Heaven, as visualized in Australian artist Tracey Moffatt’s 28-minute video, is a cavalcade of buff surfer boys stripping off their trunks and wet suits in parking lots. Some wrap towels around their waists as ersatz changing rooms. Others just duck their sandy butts behind cars.

“I sent around ten women with cameras who lived by beaches all over Australia,” says Moffatt. The first glimpses in Heaven are from a shaky distance, as cameras peer from upstairs apartment windows. During the course of the playful piece, the voyeur’s vantage gets progressively closer until we see the videographer’s free hand yanking towels off as the camera leers. “All the dirty stuff is what I shot–let’s get that straight,” says Moffatt, laughing.

When the surfers speak we can’t hear what they’re saying; instead there’s a sound track of gently lapping waves periodically interrupted by the chanting of Tibetan monks, African drumming, and Cree Indian love songs. Moffatt says she wanted the effect of “when you go to the beach, when you’re in the car and the windows are wound up. You’re not really outside. The muffled feel is what I want. It becomes very hypnotic.

“It’s such a low-key, low-budget, amateurish piece of work,” she says. “I’m not really sure if it’s art–but that doesn’t bother me. It’s being screened all over the place.” In the past two years the 38-year-old artist has seen her career take off with over 30 exhibitions around the world. “You become an art queen instead of an artist,” she says.

Moffatt, who is aboriginal, was adopted by a white foster mother when she was three, but kept in contact with her birth family. Motifs of charged interracial domestic melodrama often turn up in her work, as well as themes arising from her upbringing in a working-class suburb of Brisbane. “People have hang-ups about growing up in places like that, but actually I like coming from such an environment. I always thought that the southern writers I admired from America, like Tennessee Williams, Carson McCullers, and Truman Capote, were really writing about the area I came from.

“I spent my whole adolesence baby-sitting in middle-class peoples’ houses, sitting up late at night watching great movies,” she says. “All the good ones–idiosyncratic 70s movies–were on late at night.” Moffatt went on to study film and photography at the Queensland College of Art. “I went to the worst art school in Australia, I have to say. None of the equipment worked. The lecturers were often not even there. All you had to do was turn up in order to pass.”

After graduating in 1982, she supported herself with odd jobs and later worked as a still photographer for Australian magazines and TV stations. In 1985 she began making documentaries for SBS TV, a multicultural station, as well as her own films like Nice Coloured Girls (1987), a partly autobiographical work about rolling drunk white guys in Sydney. Two films went to Cannes–Night Cries: A Rural Tragedy (1990) and Bedevil (1993).

Besides her films and videos, Moffatt also stages photo tableaux thick with cinematic allusions. Her series Up in the Sky–featuring white nuns, a black baby, and a crew of sledgehammer-wielding women atop wrecked cars–was shot in the same locale as the postapocalyptic Mad Max. “I’m still obsessed with the photographic image,” says Moffatt. “I like the art world. I think it’s far more intellectually stimulating than what’s happening in cinema these days. I just find a lot of the independent films–especially American–quite boring. I’d prefer to see a Hollywood film any day.”

Moffatt’s taste is actually more transgressive than that. “Amateur video is so fascinating,” she says. “I think of the Rodney King video. That guy should have been given the Oscar for doing that.” She had her own skirmish with infamy in 1987, when she was arrested in Portsmouth, England, for heckling during a First Fleet ceremony when the aboriginal flag was unfurled. It made the news back home. Her family cheered, but her night in jail was torture. “No fun. English food is bad enough. Can you imagine English jail food?”

There’s an opening reception Sunday for “Tracey Moffatt: Free-falling” from 4 to 7 at the Renaissance Society, located on the fourth floor of the University of Chicago’s Cobb Hall, 5811 S. Ellis. Tom Gunning, professor of art history and cinema and media studies at the U. of C., will lead a discussion with Moffatt from 5 to 6. On Saturdays and Sundays Moffatt’s short film Night Cries: A Rural Tragedy will screen continuously during gallery hours, noon to 5. The show runs through December 27. Call 773-702-8670 for information. On Monday at 5 Moffatt will give a slide lecture at Gallery 400, 400 S. Peoria (312-996-6114). –Bill Stamets

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Tracey Moffat photo by Tracey Moffatt; from “GUAPA (Good Looking)”; From “Up in the Sky”.