The Moyra Davey Book Club

by Sarah Davidson

MOYRA DAVEY Dictionaries, 1996 C-Print 24 x 20 inches, 61 x 50.8 cm Edition of 5

There’s a restless energy lurking beneath the droning voice-overs in Moyra Davey’s Les Godesses and, after a while, I have noticed the same in her other work in Ornament and Reproach. In Les Godesses Davey paces the passageways of her apartment and, obliquely, the passageways of her own memory. In the course of my time spent sitting at the Satellite Gallery desk, I’ve probably watched her do this about 17 times, by rough estimate. Her voice hasn’t begun to seem any less monotone, but in our time together video-Davey has recommended some good books to read (see the end of the article for a reading list).  

As she paces through her own hallways and bedroom, half-filled with clutter and dust, the artist recites a prerecorded version of her own writing, while she also listens to it on an earpiece.  Also published as The Wet and the Dry, the essay is an equal mix of meticulous historical research and anecdotal family memoir.

MOYRA DAVEY Eisenstein, 1996 C-Print 24 x 20 inches, 61 x 50.8 cm Edition of 5

Davey’s apartment isn’t neat, and neither is her film-making. Critic Barry Schwabsky characterizes her style of filmmaking as “neutral.” Paul Teasdale calls it “simplistic.” To me, it seems vaguely non-committal, like the artist is unconvinced that it will do the trick. The camera sometimes shakes, and just as the narration begins to veer towards the confessional, Davey almost always changes tack, inserting a footnote of historical research or a quote. I’ll agree with those other critics on the fact that Davey seems uncomfortable in her own shoes, at least when she’s filming a video diary. Though she doesn’t seem to want to talk about herself, the unearthing of her own history is the most compelling theme of the work.

On the note of unearthing, it is worth mentioning that Davey’s work is also currently being shown alongside practitioners of other sorts of contemporary “archaeology.” The Way of the Shovel at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago aligns Davey with artists like Tacita Dean, Mark Dion, and Stan Douglas, to name a few. To make a sweeping generalization, all of the artists involved share an interest in re-remembering histories. Dion, famous for his fake archaeological digs, has also appeared at Davey’s homespun One Minute Film Festival. Although she works like a hermit, Davey shares her artistic concerns with a whole roster of contemporaries.

MOYRA DAVEY YMA, 1999 C-Print 24 x 20 inches, 61 x 50.8 cm Edition of 5

To return to Ornament and Reproach, let me paint you a picture of the show: a wall of folded photographs that have been sent through the mail. Close up shots of decaying American Pennies. Analog photographs of empty bottles. The workings of the artist are labyrinthine, laborious but cryptic, like obsessive scribblings found in the margin of an old book. The metaphor here is especially fitting—Davey scribbles obsessively about her books (some of which are part of the show), and books are symbols which re-appear throughout her work. As their forms decay, so does their value, for the stacks of yellowing volumes that fill Davey’s apartment in her videos, for the American pennies, and for the photographs sent roughly through the mail.

A fan of extensive reading and research, it is telling that Davey admires the work of W.G.Sebald, an author whose storytelling, like hers, comprises a physical and metaphysical wandering (most compellingly, through his own mind). Her critical perspective on everyday life is also shaped by a number of philosophical writings, and I will leave you now with a short reading list. This is by no means thorough. What I give you is a list of enjoyable reads which I’ve gathered over a few weeks with Davey, a sort of Davey-lit-lite for the uninitiated (move over Oprah!):

The Rings of Saturn, W.G. Sebald

Winter’s Tales, Isak Dinesen

Frankenstein, Mark Shelley

The Storyteller, Walter Benjamin

The Problem of Reading, Moyra Davey

How Should One Read a Book?, Virginia Woolf

If on a winter’s night a traveler, Italo Calvino



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