Slim Volume

The most remarkable element of this exhibition is a slim volume that could escape notice – not that books are in any way extraordinary in the work of Moyra Davey, an artist and essayist whose photographs, videos, and writings are full of images of them. This, however, is the first time she has ever made a book as an integral part of a new installation. Think of it as a commission, like that of a sculpture. That’s what I told Robert, my Institute of Contemporary Art colleague, and so we portioned the budget accordingly, dedicating the lion’s share – an amount the museum typically spends to pack and ship existing works of art – to the fabrication of Davey’s new publication.

When you come across this enticing little 104-page paperback in the museum, it may very well look like someone mislaid it in the gallery. Like a pocket edition, Burn the Diaries is designed to be affordable and accessible. It contains two essays and many color photographs, one of the first of which shows a gamine young woman with bangs, reading a book in a subway car. Many of the photographs show details of books (pages, print, spines) and bookscapes (shelved, piled, scattered).

Davey started out as a photographer in the early 1980s, but reading has become her medium. She has developed a singular body of work in which photography, film, and writing intertwine with her life in what is both a process and practice of reading. Deeply personal and acutely intellectual, the texts she reads range from the writings of Walter Benjamin and Virginia Woolf to the photographs of Peter Hujar; from the films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder to the taped interviews Davey conducts with family and friends; from bottles of prescription medicine to a clump of psychoanalyst’s bills; from shelves loaded with records and stereo equipment to a dusty bunny trapped beneath a dog’s paw. All satisfy Davey’s constant and voracious need for reading.

In a way that is truly discursive, Davey has engaged fellow readers who respond with pleasure, insight, and often surprising candor. The body of writing created in relation to her art stands as one of that art’s achievements. Art historian George Baker, writer Chris Kraus, and curator Helen Molesworth are among the cultural luminaries who have written, by way of Davey’s work, brilliant essays on photography, collecting, archives, illness, abjection, feminism, queer culture, psychoanalysis, motherhood, memory, and, of course, dust. That these are some of the most potent themes of postmodernism – a movement that began in literature, reading everything in culture critically as text – only makes the reading, and the pressure Davey’s art exerts on the writing that mirrors it, more intense.

In compiling her selected texts, Davey deploys photography and writing to frame, cut, quote, document, and reference – and to print. Print. She uses text – whether delivered as photograph, film, or actual book – to narrate, illuminate, analyze, interrogate, interpret, and even compose her life as an artist. So where does the reading stop and her life begin? This question gets raised early in Burn the Diaries when Davey quotes Pradeep Dalal, an artist friend who once observed critically of Davey’s work: “A part of me… wants to see… writing or reading, as personal and private and pleasurable…. Not everything we do it for art-making.” Dalal goes on to paraphrase Jean Genet’s advice to artists: “that to deepen your practice, it’s not just by studying writing, that it’s actually the other bits – the music, the theater, the film, and other things that all interlock and move you up a notch or two.” Davey’s response is to pick up the work of the French writer, criminal, and political activist and start reading.

In Burn the Diaries, Davey details dreams had, music listened to, friends interrogated, films watched, memories unleashed, and other episodes of daily life during her reading of Genet. Her writing is structured, as it often is, through short entries, interspersed with quotations and separated by indexical headings, such as SNOW, SLEEP, DISCIPLINE, LIBIDO, GIACOMETTI, MONEY, ALISON.

The second essay in the book is by Alison Strayer, a translator and writer living in Paris, who corresponds with Davey about her reading. Resistant from the start – “I scribble like a crank, ‘Why Genet?’” – Strayer responds by reaching reflexively for the work of Violette Leduc, another “blazing” outlaw figure of French literature (her writing was censored for its lesbianism). Leduc’s work cries out to be read: “Reader, my reader… stay with me’ is her clarion call [and] I am defeated in advance by her vigor,” Strayer writes of Leduc.

