life without sheets of paper to be scribbled on is masterpiece: Moyra Davey at Camden Arts Centre

Moyra Davey 05

Moyra Davey, life without sheets of paper to be scribbled on is masterpiece, Installation photograph, Camden Arts Centre, London, 2014. Image: Marcus J Leith

Moyra Davey is a reader. The Brooklyn-based ex-Montrealer could be called a photographer, a video artist or a writer. And she is all of those things – but Davey’s work is also steeped in the books that consume and surround her, and the work, in its various forms, in turn demands the attention of a difficult text. The selection of her photographs and films on view at Camden Arts Centre make a compelling case for reading as a productive act. For Davey, reading is a labour essential for living – a sometimes painstaking effort to budge a mind resistant to change.

The majority of images here show Davey’s everyday life and the passage of time: gridded close-ups of letters, books, clocks, screen-shots, people and places passed in transit. They are a form of visual note-taking, more remarkable as a habit and a window into Davey’s mind, than as individual compositions. Riddled with signs of use, with ripped pieces of coloured tape – green, pink and orange – sticker labels with hand-written addresses, and creases from having been folded and unfolded, they are more ephemera than art. Their placement on crisp gallery walls, however lightly or in the spirit of experimentation, can’t help but also make them a little too precious.

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Moyra Davey, life without sheets of paper to be scribbled on is masterpiece, Installation photograph, Camden Arts Centre, London, 2014. Image: Marcus J Leith

Moyra Davey_Subway Writers, 20112. 75 c-prints, tape, postage, ink_detail_Copyright The Artist (3)

Moyra Davey, Subway Writers (detail), 2011. 75 c-prints, tape, postage, ink.  ©The Artist.

Davey’s anti-commercial tact of making pictures into letters and sending them to the institutions that will show them also extends her obsession with reading. They become, literally, letters to be unfolded and read, rather than images to be consumed. (Even postcards are designed to protect the space of the image from the markings of pen and stamp). Still, I wanted to see some of these clear of debris. In particular her Subway Writers, the largest series on view, which recalls Walker Evans’s Subway Portraits from the late 1930s and early 40s. We don’t know what Davey’s fellow passengers are writing – novels, love letters, shopping lists – only that they appear absorbed in their acts, alone and productive on mass transit.

A video room loops a selection of four of Davey’s films: Fifty Minutes (2006), My Necropolis (2009) Les Goddesses (2011) and My Saints (2014). My Saints and Fifty Minutes both revolve around analysis. The latter is overtly an exercise in literary analysis, inviting subjects to respond to Jean Genet’s Journal du voleur (Thief’s Journal). It’s curious and engrossing, in part because her sitters are photographed so beautifully – always adjacent to natural daylight in a domestic setting – as they grapple with morality in a novel about love and sex and betrayal.

Moyra Davey_Still from Les Goddesses, 2011. HD video with sound, 61min_Copyright The Artist (2)

Moyra Davey, still from Les Goddesses, 2011. HD video with sound, 61min. © The artist.

Fifty minutes is a personal take on Davey’s own experience in analysis. She speaks candidly about the ridiculousness and theatricality of therapy – of having to be analytical on demand to satisfy her part opposite her ‘priggish’ psychotherapist. The daily journey offered an escape, at least, from the tyranny and anxiety of domestic repetition she also talks about – the filling up and emptying of the refrigerator, the endless, Sisyphean dusting of books.

Altogether the films run just over three hours, a big ask for most visitors, I’d imagine. Though slowing down and taking time is part of the experience of Davey’s work – a small defiance to speed and scale, to sound bites and easy consumption, and to ‘the steroidal expansion of photography as a medium’, as Helen Molesworth wrote in the introduction to Davey’s 2008 book Long Life Cool White.

The slowness of reading and understanding that’s so central for Davey is part of the reason that much of her work is also best understood in books.  Here image and text share the page more equitably, and the eye can shift between and among them more easily. A book, unlike an exhibition, is designed to be put down, mulled over, and returned to – called up and dusted off when the spirit strikes.

Moyra Davey: life without sheets of paper to be scribbled on is masterpiece is on view at Camden Arts Centre, London until 29 June.

– Sara Knelman

Sara Knelman teaches and writes about photography. She has worked as Curator of Contemporary Art at the Art Gallery of Hamilton, Canada, Talks Programmer at The Photographers’ Gallery, London, and currently teaches at the Courtauld Institute of Art, Sotheby’s Institute of Art and London South Bank University. She’s written for frieze, Photomonitor, Canadian Art and Daily Serving, as well as contributed essays to various books and exhibition catalogues.

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