Les Goddesses — an essay occasioned by Moyra Davey’s exhibition: “Spleen. Indolence. Torpor. Ill-humor.” at Murray Guy Gallery. Written by Susan Silas.
Jane. She is naked in the tub. Is she the muse of indolence? Of torpor? Her elbows rest on the edge of the tub, her head is bent forward, her eyes downcast. Drops of water cling to her and create the illusion that her skin is shedding tears. She is young and thus beautiful; naked thus vulnerable. It is 1979. The black and white photograph is of the artist’s sister. There are historical precedents for bathtub imagery in art; La Mort De Marat by Jacques-Louis David being perhaps the most well known, but my personal favorite is the photograph of war correspondent Lee Miller on the day of Hitler’s suicide, bathing in his private bath in his home in Munich with her soiled combat boots on the gleaming floor of his pristine bathroom. In the context of this exhibition, the portrait of Jane is also an historical photograph. In fact, the entire exhibition is a complex interweaving of the present and the past inhabiting two rooms—one of still images and one of video.
After watching the video Les Goddesses, I read the text—The Wet and the Dry, Davey’s transcript of the voice– over. I paid $10 for it. And when I read it I was astonished to discover that it resembled the voice–over not at all even though all of the words were familiar, in fact, identical. Derrida, by incredible sleight of hand, tries to convince us that the text precedes speech. He’s compelling, but in the end I just shrug my shoulders and go back to believing what my senses tell me about the world and how it is put together. In Moyra Davey’s video, the text does precede speech, because it is being spoken but it is clearly already written. From what I can tell she is listening to her own prerecorded voice on some kind of prompter, hearing her scripted words inside her skull while she tries to enunciate them. She stumbles often and is not very adept with this device, yet somehow the occasional echo of her voice seeping from this machine and her deadpan and halting speech become completely mesmerizing. It is not just because we hear the echo of the voice she must hear resonating in her head that we become conscious of interiority while watching. Ms. Davey wanders about in her apartment, ambling from room to room, window to window. And then we cut to the camera looking directly out the window at the city thrumming outside those walls and it is then that we become acutely conscious of the apartment walls as a second skin and the windows become a giant eyeball watching the exterior world just beyond reach. To my amazement a giant hawk sweeps by. A relation of Pale Male and Lola perhaps. The peripatetic wandering from room to room and the interiority of biographical speech juxtaposed against the moving city creates a doubling; her body moving within two containers—her skin and her rooms.
She tells us about the diaries of others. She is shy to tell us her own biography and uses them as cover. The subtitle of her video is—The Social Life of the Book. She has shown us her books before in photographs. Here in a magical passage she moves a set of books from one shelf to another and as she does so, she blows the accumulated dust from their top edges out the open window in big puffy clouds. “Dust to dust,” she quotes Mary Wollstonecraft. She, Ms. Davey, has photographed dust before. They say that a large percentage of dust is made up of the skin we shed—not like a snake all in one go—but in discreet amounts day and night. Sloughing off our old skin and regenerating ourselves. As the narrative progresses, the author and reader of diaries weaves together a series of images from her past. The camera dwells on black and white photographs she has taken of her family early in her career, some of which we have seen in the front room, and then pans to images and stories of others born hundreds of years before her. And we realize that the lives of these particular others come to us because they chose to write and because they wrote well and that the artist is choosing to write, to speak, to join in The Social Life of the Book. And I find myself deeply moved by her movement through space, by her attention to detail, by her love of her siblings, by her love of writing, by her conviction in complexity, by the beauty of her images, by the circularity and structure of the video which is broken into chapters much like a book and which breathes life into the exhibition, demonstrating the continuity of human endeavor all the while pointing to the compost heap we will all inevitably join.
This is a video that seems modest at first glance. Often in a gallery setting, people walk in and watch for a few seconds, maybe a minute and then retreat. The gallery has placed a very cushy 3–seater couch in the room. So I sat. Two others appeared in the room after I had been sitting for some time. They were clearly in the midst of the “should I stay or should I go” debate in their heads. I recognized one of them, someone I know vaguely and think highly of. I suggested they sit. They did. It takes time for the piece to do its work—to unfold and reveal itself and we are an impatient lot in general. The video seems artless at first. It is deceptive. Sun glares off a building in the distance. It snows. Birds fly across the screen. Thick traffic moves along the West Side Highway. Grey clouds close in around the building. Mary Shelley is born and so are Ms. Davey’s five younger siblings. Her father dies at the age of forty-five by falling off the roof of their family home. Byron dies fighting the war of independence in Greece. Mary Shelley dies. Ms. Davey’s son is born.
At thirteen Ms. Davey’s son tells her that museums put him to sleep and he would rather go to an airport and “watch the planes take off and land”. In 1981, Barbara Bloom taught a film seminar at Cal Arts. She took our class to LAX to watch the planes take off and land. Ms. Davey’s son is onto something. I have gone to airports many times to watch planes take off and land. In Ms. Davey’s video, her story begins with Goethe’s The Flight to Italy. A takeoff and a landing. That which makes Goethe’s diary possible. His trip from Weimar to Italy. She too is moving, not in flight exactly, but in motion, in time. And that is something required from the audience. A bit of time. A friend remarked that what she most liked about this video was the notion of a woman taking up this much room, this much of our time. She saw an audaciousness in it. And while I agree with this in theory—that women need to feel free to be visible and take up space in ways that are not generally given to them willingly, and while this may indeed be going on—this is not what I saw as I watched. What I saw was a careful mixture of personal imagery and spoken word that created not only a dichotomy between interior and exterior, but raised the same question that so haunted David Foster Wallace: is it ever possible to really communicate interiority to the outside, to bridge the gap between the skin of one’s self and the skin of another? And you know that a lot of people are trying. As the exquisite writer Lynne Tillman states in her text contribution to Ms. Davey’s Trust Me, 2011, a work composed of multiple images that were folded and addressed to the writer and sent through the mail, then unfolded and hung against the wall unframed in a grid, “Most people will divulge more than you want to know.”