Writing criticism inside a consensus is like swimming in an empty pool. You just stand there excitedly flapping your arms. There’s nothing to push against. Everyone I know pretty much loves the photographer, filmmaker and writer Moyra Davey. She’s singular in her coupling of erudition and vulnerability; also in her erasure of the gap between art, writing and life. This collection of her essays— from Fitzcarraldo Editions and New Directions Publishing—will only strengthen the consensus. These essays (or, transcribed journal entries) offer sympathetic pleasure because they are doing what our minds do—cycling and drifting through thoughts—with an elegance we wish we had.
Oddly, Davey’s notational style is all the more illuminating for its obliqueness. There is no anxious exegetic welding here. She traces her subjects by way of anecdotes, quotations, wanderings. This is how the world gets into the art. In “Notes on Photography and Accident,” 2008, she writes about her own optical neuritis. Her ophthalmologist is a camera fan. Thus a narrative stage is set for an associative mirroring action between the artist’s craft and her physical reality. She treasures photographic accidents, and is presumably stressed by accidents in the photographic eyeball. But what stands out is how she relishes the uncanny resonance between these things. Here is art, by way of an associative link, redeeming life’s cruel and random fucked up-ness.
Most writers at least try to avoid name dropping. Not Moyra Davey. She uses writing to gobble idols and influences. Her searching approach makes fandom not only delicious but nourishing. Even Stephen King shows up! And in very tony company: inside four pages, the prince of horror is flanked by Virginia Woolf, Roland Barthes, Alison Strayer, Georges Perec, Italo Calvino, Anton Chekhov, Harold Bloom, Janet Malcolm, Franz Kafka, Walter Benjamin, Lynne Sharon Schwartz. And that’s just the tip of the name-berg.
Usually these references are adoring, interested, friendly. An exception is made for the makers of big, expensive tableaux photographs, whose work suffers from “stilt coupled with bloat.” The critique is broad. But given that Jeff Wall is the only artist of this type mentioned in the essay, the dots are easily connected. I feel myself nodding. Not because I wholeheartedly agree, but because Davey’s motive is as unguarded as it is justified. She wants “to reclaim the critical history of ideas in relation to contemporary photographs.” She wants accidents, contingencies, risk. If this sounds romantic, I’d say the R word is just a synonym for complex sensation.
Davey’s language is itself photographic: at once highly detailed and reconciled to the certainty that so many details will be left outside the frame. Association and accumulation stand in for the argumentative rigour that we often expect from writing. She does sometimes tell stories—most notably in “Les Goddesses,” 2011, a touching and playfully self-mythologizing essay in which Davey and her sisters are likened to the Wollstonecraft sisters. This collection’s opening essay is also a work of (highly fragmented) storytelling, which establishes the importance of psychoanalysis for the texts that follow.
The opener is titled “Fifty Minutes,” 2006, referring to the length of an analysis session. It is narrated by a first-person “I.” But descriptions of “the narrator’s actions” suggest a doubled voice; the author is herself both a projection and a projector. “Fifty Minutes” toggles between accounts of physical and domestic experience, artistic influence and Davey’s psychoanalysis. After five years she leaves the couch, exasperated with her analyst’s orthodoxy. Davey’s finegrained anxiety saves this psychoanalytic story from being a dull trope. While she has “few positive memories of my analysis, I have to admit to the possibility that it helped me, that it gave me something I needed.” She’s sifting through difficult memories, searching for nuggets of good. In other words, living. But through writing.
We could surmise that psychoanalysis gave Davey a writing method. She seeks insight in dreams. In “Fifty Minutes” she writes that her analyst “was generous and kind, and he still occasionally makes an appearance in my dreams in that guise.” This sentence sounds warm and fuzzy. But “guise” implies deception—performed kindness. This skepticism of human goodness is unsettling. But there is also a beauty in that skepticism, as we see how people take form through our own layered consciousnesses.
Davey argues for incompletion and reconstitution as crucial aspects of artmaking, a process intimately bound to being. She realizes “that I write about being deformed and remade by the things I read. And I am trying to write in the form of the things that I want to read: diaries, fragments, lists.” Within these quotidian forms—as in psychoanalysis— recurring thoughts emphasize fixations, traumas, obsessions. In two essays written three years apart, Davey twice uses a quote from Rainer Werner Fassbinder. In “Les Goddesses,” 2011, and in “One Year,” 2014, the late German filmmaker advises: “the more ‘honestly’ you put yourself into the story, the more that story will concern others as well.” She is deeply preoccupied with the self’s anxious relationship to a world of other selves.
I admire her honesty. In “Opposite of Low Hanging Fruit,” 2017—a kind of extended artist’s statement foregrounding the importance of risk—Davey admits that she never understood the word “dialectic.” This candour reappears in “Hemlock Forest,” 2016, a loving eulogy to the late Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman. Reading jargon-laden academic writing on Akerman’s work, she explains: “I still don’t know what some of these word combinations mean, and I feel the hairs go up on my back as I remember the policing and posturing that went on in the eighties and nineties, and certain boring films that got made by way of enacting these theories.” Admirably, she does not only direct her doubt safely into the past, she also worries that her own student work leans on discursive explanation to the detriment of effect.
What makes these pages turn is Davey’s hypnotic movement between personal details, obsessive learning and all the stops in-between. The writing is grounded in flesh, blood and consciousness, and a desire to see those things change. Perfect. ❚
Moyra Davey Index Cards, Fitzcarraldo Editions and New Directions Publishing, 2020, 192 pages, paperback, $17.95.
Mitch Speed is an artist and writer based in Berlin. His book Mark Leckey: Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore was recently published by Afterall Books.