Moyra Davey: Portrait / Landscape
by Charmaine Li
“Just then I found a strange refuge – ‘by chance,’ as they say – though I believe there is no such thing. If you need something desperately and find it, this is not an accident; your own craving and compulsion leads you to it.” — Hermann Hesse 
If a coincidence is in the eye of the beholder, then reading such chance events involves being attentive enough to notice as the fragments of our lives collide. In Moyra Davey’s work, chance propels her artistic impulses. And through these chance encounters, she comes to engage myriad writers, photographers and filmmakers in telling her personal histories. In the exhibition Portrait / Landscape at Galerie Buchholz in Berlin, the artist presented two of her films alongside a suite of photographic works, most of which are rooted in the minutiae of her everyday.
Like several of Davey’s previous films, Hemlock Forest (2016) is largely shot in her New York apartment and weaves together her reflections on literary and artistic figures with intimate revelations from her personal life. The 41-minute film, a sequel to her 2011 work Les Goddesses, has a simple camera setup – it depicts Davey with earphones on, pacing in front of incongruous shots of windows, corridors and shards of sunlight emblazoned on walls, while reciting an essay she has written.
In a measured and dispassionate tone, she contemplates the value of art where little is at risk; a subway scene in Chantal Akerman’s film News from Home (1977); anxieties about her son leaving for college; Karl Ove Knausgaard’s shame; her judgements of her sister’s drinking; Mary Wollstonecraft’s family history; her own addiction to her work. The array of references reveals Davey’s proclivity for following resonant bits of material and wayward events to uncover more of her truth – like a kind of salvation. In an age saturated with blogging and oversharing, confessions can easily teeter on the edge of self-indulgence and solipsism, but in Hemlock Forest they seem necessary in confronting painful experiences and finding order in chaos. Although Davey’s revelations are often steeped in her own concerns, there’s a sense of detachment in her voice that establishes a distance from her material. She speaks candidly about her deep anxiety of shooting scenes in public, exposes intimate details about her opinions of family and friends, and recalls an instance when she urinated in front of an ATM machine due to her deteriorating health – all in a slow, nearly robotic, tone. This distancing brings to mind Vivian Gornick’s notion that a writer needs to fashion a persona out of one’s self in order to tell a personal narrative that’s of value to the disinterested reader.2 What’s left in is just as important as what’s ignored.
As Hemlock Forest unfolds, meditative sequences punctuate the film and inject the feeling of slowness – wavering treetops, Davey’s restaging of Akerman’s NYC subway scene, her son posing, flipping through a series of old photographs. Slip-ups and stutters remain in the final cut, amplifying the disquieting energy reverberating throughout. During the making of the film, the news breaks that Akerman has unexpectedly committed suicide. This drives Davey to revisit the Belgian filmmaker’s work and throws Hemlock Forest into a new direction, which she discloses in the narration.
Hemlock Forest unveils the reading, writing, thinking and connecting involved in telling a story, even including a bibliography at the end. In this way, it’s concerned with filming the process of making as a means to an end. “I’m piecing together fragments because I don’t yet have a subject,” she says monotonously before referring to Roland Barthes.
Choosing is easier than inventing and he wondered how he might pass from notes and fragments to the novel. He speculated that he was breaking the ultimate rule of writers, speaking about a nascent work, and that his work might in the end be the notes on its making.
Nevertheless, as Davey speaks, the threads come together to form a non-linear storytelling that is singularly her own.
In a similar vein to her films, Davey’s photography tends towards quotidian details and against the monumental. Two separate rooms at the back of the gallery are lined with clusters of her “mailers” – small chromogenic prints left unframed and pinned to the wall. She mails each of them, folding the poster-sized prints up, hand-writing the address of specific galleries on the image side and sealing them with squares of brightly coloured tape. What began as an efficient way to mail photographs to a friend in 2009 has developed into an ongoing component of her practice. These prints leave vestiges of their epistolary journeys, introducing new meaning to the photographs. Hoardings (2016) is a series of 12 modestly sized images – close-ups of bare trees in winter, gnarled tree branches, converging tree trunks – arranged in a 3 × 4 grid. In some photos, Davey has saturated and manipulated the colours to the extent that they’re reminiscent of infrared photographs. This effect, alongside the geometric patterns of the tape on the surfaces of the images – which resemble a camera’s view finder – draws the visitor’s attention towards the details and textures of the natural phenomena that might be overlooked in a larger tableau. Accompanying these folded images in the exhibition are more traditional black-and-white photographs held in glass-clip picture frames, taken by Davey, her partner, Jason Simon and her son, Barney Simon-Davey.
The exhibition takes its name from Davey’s photographic installation Portrait / Landscape (2017). A constellation of 66 mailers features portraits of Davey’s son and his friends taken from different angles, detailed shots of various names written in cursive as well as photographs of negatives and old photos of her sisters. Here, the artist incorporates the practice of repurposing existing photographs by re-photographing them. It unveils yet another way to look at her subjects – subjects with which the viewer is familiar as Davey circles back to them again and again in her work. Wedding Loop (2017), situated across from Portrait/Landscape also illustrates the cyclical nature of Davey’s work. The film follows a formal strategy similar to Hemlock Forest and Les Goddesses but this time it is loosely centred on family tensions at a wedding and linked with corresponding events from the biography of 19th-century British photographer Julia Margaret Cameron.
Subways – which inspired her 2011 photo series Subway Writers and became a large part of Hemlock Forest – reappear, but are captured from a voyeuristic perspective. Other themes that interlace her previous works also return in Wedding Loop, but here Davey presents them slightly altered: self-doubt; family drama; the investigation of artistic work; motherhood; the difference between documenting a life versus living it. The works in Portrait / Landscape offer no resolution nor totality, but there is a sense of Davey’s becoming. The artist is concerned with bringing the process of making into focus through a labyrinthine artistic framework that unfurls across the personal and the historical in slow motion. What is tangible here are the ways in which voracious reading, writing, photographing and filming are Davey’s methods to grope her way through her inner life and excavate meaning from detected coincidences and connections.