From Reader to Writer: On a New Book by Moyra Davey

Moyra Davey: Spread from Les Goddesses / Hemlock Forest (2017). Courtesy Bergen Kunsthall and Dancing Foxes Press, Brooklyn.




In Les Goddesses / Hemlock Forest, published by Dancing Foxes Press and Bergen Kunsthall (2017), Moyra Davey presents two texts that served as the basis for two videos of the same names, produced in 2011 and 2016 respectively. Stills from the videos and related photographs are thoughtfully interspersed throughout, providing a crucial visual accompaniment to the writing, which moves fluidly through the genres of biography, auto-fiction, and essay. Taking form in notes and fragments that are organized under headers recalling the index cards that she frequently uses to structure her projects (“Mary,” “Derailed,” and “Shame” are but three from Hemlock Forest), Davey’s writing characteristically resists generic categorization, instead exceeding the designation of the photo-essay.

For over twenty years, Davey has brought a literary sensibility to photography, and a photographic sensibility to writing, with subjects ranging from still lifes of books and records gathering dust in her New York City apartment to reflections on the circulation of objects in her folded photographs, begun in 2009, which are displayed unframed on the wall and carry stamps and addresses as proof of their travel. Like the projects gathered in this new publication, the Canadian artist’s recent text-based videos like Notes on Blue (2015) demonstrate the personal approach she brings to the essay film and the breadth of her bibliographic impulse, which leads her to parse the works of other writers and artists, including Derek Jarman, Anne Sexton, and Jorge Luis Borges.

In Les Goddesses, originally published as “The Wet and the Dry” in a 2011 Paraguay Press pamphlet and edited for this volume, Davey explores the personal history of eighteenth-century feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft. She takes interest in the fate of Wollstonecraft’s three daughters (one of whom was Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein), their partners Percy Shelley and Lord Byron, and their children––a group plagued by a series of untimely deaths––and connects these historical figures to her own siblings. Mapping unlikely correspondences across time and space, Davey writes: “Mary Wollstonecraft, born in 1759, ten years after Goethe and two hundred years before my sister Claire, was Wet and Dry.” Davey uses the antonyms to refer to two competing approaches to writing: the drive toward narrating a challenging subject (the Wet) and the complacent tackling of an easy topic (the Dry). In Hemlock Forest, the Wet is redefined as the “opposite of low-lying fruit,” the Dry, as that fruit which is all too easy to reach and pick from the branch.

Davey’s historical constellations bring together the living and dead, the distant and proximate, and the literary and biographical. At the same time, she constantly foregrounds the instability of this process, which is fueled by a desire for incidence, affinity, and accident. As her texts advance, fragment by fragment, they move from cultural history and biographical remarks to meditations on the process of writing. She circles with a kind of low-grade anxiety around the problem of the writer’s subject, the fear of writer’s block, the need to tell a story. Where to begin? With “the idea of writing from the unknown,” or by “working from notes and journals”? She likens these two methods to similar attitudes in photography: “the vérité approach of the street, seizing life and movement with little chance of reprise, and, in contrast, the controlled practice of the studio, where the artist is less exposed.”

Of course, the former approach poses the problem of the writer’s position with regard to the fraught category of “the Real.” Finding solace in the immediacy of this aesthetic strategy, she writes, “the thing is only alive (and, by extension, I am only alive) while it is in process.” As such, she oscillates between the two alternatives proposed by Jean-Luc Godard, “to live one’s life or to tell its story,” a dichotomy she also observes in the work of Louis Malle, Michael Haneke, Marguerite Duras, Chantal Akerman, and her son, Barney Simon-Davey. On the other hand, within the controlled space of the studio, she revisits what has been recorded: photographs andolder written documents. There, she cannibalizes herself, continuously reinvesting fragments, notes, and reflections from the past in the present. Through the insistent self-consciousness of her voice and image-making, she holds both states of risk and control in endless tension.

The co-publication of Les Goddesses and Hemlock Forest, shows Davey’s proclivity for partial reprisals of themes, characters, and phrases. They reappear aged and careworn, or retrieved from what she calls her “Pathography,” a document comprising abandoned or untouchable subjects. She interrogates the relationship between record and enactment, historical document and narrative storytelling, generating feedback and accretions of memory as she shifts between one and the other. Les Goddesses prominently features photographic portraits of her siblings taken in the ’80s in Ottawa and Montreal; in Hemlock Forest, she restages the same poses thirty years later. Black-and-white images of the brooding teenage gang are updated to color photographs of her middle-aged sisters. Yet, the careful pacing in pairs or sequences of both older and newer images, be they stills or photographs, invites longer looking to connect visual moments which, like the references in her writing, we know to be temporally disparate.

What the printed image cannot, by definition, perform in the way of the moving image’s continuity, is, however, accomplished in the resonances between both projects. Hemlock Forest, a joint commission of Bergen Kunstalle and the Montreal Biennial, renews Davey’s 2011 investigations of motherhood and family (see also her 2001 edited volume, Mother Reader) now mining the equally trying subject of her longing for her son as he ages. Two photographs by Simon-Davey appear in the book, one a dramatic restaging of a photo that has always haunted me, taken by the French writer-photographer Hervé Guibert, who died of AIDS in 1991: collapsed onto his desk, nude, engulfed in a cloud of smoke-the pose of the indolent writer.

Like her son, Davey slides into other personas through reenactment. Chantal Akerman’s suicide in 2015 prompts her to return to the filmmaker’s oeuvre, poring over her films and interviews, with admiration and unquenchable thirst. Davey describes reshooting a scene from Akerman’s 1977 film News from Home, her camera fixed on the tunneling length of a subway car, the design of which is radically different from the one Akerman shot decades ago. It was in that film that Akerman read out unanswered letters from her mother that she received when she first moved to New York. Akerman’s death came shortly after her mother’s and perhaps signals a deep-seated inability to survive her parent; as such, it undoubtedly informs Davey’s continued reflections on the question of motherhood.

In another scene, which like the subway sequence described above is reproduced in the book as a series of stills, Davey lies on a bed wearing only a bra, writing on index cards and indulgently eating powdered marshmallows in an echo of Akerman’s 1974 Je, Tu, Il, Elle. Her body, like her sisters’, becomes a site of dialogic exchange between past and present. Switching from first-person narration to the more intimate second person of dialogue and interpolation, Davey inhabits different registers while delivering a moving address to Akerman. Elsewhere in the book, she writes, “I’m reliant on the words of others, and I glom on to the dead.” Yet the affective charge of Davey’s work emerges precisely from her ability to bring the voices of others so singularly into her own.

It’s informative to read these two texts and watch the corresponding videos to glean the specificity of Davey’s narrative voice. To deliver the voice-overs in her recent videos Davey repeats pre-recorded lines faintly heard playing from the earpiece she carries as she paces slowly around her New York apartment. The materiality of her relation to herself and to her own voice is recoded as delay; from it emerge hesitations and occasional slip-ups, when she misses the prompt or fails to keep up. This delay, dramatized in the echoing of speech, is thematized both in writing and visually in her book as productive deferral of desire and of completion. Davey’s writing slows things down, providing a model, as Walter Benjamin writes in his seminal “The Author as Producer,” that cues the reader into the work’s mode of production and turns “readers or spectators into collaborators.” Like Davey suggests in her 2010 monograph Speaker Receiver, if we let the text point for rather than to something, we might find a kind of irresistible pleasure and awareness in suspension, in the Wet, away from the flattening speed of accelerated production.