sat 04/07/2020

Moyra Davey: Index Cards review – fragments of the artist | reviews, news & interviews

Moyra Davey: Index Cards review – fragments of the artist

Moyra Davey: Index Cards review – fragments of the artist

An itinerant set of essays on the making of a distinctive style

Moyra Davey

Moyra Davey’s biographical note, included in Fitzcarraldo Editions’ copy of Index Cards, describes “a New York-based artist whose work comprises the fields of photography, film and writing.” It is a useful aperture into the Toronto-born artist’s varied oeuvre, and to the book itself. Davey’s latest collection of essays touches on each of these forms, and more: it features passages on motherhood, Davey’s close friends, the artistic process, and the more banal questions – to paraphrase: how to manage one’s fridge?

“The Fridge is the first excerpt in a video transcript of Fifty Minutes (2006), “a work of autofiction” and a loose, reflective piece on the artist’s experience of psychoanalytic therapy. The doctor’s couch acts as a place marker, or touchstone of sorts, but one that is used sparingly, and is no less than necessary. Instead, like the Fundamental Rule (in psychoanalysis, “the idea that you have to say everything that comes to consciousness … with all the pain and self-loathing”), Davey allows the subject to shift in and out of focus. Her prose is effortlessly smooth, her detours surprising without pretension, drifting through musings on books, nostalgia (“unconsummated desire kept alive by private forays into the cultural spaces of memory”) and interjected descriptions of the original video.

The rest of the collection proceeds in this manner. “Notes on Photography & Accident” delivers more or less what it promises: a lively, structured discussion on photography and accident – the latter summarised, as per Barthes, as that “cast of the dice”, or in literary terms, “remarks almost having the quality of a Freudian slip, that crop up … give the reader pause.” It is here that Davey is at her most assertive – and her most critical. Recounting a visit to an exhibition of Wolfgang Tillmans’ work, she concludes: “only their massiveness of scale and the technical mastery of manipulating gigantic sheets of color paper in the dark make any claim on our attention.” Again, however, Davey’s focus is liable to wander. Fiercely reflexive, the essay (as with the entirety of Index Cards) comes to rest most consistently on the act of writing itself, a subject teased out in its sly, metatextual opening line: “For a long time I’ve had a document on my desktop called ‘Photography & Accident.’”

Others are yet more diffuse. “Transit of Venus” constitutes a transcript of entries mined from Davey’s diaries – the fossilised notes of the artist’s own reading – that remain bare, un-subjected to analysis, and which at times prove startlingly prophetic. One excerpt reads: “LB: ‘I write these notes not even I can decipher. It is only in the moment of writing that they have meaning’”, its author’s name appropriately obscure. There is space for comedy, too. The essay (diary?) ends with a quote from Soft Machine founder Kevin Ayers: “I think the clever people are the ones who do as little as possible.” With such ease does this mantra apply itself to Davey’s own work that it is impossible not to picture her upon first encountering it, gratified, or consoled, striving to get it down.

Davey is alert to this process, by which the subjects of her readerly intrigue – a healthy mix of the obscure and the familiar – provide much of the generative impulse for her own text. At the end of “Opposite of Low-hanging Fruit”, she writes: “I hope to have given a picture of how I was formed as an artist and the psychic patterns and preoccupations that still impact the ways I work.” A homage, or “votive, this is the essence of Davey’s book – dedicated not only to her influences, but to their product, the collective text that her lifelong, random and repetitive indulgences have inscribed: herself. This is executed delicately, without self-aggrandisement. Rather, the dominant self-portrait is one of frailty, both in physical terms (Davey was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2007), and in her writing. She is deferent to her forebears, and frank about her difficulties, admitting “I almost always short myself, barely meet the word count.”

Featuring amongst the many quotes scattered throughout the book is one from Italian journalist and writer Italo Calvino's essay Why Read the Classics?, in which he provides a definition of a classic work: “a book which even when we read it for the first time gives the sense of rereading something we have read before.” Moving chronologically through Davey’s essays, there is an anticipation for the moment that Index Cards, with all its concern for the “read before”, finally attains to Calvino's description. In truth, it never quite does – the book lives too much in the shadows, is too overtly concerned with the question of influence for any such “sense” to impress itself. Nonetheless, it remains a rich anthology of ideas, broad in its scope, and undoubtedly rewarding. It seems “short” doesn’t matter after all.

@danielbaksi

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