Moyra Davey: Pygmalion Desire in Les Goddesses

Moyra Davey, Les Goddesses, 2011, HD video with sound, 61m

‘A young English woman, named Mary Wollstonecraft, lived by her wits and her pen.’

(Fade to a black-and-white, medium close-up photograph of a young woman stretched out on the grass. The camera stares down on its subject, yet the assured gaze of the woman suggests it is she who stares down the photographer. Her worn, short-sleeved sweater and bob haircut puts her in the 1980s.)

‘One day she met an American adventurer, named Gilbert Imlay.’

(Head shot of a young man. His body facing away from the camera, he glances sideways into the lens with shaded
eyes and glum hesitancy. To his right
is the naked shoulder of a young woman, her body cut off by the camera’s framing.)

‘In love, they moved to Paris, where they had a daughter named Fanny.’

(Soft-focus colour photograph depicts a smiling girl posed against a neutral photo backdrop. She clutches a long- haired cat close to her chest. The girl wears an eccentric red kufi hat. A dog collar encircles her wrist.)

‘But Gilbert travelled more and more, and soon it became apparent he had a wandering eye as well. Heartbroken over this desertion, Mary drank laudanum.’

(Black-and-white photograph of the first woman in a bath. Her elbows are propped on the edge of the tub. Shadows obscure her downcast face. She wears a wide leather studded cuff. The small studs glisten like the water droplets draped across her shoulders and chest.)


Moyra Davey, Jane, 1979

Part photo-story, part document, the prologue of Moyra Davey’s video Les Goddesses (2011) features audio and image running in anachronic parallel. The artist’s faltering voice-over relates the tragic experiences of the radical eighteenth-century political philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft and her family, linking these events to Davey’s own life and work as a photographer. The video tracks Davey walking through the rooms of her New York apartment, cut with a presentation of still photographs presented to the lens 
of the video camera in close-up — portraits of young women and men, later revealed as images from a series of photographs that Davey made of her own siblings between 1980 and 1984.

Les Goddesses glides between uncertain pasts: the margins of cultural history, biographical infidelities, the creation of personal memory and the vicissitudes of Davey’s own artistic practice. The lives of Wollstonecraft and her daughter Mary Shelley are the unlikely doubles to the early history of the Davey sisters, where the former characters
 (often referred to in terms of their role
 as mothers) serve as devices through which the artist interrogates her own work and life. Les Goddesses is a porous and frank investigation that presents
two significant strategies: firstly, it allows Davey to repurpose and locate her current work in dialogue with that of her past,
 and secondly, it serves as a mediating
 form that connects the wit and shrewd acuity of Davey’s writing practice 
with the memorialising quality of her photographic work.

Moyra Davey, Les Goddesses, 2011, HD video with sound, 61m
Moyra Davey, Les Goddesses, 2011, HD video with sound, 61m

As the spoken narrative of Les Goddesses bobs back and forth through different times and places — from Wollstonecraft’s nineteenth-century milieu to the recent past of the Davey sisters, from Davey’s experience of Paris as a teenager 
to her return to the city in 2010 as a mother, wife and artist — it circles a hole, an absence. The artist delicately picks through archival boxes of her 1980s portraits of her young sisters and friends. While holding up images before the camera for closer inspection, Davey obliquely refers to the loss of people, both metaphorically, through the spoken narrative that traverses suicide (Wollstonecraft famously attempted suicide, only to be saved by Imlay, the
cause of her distress), illness and death, and practically, with the gradual disappearance of figurative subjects within her photographic practice from the mid-1980s onwards.

