Review: Moyra Davey’s “life without sheets of paper to be scribbled on is masterpiece”

[Image: Subway Writers (detail), 2011, Moyra Davey]


What permeates Moyra Davey’s recent exhibition at Camden Arts Centre, “life without sheets of paper to be scribbled on is masterpiece”, is a concern on the small actions that create our everyday experiences, which are often unacknowledged.  Yet, the central themes concerning everyday life do not feel forced, rather the subjects Davey deals with in her work have bled into her practice in a wholly naturalistic way, creating a sweeping and encompassing feel to the whole show.

Davey makes it evident that various writers throughout time have played a large role in her work. In her series, Trust Me, Davey collaborates with writer Lynne Tillman, through mailing photographs to Tillman of household, personal domesticity which Tillman then applies her writing to. In this work, Davey and Tillman express the urge people have to tell their own personal stories of bad or good fortune as offerings to others. Combining this with Davey’s hazy photographs of her domestic living space, there is an honest and relatable quality to the work that allows for truly personal thoughts and ideas to come through. These communications are not isolating in their personal reflections, rather deeply relatable. Davey uses writing by Lynne Tillman to illustrate a point that personal honesty needn’t be self serving, that it must be transparent in the work for it to have universal effect.  Writing combined with personal images come together to bring to the foreground of the viewer’s attention particular feelings which may transpire or feel intrinsically personal. Although Davey’s work is highly personal, it completely avoids self-absorption, through letting the world come into the work in her methodology.

The nostalgic piece 50 Minutes is presented both as a film and as film stills, which were printed and then mailed to the gallery. Davey presents her habits and ideas, often referencing times in her life where she went into psychoanalysis. The reference to time is intrinsic within this work: the running time of fifty minutes runs in parallel to the standard time of a psychoanalysis session. Through Davey’s wondering and differing thoughts that run throughout the film, the viewer feels as if Davey has dug up clippings of chapters and passages of her therapy, collected and archived throughout film. It therefore makes sense for the film to work as an accompanying series of 12 screenshots, sections of the film selected, presented in a physical way and mailed to another destination for further enquiry and inspection by art gallery viewers. The print outs compliment the film but are ultimately contingent on the film screening.

Similarly in Subway Writers, which sprawls across a corner of the gallery, Davey has followed the mailing method. Davey has photographed unwitting subjects on the New York subways, immersed in their writing, whether it be the crossword, marking papers or personal notebooks. Through recording individuals’ journeys, creating an image from it and allowing the image to have its own journey through the mailing process to Camden Arts Centre, the work has outer life coming in and affecting the work in all respects. Each individual image of the series is punctuated with stamps and tape, showing the physical journey each image has gone through to arrive at its destination in a stark way. Together as a collection of images, the work captures the subject of each image, deeply content in their own individual lives. As the voyeur, Davey is able to access people’s lives and daily routines, capturing moments, collecting and arranging them so that we can see the quiet beauty these happenings possess.

There is an immersive quality to Davey’s process, in which a great deal of attention is paid to the particularity of small, perhaps unnoticed moments. This results in the differing subject natures dealt with within the work, to be reconsidered when you leave the gallery space and re-enter continuous life. The everyday happenings are not necessarily placed upon a pedestal to be grandly observed and are not transformed into something else. Thoughtful reflections, domestic life and everyday actions remain what they are. It is in seeing the small things that make up our days, reflected back upon us that creates an impression. We are more readily able to see the quiet beauty in the perhaps unrecognised and transient aspects of our surroundings.

Eleanor Rambellas Roche

Filed under: Art & Photography