Late Nights at the Whitney
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The creases, tape, nicks, and stamps that mark Moyra Davey’s photographs are the physical traces of being mailed from the artist’s studio to her mother, sisters, and nieces. Each piece carries the scars of its travels, formal elements imposed by time and the postal service that offer a visible record of the journey.
The images’ subject matter reflects this sense of a fractured voyage and the passage of time. Davey has isolated and photographed words gleaned from a series of letters penned by Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–1797), the mother of Frankenstein author Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley and herself a well-known novelist and advocate of women’s rights. The letters, written to the father of her infant daughter, detail her three-month trip through Scandinavia at the close of the eighteenth century and were published to popular acclaim. Davey notes, “Wollstonecraft’s Letters, a narrative moderated by a journey, has a special, self-generating momentum: a trip, with its displacements in time and space, can be the perfect way to frame a story.” Mounted alongside these are photographs of the journals and letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley and her stepsister, Claire Clairmont, as well as images from the artist’s own life. Davey’s present is captured by a picture of her studio; her past by two examples of her first photographs, the pinball machines and snooker table, taken when she was around the same age as the sisters when they were writing.
Throughout her career, Davey’s work in photography, video, and writing has explored fragments of daily life and the effects of time. Dust, old diaries, a pile of newspapers, a collection of lps, five years’ worth of empty liquor bottles—Davey considers these banal, forgotten artifacts, revealing their inherent, quiet beauty and sense of melancholy. In the rush of the moment, Davey slows things down, avoiding spectacle, focusing on process and change.
Davey's film Les Goddesses will be screening April 11 through 15. It presents the artist in her apartment, listening to a recording of her essay, “The Wet and the Dry,” on headphones, and reciting its words as she hears them. Her narration concerns the lives of Wollstonecraft, her two daughters, and their stepsister. Davey interweaves episodes from their untamed youth with recollections of her own sisters and a series of photographs she took of them in the early 1980s. The video began, Davey recently wrote, “as an inquiry into the validity of storytelling, specifically: telling one’s own story, and the ambivalence surrounding this drive.” What begins as an artful commingling of literary history and autobiography becomes a rigorous exercise in self-scrutiny, re-examining, as Davey puts it, “the vicissitudes of photography, as I’ve practiced it over the last thirty years.”
Moyra Davey's work is on view in the Museum's second floor galleries. Her work is being screened in the Museum's second floor film & video gallery April 11 through 15.