Davey also appears as an unlikely audience to her prior work; gifted with hindsight she reflects on another version of herself, another version of her vision that, through time, is unrecoverable. The artist selected the photographs in 
Les Goddesses from her formative period as a street photographer and portraitist of musicians and artists in Ottawa, Toronto and Montreal. Drawn from series made between 1980 and 1984, such as A Catholic Girlhood, Nuns on Main and What Had Seemed Piety, these high-contrast, indie rock portraits were an informal conclusion to Davey’s use of portraiture as the defining style of her photographic practice — a retreat from figuration was definitive by 1984.[1] At one point in Les Goddesses, the artist remarks on this shift, citing a growing sense of reticence towards biography and an anxiety about photography as soul-theft. Noting her abandonment of figuration, Davey nonetheless turns to the words of Walter Benjamin in a grave and earnest tone: ‘To do without people is for photography the most impossible of renunciations.’[2]

The movement from portraiture to
 still life was a defining change in Davey’s oeuvre, more fundamental than she perhaps admits within the spoken narrative of Les Goddesses (she is still 
best known for her still life photographs). Since this defection, the artist has been primarily invested in images of ‘things’.[3] Unpopulated interiors are the back-drop for stuff of the inanimate world: images
 of dead skin in a bathtub, the amorphous patchwork of a retiled floor, dust gathered on the needle of a record player, empty bottles and close-ups of copper pennies that seem both personalised by their markings and abject in their brown uselessness. These still life photographs primarily draw from a domestic realm, where the intensity of Davey’s attentive close-ups transforms detritus into mythic objects, imbued with the talismanic significance of a personal iconography.

Moyra Davey, Shure, 2003, chromogenic color print
Moyra Davey, Shure, 2003, chromogenic color print

The title of 50 Minutes (2006), Davey’s first video, references the typical duration of a therapy session, and the work is comprised of a series of anecdotes that are both intimate and philosophical. The artist revealingly quotes Jean Baudrillard’s reflection on immortality:

The object stands for our own death symbolically transcended. We reach an accommodation with the anguish-laden fact of lack of literal death. We will continue to enact this mourning for our own person through the intercession of objects, and this allows us, albeit regressively, to live out our lives.[4]

Yet Davey’s photographed ‘things’ rarely present the consolation that Baudrillard suggests objects should offer. Rather, 
her still lifes present things as thwarted memento mori, exhibiting an inertia that is battered, worn and slowly necrotic. Their intercession serves as a register of time receding; these are heavy, ponderous objects, not impervious to time, but exhibitions of it. Contrived within a static arrangement, the still life genre as a whole presents objects in the gear of reflection prior to their photographic representation; objects are placed or found in particular spatial associations, and their arrangement — the artist’s meditation — is then recorded. Yet Davey’s still life photography appears as an emanation of a fossilised monumentality: her objects have relaxed into a permanent torpor. Piles of dusty books are depicted in haphazard stacks, like chalky stones in a dam (Eisenstein, 1996), or buttons coated in 
lint are shown hoarded in shabby boxes (Harry the ex button king, 1996). Echoing Rosalind Krauss’s assessment of Man
Ray’s Dust Breeding (1920) as a ‘physical index for the passage of time’, Davey’s photographs document settled clumps of dust and lint as traces of time’s duration.[5] These images do not show Cartier-Bresson’s photographic instant or a chance event severed from life, but rather represent a slow stare, a representation that perfectly mimics the object’s quality of inertia.

Such stillness recalls Thierry de Duve’s writing on the photograph as ‘the state of what has been: the fixity and defection of time, its absolute zero’.[6] And nowhere is this more apparent than in Davey’s photographs of clocks and gravestones, prominently featured in her series of folded C-prints, 32 Photographs from Paris (2009). A logical progression from Davey’s initial still life subject matter, these images of timepieces and grave markers represent tangible attempts
to make a portrait of time, an exact still
life that foregrounds the memorialising quality of the photograph as its defining characteristic. Representative of an indefinite waiting, worthy of Emily Dickinson’s ‘degreeless noon’,[7] these are absolute photographs: time is arrested, ossified even, and the photograph stands as a portrait of the medium’s affect.[8]

Moyra Davey, 16 Photographs from Paris, 2009 (detail), C-print with postage, tape, ink
Moyra Davey, 16 Photographs from Paris, 2009 (detail), C-print with postage, tape, ink

But there is something about these endgame photographs that also articulates the limits of that very enquiry into photography’s temporal indexicality.
The exhaustion they suggest necessitates
a transformation or a turning back,
which is the key acknowledgement within Les Goddesses. We might thus read Les Goddesses as an admission that Davey’s denial of the figure in her photography
is indeed ‘the most impossible of renunciations’. It is this impossibility, this absence of people, that Les Goddesses reacts against by revisiting Davey’s portraiture of the past; the Pygmalion-like desire to transform one’s attention from the object to the figure.

