A few weeks back, as autumn arrived to Berlin, I listened to a thirty year-old curator explain that she was leaving art to study tea, because the former had ceased to nourish her. This didn’t seem like the best idea, but I know the feeling. Given the lofty cultural esteem ascribed to art, it’s curious how artists and critics seem to choke in their search for a raison d’être. No one likes to justify their own existence, of course. And maybe this sputtering is a subtle defiance of the soaring bureaucratic rhetoric often slapped on “the arts”: all those words about bridging cultural divides that careen histrionically over art’s humble capacities.
Like a neurotic friend with some bleak remark always at the ready, the question lingers: why continue to make art? Most artists I know still harbor a flickering belief in some greater purpose; some version of their pursuit that, as Claes Oldenburg put it, is “political-erotical-mystical, that does something other than sit on its ass in a museum.”
But as hurtling rent prices and criminal tuition fees force artists to prioritize sales, contemporary art’s ability to host deep or intricate experience is drastically attenuated. Hito Steyerl was unfortunately justified in declaring that the discipline functions in order to lend “primordial accumulation (read: the profits of the venture capitalists who can afford to buy it) a whiff of conceptual razzmatazz.” And although many artists might itch to prove her wrong, those who aren’t too busy just keeping their head above water have often so deeply internalized the fear of losing their elevated position that the idea of seriously engaging with the problem of contemporary art is, well, a non-starter. If you Google “economic precarity in art,” you’ll be met with a flood of results, all clamoring to understand and remedy the alienation of artists from their own work.
In this climate, intimations that life might depend on art, feel like waking sparks, in the wan atmosphere of so much dissimulating discourse. Moyra Davey’s Hemlock Forest (2016), a narrated film within her ongoing exhibition at Galerie Buchholz Berlin, contains no fewer than three such passages:
I need to keep working to live, and not just materially. Because I’ve come to realize I’ll never find happiness in idle pleasure…
The trouble is, you can only live once you’ve filmed. That feeling of freedom and release comes only after you’ve worked very hard for it.
She is awed by your faces, your smiles, your jokes, your aliveness. She feels alive when she is behind the camera.
The quotes seem to come from another, more earnest time – though memories of such periods are almost always wistful fantasies. In any case, a certain atemporality lines Davey’s work: a dislocation from novelty that runs counter to her current spike in popularity. For years, she was loved but not hugely acclaimed: a member of New York’s influential artist-run Gallery Orchard 47 in the aughts, and later a fixture at New York’s tragically-defunct Murray Guy gallery. This summer, documenta14 featured a long wall of her signature Mailers: C-prints that have been folded, addressed, stamped, and taped for mail travel, before being re-hung: the tape and stamps becoming constellations over the images. The Mailers – new versions of which are on view here – transform without mystifying. They are at once close to, and estranged from, the common pleasures of snapshots and postcards. They reflect a desire to parse epistolary magic, without analyzing it into oblivion.
Davey’s project has nebulous form, with essays explicating the photographs and mailers explicated in texts, and sometimes as narratives for her films. These fragmentary essays do not attempt to govern the work, in the way of so many press releases. Neither do they flounder in vague poetic abstraction: an inverse but equally mortal failing. Instead, they web the work and the viewer into that clandestine zone where necessity and influence converge in the act of making art. They could be lodestars for any artist unnerved by the gulf between material artwork and the written word.
The above quotations typify the softer moments in Davey’s project: elusively biographical, shuttling between family and artistic genealogy. In more than one film, she paces in her apartment, reading her own words aloud. At a measured tempo, these shots interchange with landscapes, dusty books and records, as well as unpolished vignettes wherein the artist slips into another persona, barely discernible from her ordinary self – to the extent that such a thing exists.
The film Hemlock Forest is a kind of sequel to Les Goddesses (2011). While the earlier work was a fractional comparative biography, linking Davey’s sisterly kinship to that of Mary Wollstonecraft, this new piece finds a similar parallel between the Davey sisters, and her son Barry’s fraternity with his own friends. The artist’s modelling of this analogue is moving for the obvious reason of a mother finding resonances with her son’s experience. And the effect is amplified and complicated by her plaintive identification with the feminism of her luminary Chantel Akerman. Spoken admirations for Akerman interchange with sympathetic video documentation of a young hetero-masculine ritual. In one scene, the young men take up guns to mug for the camera. They are aligned shoulder to shoulder against a white wall. This is the same wall where Davey will soon position her own sisters: an odd echo, a temporal puzzle.
