PRINT April 2020


Moyra Davey, i confess, 2019, HD video, color, sound, 56 minutes 46 seconds.

OVER THE PAST THIRTY YEARS, the artist Moyra Davey has made ten ever more luminous and ambitious films. Each of them is at once a work of continuity and rupture, from the quirky Hell Notes, 1990, which scours the bedrock of Manhattan and loops around the island’s coastline while piecing together a collage-like Super 8 meditation on the subjects of land, money, sewage, and waste, to the prickly i confess, 2019, which links a passionate rereading of James Baldwin’s ravishing novel Another Country (1962) to an extremely discomforting reconsideration of the writer Pierre Vallières, who led the militant Québécois liberation movement and wrote the highly controversial Marxist memoir Nègres blancs d’Amérique (1968), its title wincingly translated as White N of America (1971). Davey continues to build her films around difficult material, initially stemming from personal affairs involving shame and embarrassment, but growing increasingly political over time as they consider the temptations of revolutionary violence and armed struggle alongside the pileup of physical and mental damage caused by acts of war, genocide, repression, and terror. She has also steadily expanded her world of ideas while refining her technical procedures and aesthetic strategies. She never settles on a single approach. Instead, she constantly shifts her way of working, restlessly altering her treatment of even the most familiar subject matter, to the extent that Davey, a kaleidoscopic thinker and a voracious reader since childhood, can now appear to be many different artists to many different audiences.

Three stills from Moyra Davey’s Hell Notes, 1990/2017, Super 8 transferred to HD video, color, sound, 26 minutes 16 seconds.

Born in Toronto, Davey grew up in francophone Montreal and anglophone Ottawa. She was the second of seven children who were born in the space of nine years. Her father died when she was seventeen, and her mother struggled to raise a son and six daughters alone. Davey grew up in a house with few books. Her love of literature, and her intellectual hunger, developed in relation to childhood friends. By the time she entered a BFA program at Montreal’s Concordia University, which she subsequently dropped out of and returned to later on, Davey considered herself a surrealist, quizzically out of sync with what was happening in contemporary art at the time. She ended up in graduate school, at the University of California, San Diego, almost by chance, after visiting an artist friend who convinced her to apply. She came to New York in 1988 for the Whitney Independent Study Program, because the artist Jason Simon, her longtime partner, encouraged her to do so. Perhaps because her work is so instinctual, Davey’s ideas find expression in her art through a process of constant disputation—mostly with herself but also among circles of friends, communities of peers, and myriad writers past and present, whose works she reads, queries, and pairs to see what comes of their new connections.

In her 2014 photo essay “Burn the Diaries,” Davey describes this kind of juxtaposition, reading one writer in relation to another (in this case Jean Genet in relation to Violette Leduc), as a “collision of sensibilities,” which is exactly what her work so often orchestrates. Davey seems to revel in dialectical thinking, explosive combinations, the revelation of internal contradiction, and concrete examples of actual reinvention. She is her own first case, and compulsive. Davey began her career as a painter, shifted to photography around 1980, and later mastered the delicate art of the aerogram. Her oddly fierce and lovely aerogram series, for which Davey’s photographs, adorned with address labels and small stray blocks of color, are printed on poster-size paper, folded up, and mailed around the world to friends and colleagues, is still ongoing. The subjects of her photographs have themselves slipped around, from portraits of Davey’s sisters, her son, and his friends to street shots of newsstands and subway riders to still lifes of books, records, refrigerators, and pennies.

Davey once put years, even decades, between her films. She made 50 Minutes, 2006, a hilarious account of her own dreadful experience of psychoanalysis, sixteen years after Hell Notes. Now, however, she makes roughly one moving-image work a year. A strong literary sensibility and a habit of intricately recording her engagements with literature and the unexpected connections she draws between her reading and her personal life have gradually slipped in and taken hold of the structures that organize her output. Two events this spring—the US premiere on May 4 of i confess, which falls in the midst of a full-scale retrospective of her film work at the Museum of Modern Art, and the publication on May 26 of Index Cards (New Directions), a collection of essays and the texts, themselves essay-like, that serve to pace her films—promise to not only celebrate but also further amplify the schisms in her art, the wonderful confusion of categories (aesthetic, theoretical, political, national, linguistic) that animate her work.

Moyra Davey, 157, Women (detail), 2012, tape, postage, and ink on twenty-five C-prints, each 12 × 17 1⁄2".