Strayer oscillated between Davey’s project and a parallel investigation of her own life and reading. It turns out the two women have known each other since childhood, both having grown up in Ottawa. Meanwhile, the copy of Genet’s complete works that Davey is reading – an old Gallimard edition in French – bears an inscription from Strayer to artist Susan Kealey, a mutual friend who was dying when she gave the book to Davey. By the end of her essay, Strayer has accepted Davey’s Genet-reading project, not least because his language shed a blaze of light onto Susan’s diaristic writings (“her style was precise and vibrant”) and on writings as a vital way of life. “At the end of the day,” Strayer writes to Davey, “the diarist, dreamer, writer… seized the words that gallop ahead, or, as you, [Moyra] write, moves a soft lead pencil across a page.”

Structurally speaking, Burn the Diaries is in many ways simply a plusher version of Davey’s very first book, a small, spiral-bound volume with a short text followed by pages of photographs. Grainy vintage portraits are paired with cold studies of toes (Davey made the feet of her husband, the artist Jason Simon, appear beastly). The text begins with an intimate fantasy about “the serene and the scatological,” then zeroes in on Surrealist philosopher Georges Batailles’s famous writings on the big toe and the nature of eroticism. A dead ringer for a Surrealist document, Davey’s [ages look like they could have come straight out of a book she was reading at the time: L’Amour Fou: Photography and Surrealism (1985) by Rosalind Krauss and Jane Livingston, revelatory for artists and academics alike, opened up a new way of seeing what radical use the Surrealists made of photography as a form of research – that is, of exploring, indexing, and documenting the uncanny, unseen, and theoretical.

The written component of her thesis exhibition, Object Choices at the University of San Diego in 1986, Davey’s first book was handed in but never shown. It remains in the artist’s possession, lasting proof that exhibitions are even more ephemeral than the documents they produce. Another lesson to abstract from Davey’s written thesis is one she learned as a teacher herself: “In one of the grad programs where I teach, students are required to write a thesis about their work and process. I notice that their photographs become vastly more interesting to me after I read what they’ve written about them: I like seeing their images shrunken and recontextualized, embedded in paragraphs of descriptive text.” Burn the Diaries, the book, makes discerning editorial use of photography, especially because the relationship between words and pictures here is far more associative than descriptive.

What should not get lost in all of this reading is a sense of the heft and loft of the work itself. Text-based though her practice may be, Davey is an artist who makes objects and exhibitions. Burn the Diaries is not only the title of a book but also the name of the installation in which the book appears on a table, surrounded by a series of photographs printed on the scale of small posters and pinned directly to the walls of the gallery in which Davey’s new film, My Saints, is also shown. When asked how she would like to present the film – a question that has many ramifications, for a digitized medium can be shown on a monitor (what size? on a pedestal? wall mounted?) or as a projection (what’s the throw? how many lumens?) – Davey, ever pragmatic, specified only that there be a comfortable place for viewers to sit.

These objects and their arrangement distill an entire household full of tables, chairs, books, screens, and couches. Like most pared-down gestures, Davey’s Spartan art has been years in the building. And since she is an artist who works at home, her rendition of gallery space into domestic space is a double occupation that operates on a surprising number of levels. On one, it is a feminist breach of authority to set up a modest life-work situation within the museum’s high cultural precinct. On another, Davey’s installation, though not exactly cozy, encourages us, as viewers, to make ourselves comfortable in the white cube; at the same time, it enforces a certain discipline. Reading requires concentration; to be lost in a book is to forget where you are and to forget even the object in hand (whether hardbound, paperback, or tablet). Similarly, Davey’s photos, film, and book all stand to disappear once viewers become readers within the volume of the gallery. So, quick, snap a picture. Davey’s show seems made, with provisionality in mind, to disappear – leaving in its wake a collection of documents: a book, a film, a stack of photos.

The exhibition, Burn the Diaries, like the book, is editorial in construction, though perhaps less obviously. All similarly small in format, the photographs are arranged in a sequence of groupings that float – in a grid, a stack, or a line – with plenty of white space in between. The walls of the gallery stand like the pages of a giant picture essay, from which columns of text have been removed.