Fostering such intricate resonances in art requires an unusual amount of time: a slowness too often squelched by the art industry’s obsession with high-turnover. It’s not some cliche of indulgent complexity, that’s at stake here. Davey’s film offers a model for disassembling and re-forming boilerplate life-narratives, and the stock characters the inhabit them: mother, artist, son… It’s the second part, the re-forming, which ushers the work past sophomoric identity deconstruction. Take Davey’s description of Barry and his friends staying up late to get high in a cottage; it’s an innocent scene: a cliché of our dangerous teenage years, wherein danger gets performed. But it’s also fractured and aerated by Davey’s spoken account. After observing the young men, she remembers her own sisters, who “didn’t come through [their] party days unscathed” – and who the artist achingly admits to judging. This is gutting multivalence: a multi-fronted self-disclosure that is never dreary or merely cathartic: always lighted by the magic of unexpected echoes, and the low-fi rituals of transformation enabled by Davey’s basic camera equipment, and the contingent lighting of her uptown New York apartment. The work could never be confused with the “post-conceptual razzmatazz” that rankles Steyerl.
This is an artist not given to shying from admissions. In this, her work nods to the tradition of confessional writing. Which isn’t to say that it coasts on the frisson of raw disclosures; on the the contrary, it is splintered by the artist’s awareness of this inheritance. Quick cameos by the confessional pantheon – Anne Sexton book covers, and the like – suggest a brutal process of self-accounting.
All the same, Portrait/Landscape has put a fissure of skepticism through my – perhaps too-venerating – relationship to Davey’s work. Always, history, family, and acquaintance seem to loop back into the artist herself: her recollections, anxieties, and ways of making art. It’s a dynamic dangerously close to the trend of pop-solipism that swept internet magazines in recent years, and more generally to neoliberalism’s esteem of self-expression. Admirations of Akerman’s feminism and Mary Wollstonecraft’s political commitment don’t quite cover the gap between Davey and her social context. Her way of dealing with this problem is to challenge the solitary nature often ascribed to personal voice. By going deeper, the solution works; for Davey, the voice is a collage made from the linguistic commons, and quotation offers a way of forging acquaintance with its disappeared contributors: “I rely on the words of others. I glom onto the dead.”
Sometimes, the dead inhabit Davey. In one scene, she speaks about her identification with the heartbreak Akerman’s mother felt over unanswered letters to the young Chantel, who had just moved to New York: there’s a quick cut to Davey’s own New York apartment, where she paces, reads, dusts. The latter scene calls up the protagonist in Akerman’s 1975 masterpiece, Jeanne Dielman: “a woman imprisoned by her home and the routine of its maintenance.” Shortly, the artist shape-shifts once more, imitating Ackerman herself, as she once appeared in her own film. Sitting on her bed, Davey undresses, takes notes, and consumes a package of sugary baking. The scene is directly cribbed from Je Tu Il Elle (1975), which soon appears in Davey’s film, by way of a short black-and-white clip.
Such quotations – performed, spoken, collaged – form a narrative of subject formation that is stratified, but hardly inscrutable. The results can seem compressed, like an encrypted notebook that only reveals its stories gradually, over time. And while it’s true that for a hurried viewer this method could seem opaque, I’m not sure there’s a way around this problem. Opacity is a risk necessarily courted by an artist unsatisfied with lolling in the lukewarm shallows of six-second encounters: disinterested in churning out saleable backdrops for opening parties.
Another peril is drifting from close, to too close. At Buchholz, Davey had hung several black-and-white photos. Some were hers: two portraits of her shirtless son, light splotching his athletic body. Others were shot by that same son, of his friends; or by the artist Jason Simon, Davey’s husband: black rectangles halved by curling smoke. All were beautiful, and all contributed to the mosaic effect of Davey’s project, poking up elsewhere, in the Mailers and films. In the moment, the gesture seemed a little too all-in-the-family: an overly heavy stroke in a nuanced tracing. But if art is to do something other than “sit on its ass in a museum,” it has to chance the boundaries that keep acceptably sanitary subjects quarantined from those deemed corrupt, whether by sentiment or politics.
In Portrait/Landscape, the odd drift into warm-fuzziness was tempered by unremitting complexity: a conjoining of the artist with her subjects, in a single protean reflection. Anyone struggling to voice art’s worldly consequence could do much worse than Davey’s model: by all means, link your work to life, but be sure to follow-up with a reflective plunge. Towards this kind of outcome, I could deal with more artists risking too much.