Like many artists who took up photography at the end of the analog era, Davey adored and emulated Robert Frank (she still does). Like him, she has produced an impressive stack of thoughtful, beautifully made books. Her titles include volumes devoted to specific works (Les Goddesses/Hemlock Forest, 2017) and individual essays (The Problem of Reading, 2003) as well as more expansive surveys (Long Life Cool White, 2008, and the monographic Moyra Davey, 2019) that weave her writings around her photographs and stills from her films. Unlike these books, Index Cards has hardly any images at all. Those that do appear are downplayed, printed in black-and-white without titles or captions. With just two exceptions (for “Burn the Diaries” and the titular essay “Index Cards”), the images are placed after the ends of the texts to which they relate, like codas, or even endnotes.

Mother Reader (2001), the powerful anthology Davey edited on the crisis of being an artist and becoming a mother, published when her son turned five, features no images at all. Aside from her introduction, the book also includes none of her own writing. But all of the texts in Index Cards are Davey’s. It is the first of her books to present her writing autonomously, aimed at a wider literary audience outside of the art world, and so, of all her publications, it makes the most overt claim to date that her writing and her art exist on equal footing, rather than the former being a supplement to the latter. This puts Davey in league with a small but crucial group of artist-writers, such as Etel Adnan (poems and paintings), Teju Cole (photographs, novels, and essays), and Jalal Toufic (videos and prints alongside dense tracts of immensely valuable theory). Index Cards also tests the viability of her texts as texts. Do the narrative components of her films stand on their own, without visual cues, cuts and juxtapositions, qualities of light and color, without the bare-bones footage of the films themselves? Or do they work best as guides to works that her readers will have already seen?

Collection of Moyra Davey publications, 2003–19. Photo: Moyra Davey.

From watching Davey’s films, viewers have come to recognize the elements of her style, which has grown increasingly distinctive over time. She creates visual rhythm via a montage of disparate materials: analog prints and contact sheets, the pages of an old photography book flipping back to front, scrolling pictures on a mobile phone, seemingly incidental video footage of passing trains, recordings of a split-screen Skype call, a computer monitor playing films and interviews on YouTube, near-motionless images (they look like stills, but aren’t) of vintage paperbacks, urban foliage, a country snowstorm, dust on furniture, windowsills, a perfect triangle of pristine sunlight cast along a cream-colored wall. And then, more often than not, into this mix walks the artist herself, extremely slight in loose jeans and a tiny T-shirt, with mousy brown hair and expressive eyes. She clutches her phone or her glasses, takes off her clothes, fumbles with her equipment—but mostly she paces, endlessly circling through the rooms of her apartment while reading or reciting long passages (which we hear in voice-over) from a rich and digressive text she has written. Whether they merely organize the artist’s thoughts or serve to frame the work itself, the texts push viewers into decidedly uncomfortable territory, ranging from the straitened circumstances and darkening atmosphere that preceded Walter Benjamin’s suicide, in My Necropolis, 2009, to the harrowingly personal revelation, which emerges only gradually in Wedding Loop, 2017, that one of Davey’s young nieces has died of an accidental overdose, sending her mother, Davey’s sister, into her own tailspin of substance abuse.

Six stills from Moyra Davey’s Wedding Loop, 2017, HD video, color, sound, 22 minutes 45 seconds.

The texts for Davey’s films pick their way through the ungainly thickets of art and politics, with strong, purposeful forays into literature, the history of photography, psychoanalysis, family drama, collective trauma, and the seemingly insurmountable difficulties of living a full working and thinking life as a woman, an artist, and a mother. The artist strings together long associative chains, drawing on iconoclasts and innovators such as Chantal Akerman, Elena Ferrante, Derek Jarman, and Virginia Woolf. Sometimes Davey loses her place in the narrative and starts again. Or she stumbles onto some unexpected emotion, which suddenly derails her reading or reciting of the text. For example, in i confess, she remembers fighting with an old boyfriend: “I don’t think Louis and I slept together on that visit,” she relates. “I remember sobbing unashamedly—” Her voice catches on the last word, and she nearly bursts into tears all over again, as if summoning a pain long buried but unresolved.

The texts for Davey’s films pick their way through the ungainly thickets of art and politics, with forays into literature, family drama, collective trauma, and the seemingly insurmountable difficulties of living a full working and thinking life as a woman, an artist, and a mother.

