I wrote this essay in 2002 for an exhibition of Tracey Moffat’s work at the City Gallery. My subject was Moffat’s Fourth series. Now seems a good time to put this essay up here. I couldn’t find all the images I talk about in it, but I’m sure you get the picture.
In 2000, the artist Tracey Moffat sat through hours of Olympic Games coverage in order to select a few telling shots of competitors who came fourth in their events.
The men and women of Fourth are like the children and adolescents of Scarred For Life – the girl whose mother has just handed her a copy of her birth certificate; the boy caught giving birth to a doll, his friend as midwife. Scarred For Life’s terrible, formative moments appear as though remembered by the people they happened to – the adopted girl, or the boy suspected of strange inclinations. What Scarred For Life and Fourth share is a sense that their subjects are recreating a moment, looking back and reflecting on something that changed them, something they have to learn to live with. The children and adolescents of Scarred For Life seem to muse on the meaning of the moment they are in. Scarred For Life tells us that to remember is to realise again, and to feel a stain sink deeper in. Although the images of Scarred For Life are acted and art directed, and those of Fourth are found then processed, they are alike. Fourth’s people too are simultaneously living their moment, and remembering it.
The background of each image is whited out. The world behind the fourths is ghostly, dissolving or receding, though the subjects themselves are sharply solid. Perhaps this is the way these people will recall their moment – the spectators’ attention has gone elsewhere, but they are caught, self-conscious, and solid with shame.
These faces and bodies, are, for the most part, bleak and exhausted. These people have been selected by something other than that they went looking for – singled-out, not by success, or even by anything as unequivocal as failure, but by an almost that they are alone with.
Here is a young man in the pool. The loose straps of his goggles dangle, seeming to suspend the heavy lids of his half-closed eyes. The men beside him – happy, triumphant – are like a newspaper photo; they have faded into document, a documented moment. The fourth will soon be cropped out of this congratulatory group. They are rearing up out of the water, their arms free and in motion. He is submerged to his chin. He is sinking – sinking out of the public moment into the private, a moment already beginning to play itself again, a defining moment, the stain of disappointment.
Now that his race is over, the runner closes on himself, though he accepts the touch of a hand that goes out to meet his. The winner’s body is still expanding into his moment, he is reaching out to the world, to the other runners. But the fourth’s hand scarcely leaves his side, it is as if he feels he has less right to occupy the space, no right to throw his arms open and gather in the air. He is contracting, retrenching, conserving his energy. He has run the race and gone the distance. But he has to do it all again to get what he desired. Triumph is still so close that it seems possible. But he has to do it all again.
The runner stands beside her team-mate, the place-getter. Perhaps they are being interviewed. The winner glows, like history, like an old news-reel ghost. She is smiling. Both women have their eyes cast down – the winner modestly. But the fourth is herself cast down. She shares her team-mate’s moment of glory, she breathes the air of excellence, because of her almost, her fine effort – but she is thinking, considering her shortcomings, considering what to do next. We can see her thinking, and beginning to learn to live with it.
Two divers enter the water like inverted trophies, like statuettes plunged back into the smelter, their figures melting, perhaps to be re-cast as something more ordinary. (Even when you can’t see these people thinking, deciding how to feel, it appears that decisions are being made for them by the strange incandescent material world with which the artist has surrounded them.)
In the group shot the team-mates won’t meet each other’s eyes, they are inclined away from one another – alone with it – each thinking that he’s let the others down. (The backgrounds of all these pictures have become heroic murals, against which the fourths are posed, not fallen, and not ascended either – only cast down and doomed to keep on looking up at all the raised arms.)
The diver is holding his breath behind the barrier of his stiff lips – he might need it later, for though he has and completed his dive, it was a wasted effort, and he can’t yet come up for air.
Surrounded by the jubilant, the sprinter isn’t entitled to wave, he’s not entitled to take a big scoop of the white air. What has he to share? How can you share “almost”, its uncertainty, its indecision – the banal drag of “not quite”? “Yes” and “no” are something. What is “not quite”? How do you digest it?
There are good-natured, game acknowledgements of effort. The runner waves, his hand at the level of his head. He is polite and dignified. People have supported him – his gesture is for those who cheered while he ran.
The team, sitting together like refugees, are stopped, no longer expectant, only enduring together, mute and apparently attentive to their surroundings, not making a fuss, and not fussed over. They are there, there with the winners, but not quite. They all wear masks of learning to live with it.
These fourths could be anybody from anywhere. Gender and nationality and race have been distilled out of them by their situation, their condition of “not quite”. Where is the logic in it? Why first, second, and third? Why only three? But we have all agreed on three – so here are the fourths, at end of their events, and the end of their expectations – and the beginnings of their journeys, asking themselves: “How will I learn to live with this?”