The pictures are those Davey made for Burn the Diaries – including some that never actually made it into the book – plus images from past projects that expand on the book’s thematic lines and perennial preoccupations. Here are the dilapidated walls and dusty corners of Davey’s apartment building; here are cemeteries; here are dogs. The latter – portraits, really – Davey considers something of an indulgence (“I think my dogs have a human face,” she says of Rose and Bella’s sensitive gargoyle mugs). And yet, Davey notes, one often stumbles upon graves in the work of Genet, whose shuddering description of a scrawny dog taking a shit she quotes. Indeed, all the pictures hook back to the larger project of reading Genet, which in turn expands on the chapters of Davey’s own past work.

The photos themselves are examples of her signature “mailers”: C-prints, folded and sent through the post. Each bears the marks of its journey – creases, stamps, spots of brightly colored tape, the name and address of recipient and sender written in ink – across the face of the image. Clearly identified as pieces of correspondence on view in the gallery to be read, mailers as a form entered Davey’s oeuvre almost by chance. She credits her Toronto dealer John Goodwin, long a creative catalyst when it comes to exhibiting her work. In 2007, Goodwin was so smitten with the look of some picture proofs he had asked Davey to fold up and mail to the gallery that he reproduced a facsimile of one as the announcement for her show. As works of art, the mailers were codified two years later when Davey, living in Paris on a residency, was invited by the New York gallery Murray Guy to participate in a group show. Daunted by the logistics and expense of shipping and framing, Davey had a liberating notion: Why not just mail the photographs and exhibit them as the pieces of paper they are?

Davey hasn’t cut frames out of the picture entirely. One need only look at her early installations to see the strong and indelible presence of frames and framing. Regimented rows of gunmetal-blue steel frames turned her 1994 first gallery show at American Fine Arts in New York into a succinct study in museum display. At her final show at the gallery, a group of unframed photographs under glass was clustered on one wall like the elements of a collage that had drifted outside its frame and burst into a cloud of pictures. That was in 2003, the year dealer Colin de Land died and his gallery closed, in the wake of which Davey became a partner in Orchard, the pioneering space on the Lower East Side.

Cooperatively run, Orchard brought the many activities of its members – art, music, film, performance, and writing – together in a discursive program of exhibitions and events. In 2006, Davey organized Reality/Play, a group show into which she inserted a screening of a new work of her own that marked her return to film. This curatorial experience, along with her experience of the basic dynamism of Orchard’s program – how others thought about space and used it – heightened Davey’s awareness of her work’s almost obverse relationship to space. Her training as a photographer had inculcated her to see everything within the context of the frame; everything outside it, she says, she simply edits out. Likewise, Davey’s approach to installation seems like that of a picture editor – whom we imagine works on a horizontal surface, say, a bog tabletop – sifting, sorting, cutting, pairing, and grouping images not according to their physical format but in terms of their relationship as images to one another.

Film is all about editing. At ICA, Davey’s My Saints is shown as she prefers: projected in a dark space with a comfy couch – all the better to envelop us for the thirty-minute duration. In My Saints, artists, friends, and family members (many seated on couches) analyze a passage from Genet’s A Thief’s Journal. With each reading, the text – a scene in which Genet, the thief, watches with increasing detachment the mounting hysteria of a soldier searching for his stolen money – appears newly embodied. Each reader has her or his own individual take, and difference itself is manifested on-screen by the reader’s diverse ages, ethnicities, genders, and cultural backgrounds. Throughout the film, reading, subjectivity, and identity are powerfully linked and nuanced.

In a sketchy reenactment of Genet’s text, scenes show cash being hidden and moved around Davey’s apartment, where her films are mostly shot. The first perp is her son, Barney. Now a teenager, he has been part of his mother’s work since he was born. (Davey’s first published book was the anthology Mother Reader, which she started to edit shortly after giving birth.) In My Saints, Barney stashes the cash in a book, which his mother later rifles through, only to find the money gone. In another scene, a violent game of tug-of-war between Barney’s father and the family dog is witnessed through a shadow play of silhouettes, cast across a bookcase in a sunny rom. The churning light and wild joy are as disruptive as a dream, as love.