What is so generous and capacious about these ventures into critical inquiry is that they are so permeable, vitally interwoven with biography, autobiography, the texture of everyday life. In Les Goddesses, 2011, Davey writes (and reads) of Mary Wollstonecraft reading Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther aloud with her husband, in 1797, on the night before the birth of her daughter, also named Mary, who will grow up to write Frankenstein (under her married name, Shelley). But Wollstonecraft dies of complications from a botched delivery, and so Mary Shelley must navigate the world without her. Two centuries later, it’s 1997, the same year I graduated from college, and Davey has survived childbirth (her son Barney was born on the last day of 1996). She is thirty-eight, the same age I was when my first daughter was born. By seamlessly connecting historical figures’ lives to hers, Davey’s work instigates the same kind of linkage between her stories and the viewer’s own, prompting her audiences to weave in their own references and memories.

Six stills from Moyra Davey’s Les Goddesses, 2011, HD video, color, sound, 61 minutes 2 seconds.

A parliament of mostly invisible bodies—colleagues and collaborators, her circle of disputatious friends—continues to shape and inform Davey’s art. The artist turns continually to the members of her self-styled assembly—her best friend Alison Strayer, who has been reading alongside her since they were girls; the writer Gregg Bordowitz, who appears in My Necropolis to offer key interpretations of Benjamin; Jason Simon, her husband, who sits with her on a park bench and wolfs down sandwiches in Hell Notes and who offers a mesmerizing reading of the Benjamin passage, cantilevering Bordowitz’s, in My Necropolis; the curator Helen Molesworth, who listened to Davey’s arguments and watched her footage for i confess and told her frankly what was working and what wasn’t, particularly on the subject of intersectionality. Davey peels back some of the mechanisms of this consultation-and-discussion process in “Burn the Diaries,” which is ostensibly about Jean Genet and the ability to transform oneself through reading (or watching films, or hearing music), but also treads into the murky area between competition among friends and the kind of meaningful camaraderie that leads to real artistic growth.

Two stills from Moyra Davey’s My Necropolis, 2009, digital video, color, sound, 32 minutes 18 seconds.

From watching Davey’s films, viewers have also come to feel that they know a great many things about the artist. She is neurotic, she has been fat and thin, several of her sisters have struggled with addiction and Davey herself was prone to excess in her twenties and thirties, she spent nearly six years in psychoanalysis with a shrink she couldn’t stand, she has multiple sclerosis. And yet the artist still somehow emerges from this seemingly radically confessional body of work with her mystery, her enigma, intact. We don’t really know her, at least not fully, for none of these facts, details, family secrets, or guarded pathologies, none of the images of her body as it ages, none of the ways in which she halts and modulates her voice, none of these things add up to the definitive accounting of a life or even an oeuvre. They are all constantly in flux.

It is this sense of contingency, of a life’s work never fully set, of magnetism sliding toward disaster or vice versa, that makes i confess in particular so riveting and at the same time so unsettling to watch. At the start of the 56-minute film, Davey conveys a sensation she has returned to often in her work: her restless searching for the next book she urgently needs to read, the next author to exhaust and deplete title by title, the next absolutely essential literary preoccupation to give herself over to entirely. One presents itself to her when Simon, an unabashed hoarder, comes home with a stack of thrift store paperbacks, including several books by Baldwin. Another Country captures Davey’s attention. It’s the explosive, anguished story of a jazz musician in free fall and the friends and lovers—bisexual, interracial, and brutally unfaithful, as well as ambitious, duplicitous, and intensely angry—who surround him and follow in his self-destructive wake. Davey reads Baldwin book by book, scours the internet for footage of him speaking, debating, and giving interviews. “I’d finished three of his books and was about to begin a fourth,” she recalls in the voice-over, “when I started to remember a political memoir from 1968 that I’d know about for decades but had never read.” That memoir is Vallières’s Nègres blancs d’Amérique, and quickly into that rabbit hole Davey follows.

The artist still somehow emerges from her seemingly radically confessional body of work with her mystery, her enigma, intact. We don’t really know her, at least not fully.

Charismatic, suicidal, and brilliant, Vallières came from the worst of Montreal’s slums. He fled briefly to France, became a journalist and activist, and eventually emerged as the intellectual leader and chief theoretician of the Front de Libération du Québec (FLQ), which was inspired by Frantz Fanon and modeled itself after the Algerian FLN. Vallières advocated armed insurrection, a revolution of the mind and body, not with the explicit goal of a separatist Quebecois state but rather with the idea of achieving freedom for all politically and economically oppressed people. In 1966, Vallières staged a protest outside the United Nations in New York. He and a friend were arrested, thrown in the Tombs, and then deported back to Canada, where Vallières was arrested on a robbery charge and later convicted of manslaughter. It was during his months in prison that he wrote Nègres blancs d’Amérique, the first and most noteworthy of his dozen or so books. It’s a memoir of his political awakening, an analysis of class relations in Quebec, and a record of his (highly misguided) attempt to make common cause with the struggle for civil rights by African Americans in the United States.

