The New York artist Moyra Davey is known for her photographs, films
and literature as well. Her exhibition ‚Burn the Diaries‘ is currently on display at the mumok in Vienna. For her first solo show in Austria she developed
new works which refer not only to personal experiences but also to the French writer Jean Genet.
Sabrina Möller interviewed Davey during her stay in Vienna…
The digitization of the world has not only changed our daily life, it also generates a huge amount of digital images in our time. With your work – and the decision to use analog photography – you position yourself against this movement. Your work seems to slow things down, to focus on quiet moments, on fragments of our daily life, which we aren’t aware of any more. Would you say that “taking time” and “slowing down” – not only for yourself as the photographer but also for the viewers – is one your work’s main intentions?
I wouldn’t say it’s an intention, but I would say it is something that emerges naturally. I do of course use the digital medium of video, but it’s not my first choice. Digital video is interesting, because it’s so beautiful. It is so easy to make a beautiful image – even with an iPhone. So I have the possibility to make these really gorgeous images. The technology for shooting and editing is pretty good – not perfect, but the technology for the projection is a completely different story. So, just to make a long story short: digital video especially is a little scary. I recently got a digital camera and I am still kind of trying it out. I am not sure if I like it.
What is the scary part for you?
Just the look of the image. Do you know the photographer and film director Agnès Godard? She said something about how digital video is kind of implacable and violent: you have to find ways with lighting and that kind of thing. It is an interesting concept; it is actually violent somehow, because it is so precise and hard, if you compare it to the warmth of film. For me it feels like a moment of transition and I really don’t like to learn new technology. I am a bad student! The only way that I learn it is to start using the machine, having an idea and then the idea kind of makes it possible for me to learn this machine. But I can’t just learn the machine as an exercise. I find that totally boring! Maybe just the tiny little things – I really just want to know the basics.
With this new camera I’m probably just going to jump in right away and shoot a video with it. That will be how I get to know this camera. So, I am kind of on the fence. Everything in the gallery except the video is shot on film. But you don’t what will happen in the future…
When I shoot a film and have it developed, they make a scan automatically. You can just upload the scans and then you have the print on the next day. That is so incredible! It started to make me think, well, I should shoot a digital image. It’s like you eliminate one step in the process.
So, now it is a possibility for you to step into digital photography?
It’s a possibility. I am just taking it slow. It was easy to just start making digital video, because I only did a little bit of work on film before. But I have been working with photography for 30 years now, always on film. Therefore, the transition to digital photography is a lot harder than it was with video.
For your first solo show here in Austria you have developed some works which refer to Jean Genet. His key moment, realizing that he wants to become a writer, was when he wrote a postcard from prison to a German friend for Christmas. Instead of writing about Christmas, he wrote about the structure of the postcard in comparison to snow. Knowing your mailers I can see a coincidence: The structure of your mailing – and how it will be changed during the journey – is very important for you. Was that a big influence on you? Why did you decide to work on Jean Genet?
There is definitely a connection between what he says about the postcard and the texture of the paper. You know, the fact that I take photographs and fold them up: They become like giant postcards. So that’s a really a nice connection that you made. But that wasn’t really why I started with Genet in the very first place. It actually started with a friend offering a kind of a gentle criticism about the way I work. My friend said: Can’t some diaries, notebooks and journals just be private?
Does everything have to become material for art? And he quoted Genet when he voiced his criticism. I have always been interested in that idea of separation of art and life. Using life for art and the comparison, the drive that artists and writers have to turn everything into art: It can become a product. It’s just a way of life. It’s a question.
So, my friend brought up Genet and I was really curious – where does this come from? Genet did a lot of interviews; I found a collection and read all of them. My images start with the image that Genet described. He had this idea that there is more truth in the blank paper than in the words themselves. I’ve been thinking about a new video and I really had no idea what it was going to be. I just had the image of emptiness and light – maybe because the video I made before was so full of language and ideas, history and family history, that in a way I just wanted a break. In New York I read on the subway all the time. The sunlight kind of washed out the pages – there was the connection of that image of the book which is totally turned white by sunlight. And Genet wrote about the truth of the blankness of the page. That’s kind of where it started. So that was the beginning.