The film is an essay, structured in short episodes separated by titles, like the book with which the film shares narrative passages (Davey reading them in voice-over) and quotes (colorful typography on-screen). All three components – books, film, and photographs – contain overlapping material, though each has its own special scope and thrust. Unique to the film, for instance, are the interviews, which lightly play off a cinematic reference to Roam 666, Wim Wender’s 1982 documentary comprising a series of interviews with various people who respond to the same question about the future of film.

We could keep going deeper into the processes of looking, cross-referencing analyzing, and interpreting that every frame, picture, and page invites. Certainly Davey’s arrangement – the couch, the table, the chair – has made us comfortable enough as viewers to settle down into the work of reading that she as an artist does every day. But we are almost out of time. We will have to limit our reading to just two passages, both from the film.

“That was the hook,” Davey says near the beginning of My Saints, shortly after Dalal refers to Genet. Cut to a rickety ceiling fan, blades rotating, a little chain hanging down; enter, from below, Davey’s pale feet, followed by her long thin legs, reaching toward the ceiling then sticking up, midair. It’s just a little yoga, but so much else is there too, not least the artist’s own body. Davey has disclosed that she has been diagnosed with a degenerative disease, making both her frailty and her strength relative signs of the illness she lives with. Then there is the word “hooked,” offering a flash of legs hauled up and a body hanging like meat. To be hooked, of course, speaks of addiction (hooked on sex, drugs, booze, jazz, or Genet), the specific substance largely determining whether we’re talking attachment or abuse. Once you’re attuned, “hooked” is everywhere in Davey’s work, the word itself hooking together references, images, details, and texts into a powerful network, or safety net, holding art and life together by the delicate threads of strenuous reading.

The second passage comes nearly at the end of the film. Davey and Strayer are on the phone, winding up their Genet reading project. “I kind of thought it was a money and shit thing,” Strayer says. “Can you comment?” The camera pans over black-and-white photographs Davey took in 1984 during a trip the pair made to Budapest, then stops on a portrait of Strayer gazing straight at the lens. Yes, Davey responds, at first she thought her reading of Genet was fairly typical, until she began hearing how much it differed from others’: only then did it “allow me to tap into memories… of my own sadism and my own tightfistedness.” Davey lets go a disarming chuckle, then declares, “You’re the first, Alison, to turn the table on me.”

But the jig was up long ago. From the start, Davey’s work has depicted a complex imagery of that classic combination of money and shit, imagery that psychoanalysts read (and Bataille wrote about) in terms of excess and expenditure, abandon and control. Copperheads (1990), her uncannily enlarged portraits of old pennies, for instance, could not show lucre to be filthier. Her first film, Hell Notes (1990), starred Simon and Davey in the story of a wife whose money madness turns a couple’s life to shit – a Super 8 mm rendition of Erich von Stroheim’s silent classic Greed. Elsewhere she relates what a shrink once told her about paper and ink (smearing, pulpy, both inherently anal), offers tidbits from a cocktail-party conversation about laxatives, and gives a narrative of the family refrigerator, stocked weekly with nourishment and garbage, that is, frankly, twisted. In short, Strayer’s suspicion/insight seems consistent with Davey’s work as a whole.

To be fair, it was Davey who first turned the table on Strayer. It may be mock horror, but when Strayer receives Davey’s photograph of a thin slice of a fat biography of Genet on a dinner plate, “with a troubling wash of pink on a napkin,” Strayer exclaims, “Scandale!” It’s Davey’s habit to cut books into portion that will make them more manageable to read, say, on the subway. Strayer may be more reverent, but she’s no less morbid; to illustrate her essay, Strayer sends a snapshot of her unfinished novel lying in state, under a body. Burn, eat, flesh, fuel. Like all writing, diaries consume time, energy, calories, turning life into nourishment for others. Close the book, set it back down on the table, where it turns into a small Surrealist object, a trompe l’oeil stack of books and papers with a plate stashed between the pages. A slim volume, for sure, but make a meal of it.