Four stills from Moyra Davey’s i confess, 2019, HD video, color, sound, 56 minutes 46 seconds.

The actual confessions of i confess are many and multilayered—that the ups and downs of Davey’s sex life are intimately connected to her reading, that her father was a politician on the wrong (or nonrevolutionary) side of history, that she was both deeply ashamed and fiercely protective of her culturally impoverished and excessively fertile family. Alternately speaking of herself in the third and first person, Davey adeptly delays the choice disclosure that she happened to have met Vallières, up close and in person, in the summer of 1980. By then he had served his time in prison, denounced violence, and returned to journalism. He was running a kind of commune in the countryside. Davey’s ex-boyfriend had gone to live there for a spell and was probably sleeping with Vallières. Davey was smitten, less by her former beau than by Vallières. She remembers him as gentle, soft-spoken, kind. “My take on him was that he was a kind of saintly figure,” she told me. “He was brilliant. He could have had any position. But he renounced any and all bourgeois pretentions. He was a revolutionary to his dying day.”

All of which might have made for a squirming and embarrassing confession, except that Davey then brings in the truly brilliant political theorist Dalie Giroux, a new member of her artistic parliament. A generation younger than Davey, Giroux is deeply critical of Vallières while maintaining a measure of compassion for the man. In the film, we meet Giroux as Davey does, through YouTube videos of her lectures. (Giroux is a professor at the University of Ottawa.) Without hearing her voice, you can sense her charisma—Davey describes her as artful and elliptical and shamanistic—through the movements of her body as she paces back and forth before theoretical schemes sketched onto a blackboard (tracing words like zero and action and trade-off to Rousseau’s La servitude volontaire and the work of the political anthropologist Pierre Clastres). And then, sometime later, after Davey posits the theory that Giroux is an heir to Vallières’s utopian vision, we cut to a shot of the academic, her face close, coming in and out of focus, speaking outside in a strong wind. Here, addressing Davey directly, Giroux shares her own off-the-cuff assessment of Vallières and his legacy.

Four stills from Moyra Davey’s i confess, 2019, HD video, color, sound, 56 minutes 46 seconds.

“His Marxist analysis is correct,” she says, “in that the farmers and workers were dispossessed of the means of production—their land and the factories. This resembles slavery, but only metaphorically. It’s a poor metaphor,” she continues, “and a disrespectful one—disrespectful of history and those who endured it. It’s different to arrive chained to a boat, kidnapped from another continent and sold as goods.” This is her interpretation now, she says. “In the late 1960s, to ally the Québécois cause with the black struggle was courageous, in my view, albeit inappropriate. Today we see how racist it is to say we are like black slaves. You’re misreading history to use it for your own suffering.” Davey says she was taken aback by the force of Giroux’s opinion, but its inclusion makes i confess a triumph of difficult thinking over soft-peddled nostalgia.

Still from Moyra Davey’s i confess, 2019, HD video, color, sound, 56 minutes 46 seconds.

Another Country was the novel that almost killed Baldwin to write. It took him years to finish, and the struggle to make his characters speak, to give his prose the sounds of jazz that were echoing in his head, nearly wrecked his health. (The book went on to become a best seller.) I remember taking a hardbound copy down from a high shelf in my parents’ house and spending an impressionable young summer—on a tiny wooded island with no electricity on an immensely serene lake somewhere in Canada—reading of the eye-popping anguish of Rufus and Vivaldo and Eric and Ida and Cass, thinking that sex and art and the ills of the world, thinking that just living with any ambition, was a bruising affair, and then reaching the end and thinking Istanbul, where Baldwin found the refuge he needed to complete the novel, must be the very center of the world. Baldwin’s trajectory—to Paris, to Istanbul, and back to New York—is similar in a way to Vallières’s, and to Davey’s. Theirs are all anxious, uncomfortable artistic odysseys, full of spiritual dangers and intellectual traps. That Davey, like Baldwin, keeps her friends close, and wrestles opposing views into her own thinking, into the grain of her voice and the rhythm of her films, seems to be the sign that we can trust in the transformations that her works will ultimately produce. 

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie is a critic based in New York and Beirut.