In your artist book, “Burn the Diaries,” you refer to an interview Jean Genet did for a book, in which he tells his life story in different variations. And each time he gets more focused and perfect. The conclusion is that the white part of the paper has more truth than the letters. Does the title of your exhibition “Burn the Diaries” refer to that as a critique of letters? Or how are we to understand this title, which at first seems to be against your love of books, writings, and diaries as a way to express and remind yourself?
Well, I think it’s a big preoccupation, because – diaries and notebooks can obviously be very important – they are tools for writing and creating art. But they are also a bad thing, because they are a bit of an addiction. They are filled with good things and bad things, too, so that you sometimes have this fantasy that you want to be stripped off all these bad things. I think that’s where this fantasy of burning comes from. This idea that you could just erase the past. It’s just a fantasy of freeing yourself from certain memories. Maybe freeing yourself from a certain idea who you were many years ago.
Do you keep a diary?
Yes, I do – on and off! I am very ambivalent about it. For me it is really necessary to have a notebook to work out ideas. But then I also sometimes get into the habit of keeping track of what’s happening. Going back and looking at the journals can be pretty interesting: to be reminded of things that you did, people you met and books you read. But I am not someone who collects things. There is a difference in personality: Some people are kind of constitutionally disposed. They have a big appetite. It’s a kind of generosity, too. They want things by other people – like my husband, who is a huge collector of all kinds of things. A lot of it is great. He collects a lot of machines for instance, he learns how they work: the technology of these machines. So it’s like an education based on a huge curiosity about the world. But I am not like that. I have a bit of a fear. One of my friends, who reads a lot, can’t stand the idea of owning books. And Genet says this, too: “I can’t stand the idea of owning literature by other people.” It’s kind of a fascinating difference between these sorts of personalities and character types.
Your photos often show books and written pages, which sometimes are covered with dust or time-wrought. What is more thrilling for you if you take a photo of a book: the structure and quality of the paper, or the words?
Using words is actually tricky, because they signify so much – they are so loaded. So the more often I take pictures of books I don’t photograph the spine, but the blank page and its texture. I love paper. I love the texture of paper. I tend to focus more on the parts of books where words are illegible, because otherwise you’re dealing with something very specific and very precise and you are connected to that word. If you want the word, that’s fine too. A lot of the shots in the video shoots are of a very thin bookcase – and it’s interesting because I wasn’t thinking so much about the books that are on that case; it was more the quality of the light that was coming in. All the shots were taken during sunset. The whole room is orange and red – it’s kind of amazing. That was what I was most interested in: the light. I wasn’t really paying attention to the books on the self, but now that’s what you see! It can be very, very specific for people, if they recognize a book. Suddenly, it takes on a very particular meaning, which maybe I wasn’t thinking so much about. I guess I am more interested in the idea of the book as object that pretends to be language, that opens up to all kinds of worlds and knowledge, and connects the reader to another person.___
When I saw your mailings today I was surprised to find three images of that young lady reading different books on the subway. I wasn’t sure if it’s a coincidence that you saw her a few times on the subway, or if it is staged. Then I saw your film – and there she was again! I realized that it is the same scene as in your mailings…
That’s Carolina. She is a Greek artist who lives in France now. She was my intern and she came to New York for a few months, just when I was starting that project. She helped me; when she arrived I was thinking about that video and I asked her if she wanted to be involved. And she said, sure. So, in a way it was thanks to her that I was able to get started. She agreed to go on the subway and to be filmed and perform those scenes in the video. She was my muse of sorts. She was wonderful and is a really great writer. At the moment she is getting her art diploma in Lyon.
How did the idea with your mailers come up?
