For photographer, author, and filmmaker Moyra Davey, autobiography is a form of intertextuality. In some of the most insightful videos made in the last decade, abundant literary references map personal inquiries into collective memory and history. Dressed plainly and donning a headset, the artist paces around her apartment in Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood, reciting notes on a range of writers and thinkers. As her thin frame catches the golden light streaming through her windows, we absorb the radiance of Davey’s sentimental education.
Exposure and illumination are, of course, the photographer’s tools. So, too, for Davey, are dust and detritus. In this show, which traveled to Montreal from the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, several photographic series revel in the quotidian: New York’s subway riders, empty whiskey bottles. Yet only upon closer inspection does one realize that the dark smudge visible behind one depleted bottle in Empties, 2017, is a baby; the series is also a desperate diary of motherhood.
Davey’s photographs, like days spent, signify via the play of repetition and difference. They also create opportunities for correspondence and collaboration. In Trust Me, 2011, Davey pairs fragments from a Lynne Tillman novel—SINCE INTEREST IN OTHER / PEOPLE IS ALSO AN / INTEREST IN YOURSELF—with images of her own crumbling apartment. The juxtaposition poignantly conveys the neurotic obsessions that penetrate our interpersonal relations.
Faithfulness to analog media—film photography, vinyl-record collections, books, newspaper kiosks, snail mail—marks Davey’s commitment to the contingency and communality of material modes of exchange. This concern is visible even in the modest, albeit ingenious, way that she exhibits her photographs. To overcome the self-importance of shipping framed art, she simply folds her photographs to make them envelopes, affixes tape and mailing labels, and then sends them through the post. To exhibit these pieces, someone must slice the sealed tape, unfold the images, and tack them to a wall. Carefully arranged in the gallery of Concordia University—where the artist earned her BFA—her haunting tableaux bore these indexical creases, as well as constellations of brightly colored bits of tape punctuating their otherwise neutral tones. Her conceptual approach in refusing the art world’s pomp becomes formal praxis.
While quiet references to Bruce Davidson, Walker Evans, and Giorgio Morandi abound, Davey’s photographs strike us, first and foremost, as objects of transit. The encounters she captures—between light and glass, strangers on a train, or her son’s now-grown childhood friends—insist that all texts must be read in a web of social relations. As the surprisingly visible names and addresses on her mailing labels attest, these kinships are not between rarefied artworks and anonymous institutions, but between individuals. Davey’s transmissions feel like love letters, intimately exchanged between friends, family, and fellow travelers, both past and future.
Although artworks, like people, can move through the world in envelopes stamped for legibility, we psychoanalytically minded thinkers typically privilege the content over the container. In Davey’s mailings, these things become one and the same. Nonetheless, one still cannot judge a “book” by its cover.
This cliché bristles with renewed import in Davey’s video essay i confess, 2019. Following Raoul Peck’s documentary I am Not Your Negro (2016), Davey commenced a rereading of James Baldwin’s novels. His refusal to accept subordination led her to investigate the use of racialized discourse in the Quiet Revolution against anglophone domination in her native Quebec. In 1968, separatist Pierre Vallières famously deployed the N-word to describe the poverty and prejudice suffered by white francophone Quebecois in his political memoir Nègres blancs d’Amérique. (The English translation of the book’s title was even more incendiary.) Yet Vallières’s misguided analogy is merely one thread in Davey’s confession of her own entanglement in liberation politics. Although part of the anglophone minority, Davey endured the iron fist of the Catholic Church alongside her francophone classmates; one of her lovers abandoned her to join Vallières’s commune. Only as an adult did the artist learn that her father, serving in Pierre Trudeau’s government, might have helped to deploy the War Measures Act to violently suppress Quebecois separatists in 1970’s October Crisis. Seemingly dusted with shame, the resulting account casts the language of autobiography in a new light.
— Ara Osterweil