The captions to the nine photolithographs in Tracey Moffatt’s series Scarred for Life, 1994, frame formative, even traumatic, incidents from the adolescence or childhood of their subjects. These captions sharpen the images, revealing the cutting remarks that embed in the psyches of adolescents or the prejudices behind parental anger. In Doll Birth, 1972, two boys play at the titular game: one with eyes closed in pretend labour pain, the other looking up towards the viewer, who takes the position of the mother. The caption reads: ‘His mother caught him giving birth to a doll. He was banned from playing with the boy next door again.’
Each image in Scarred for Life recreates a moment from the past, between 1956 and 1977, with Moffatt adopting the format of the photo spreads in Life magazine. Working backwards, as she often does, by recreating the appearance of photographic techniques and tones from the time of her youth and before, she inserts the faces familiar from her lived experience into the monocultural media culture in which she was steeped. While Moffatt clearly enjoys a certain nostalgia in her practice, she also makes a strategic corrective to cultural memory.
In dealing with memories and with the gaps in the photographic archive, Scarred for Life is also about time. Looking at the newly made Doll Birth, 1972 in 1994, one might have shared with the grown-up son a similar hindsight over his mother’s response. But, to borrow a conception of the passage of time from another photographer, Wolfgang Tillmans, more time has elapsed now since the series’ making than separates it from the moment that the photograph recreates. Considering its reception at these junctures, one might read how social attitudes have shifted.
The work’s humour, or perhaps its pang of discomfort, springs from the inference in the caption to the maternal horror of the boys’ possibly latent sexuality. At the beginning of the third decade of the present century, is there not now an additional twinge of discomfort that was not felt before? Scarred for Life was shown in the exhibition Australian Perspecta 1995 at Sydney’s Art Gallery of New South Wales in the same year that Bill Henson represented Australia at the Venice Biennale with his cut-screen photographs. The undertones of Wagnerian sexuality in these images of youthful nudes in a darkened wasteland are much more potent than the relatively straightforward nude young woman printed on the invitation to Henson’s exhibition at Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery in Sydney in 2008. However, it was that image that sparked the moral panic that in turn led the federal government to instruct the Australia Council for the Arts to develop protocols for working with children—despite Henson’s model being of age and having been photographed with parental consent.
The disciplinary mother in Doll Birth, 1972 was offended by the childrens’ game presumably because it transgressed gender barriers and possibly because it had strayed too close to adult sexuality. It is doubtful that as many parents now would see the boy next door as such a negative influence on their son. While the protocols for working with children add to the bureaucracy involved in applying for project funding, it is the risk of provoking adverse publicity that now presents a disincentive. Historian Steven Angelides argues that, ‘the routine public articulation of fear, anxiety, and shame in mainstream media scandals in the face of childhood sexuality frequently serves a particular function: to place the agentive sexual child or adolescent under erasure.’ No artist wants to risk being mis-labelled a child pornographer, so how, in this context, can one make an image that addresses the protosexuality of a child?
Doll Birth, 1972 is an image of children playing at reproduction, so playing at being sexually mature. Why? Well, one would have to ask the man in 1994 looking back to the boy he was in 1972. But two decades into the twenty-first century, would Tracey Moffatt have made his anecdote into this photograph? Hers is a complex image that manages to encapsulate some of the complexity of growing up and the ambiguous feelings that one might not yet be able to name at a young age—the kinds of ambiguities that can be grasped readily in art and rarely in the soundbites of news media. While social attitudes towards racial and sexual identities have improved since Moffatt made Scarred for Life, an ideology has formed around childhood sexual innocence, for reasons that are too complex to go into here—but not too complex for art to handle if it has the freedom to do so.
1 Steven Angelides, The Fear of Child Sexuality: Young People, Sex, and Agency, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2019, p. xi.
Francis E. Parker is Curator – Exhibitions at MUMA.