I was doing a show in Toronto at my friend John Goodwin’s gallery . He was showing a video that I made in 2006. Every time he has a show, he makes a little poster and folds it up, to mail it. He said: “Why don’t you pick some pictures from the video and print them to exactly the same dimensions as my little mailing, fold them up and send them to me. And I’ll choose one to make a little poster.” That’s how it started. I’ve sent a bunch to him. Then, when I was in Paris, I was asked to be in a group show in New York, and I thought it would be a really easy way to participate in the show: to just take some photographs, fold them up and mail them. That’s how I started doing that. I love how the process just completely transforms the photograph into an object that you can treat in this very casual way. Traditional photography has to be perfect. Well, there are exceptions, but, generally, it has to be perfect. I hadn’t stopped taking photographs, but I had decided to work in video; to work with the moving image and sound and voice. But when I started doing the mailings it really changed my relationship to the photograph. Suddenly, it became fun for me. Fun and kind of interesting. How the photograph gets transformed by putting on the tapes and stamps and folding it and sending it to someone and imagining that person opening the photograph. It became kind of a dynamic process for me again. That’s how it started.
The structure of the material and how it changed seems to be the most important part. But how important is the recipient for you? Is there any dialogue with the photo you choose and the person who receives that mailer?
There is always a connection. For instance, I did a show in Winnipeg, Canada. My mother is from Winnipeg, so I mailed all of the photographs to my mother and other friends who lived in Winnipeg, or who had been married to someone from Winnipeg. That’s how I chose them, and then I collected them all back. I did another piece, where the work was based on a photograph of a book by Mary Wollstonecraft. She had two daughters and one of the daughters was Mary Shelley. They had a stepsister, too. It was a circle of women. So I made a piece that was based on one of her books and I mailed all of the photographs to my sister and my nieces. I also come from a big family of women. Actually, I made a video before, which is called “Les Goddesses.” It’s all about these kinds of almost coincidental relationships between Mary Wollstonecraft and her daughters, their lives and my sisters. I kind of fabricated these connections and coincidences among the lives of these two groups of women. And they are actually exactly 200 years apart!
In this show here in Vienna, a lot of the photographs were mailed to my friend Alison in Paris. At the same time, we were having this kind of dialogue in writing for my artist book. She was a recipient, but of course I send a lot of mailings directly to the mumok. Sometimes I send them to Paris and collect them back and sometimes I mail them directly to the museum. It’s a combination.
You are doing these mailing often – with different photos and recipients. Why is that? Do you think of these mailings as a kind of repetition – as a quality – or is there something that changes from mailing to mailing?
There is definitely something very repetitive about it. The process of folding them is super repetitive. And when I do it, I think of certain artists who write every day. Actually, there is something very calming about the process of assembling this object and then putting it into the mail. And actually, they always show up and never get lost!
You always play with contrasts such as public and private, writer and reader, photo and literature. How important is it for you to open a dialogue between these opposites?
To me, it is very important that there is a conversation between the image and the writing. To me, that’s kind of what’s the most interesting about the whole process. I started writing this text and, as I was writing, I took the photographs: in the beginning, the photographs and the texts were in a dialogue. And the video came afterwards. But it’s really a triangle. They are all speaking to each other and there are three different parts. To me, they are all important. What’s in the book, and what’s not in the video? I like the idea that you can watch the video, look at the photographs, and then read the book, and you suddenly realize that there are all the other stories and informations in the book that add something to the video. Then you might start to think about the video differently and realize other kinds of things about the video. I like that you can have an experience at the museum. I like the idea that the book extends the experience that you have of looking and listening and watching, to the outside world.___
Is there a feeling or a message you want the viewer to experience or receive?
I don’t really think in those terms. I wouldn’t think in terms of the word message, I think more in terms of experience. I would like it to be an experience of pleasure. Maybe this connects to the idea and the question that I brought up in the beginning about the relationship between life and art, and where artists stand in relation to that. I think it’s something very specific for artists and writers, but I think for people who are not artists or writers, it is an interesting question, too, but they may think about it in a different way. The whole thing about slowing things down is important for me: to make it a part of the experience.
Thank you so much for your time!
// Interview by Sabrina Möller
BURN THE DIARIES
21/02 – 25/05/2014
mumok • MuseumsQuartier • Museumsplatz 1 • 1070 Vienna • Austria