moffatt is in the way that many Australians have come to learn about and appreciate contemporary Australian art, film and culture.