Unlike her two earlier videos, 50 Minutes and My Necropolis (2009), which included shots that mimicked Davey’s still life photography, Les Goddesses vacillates between portrait photographs and medium static shots of the artist drifting through otherwise unpopulated interiors. The camera focuses not on close-ups that document dusty entropy, but, as if to rebuke the still life photographs that have been
the artist’s consistent preoccupation for
the past six years, one section of the video shows Davey dusting her personal library.[9] Taking small stacks of books from the shelf, she blows the settled dust out through an open window.

Moyra Davey, Les Goddesses, 2011, HD video with sound, 61m

Throughout Les Goddesses, Davey’s body is embedded within the mechanics of presentation. She is shown physically narrating the video’s voice-over, while her left hand presents a succession of images to the camera held in her right. Davey puts herself forward as both creator and witness to images from the past and present. But it is the disjunction of the body in relation to the voice that makes the presentation and, by extension, the artifice of Les Goddesses so compelling. Immediately following the photo-story prologue about Wollstonecraft, the camera shows itself reflected in a long mirror, with Davey appearing behind it, presumably having just pressed the record button.[10] She lightly touches a headphone bud in her left ear before walking around the rooms of the apartment and recounting a story of her unsuccessful search for the perfect quotation to begin this work. The artist’s speech is marked by hesitations, repetitions and mistakes, and it slowly becomes 
clear she is voicing lines heard over a pre-recorded prompt that is being played back over the earpiece. The largely inaudible buzz of the pre-recorded voice is occasionally heard as a faint echo picked up by the video lapel mic she wears. The echo reveals Davey’s words to be entirely predetermined; they have been spoken
 at least once before.

Moving between mechanical repetition and the unpredictable fallibility of short-term memory, the hesitations in Davey’s speech attest to the performance of
a particular voice — one which adds
its identity to the collision of several biographies: Wollstonecraft’s, her children’s, Davey’s and her sisters’. Displayed in front of the camera, reading, repeating and correcting herself in single takes, Davey foregrounds her role as a precarious mediator who, via language that is at once faltering and fragmentary, delivers an untimely narrative. The disjunctive histories presented in the 
video undo the continuity of time, in order, as Gilles Deleuze writes, ‘to break with
 the order of impulses, to undo the cycles
 of time, reach an element which would be like a true “desire”, or like a choice constantly beginning again’.[11] For Davey, repeating and revisiting the different pasts is not incantatory. Reactivated and reconfigured, history produces significant consequences upon the present. Uniting these disparate moments within
a single form, the spoken narrative of Les Goddesses extrapolates the temporality of Davey’s old photographs by outlining the reciprocal relationship between
the point at which the early portrait photographs were taken and the space
in which they now exist. As in the photo-story’s collision of Wollstonecraft’s life and Davey’s images, a figurative space is created where the two moments of seeing then and seeing now are able to coalesce into an affective force.

Moyra Davey, Les Goddesses, 2011, HD video with sound, 61m

With subtle similarities to Hollis Frampton’s stalled narrative in nostalgia (1971),[12] Les Goddesses uses the hesitant lag between listening and speaking to dramatise Davey’s method of presentation and foreground the voice speaking in
the present. Rather than ordering history as a sequence of stories that decompose to make way for others, Davey demonstrates that this is an ongoing record of a narrative emerging and in-process. Connected through a string of figures, the narrative reveals portraits appearing in a multitude of times. In the closing lines of Les Goddesses, an unheard vocal prompt elicits the artist to recount a prior yet unidentified moment: ‘This morning I woke early with the idea of writing precisely these lines and of taking a picture of the rising sun.’


Publicly re-examining one’s process of looking — taking note of the recalibrations of personal interest and agenda — is
 rare within artistic practice perhaps because it suggests the narrowing of one’s agency, of moves that have become less available through the refinement of preoccupation and a certain entrenchment implied by throwing a backward glance. Yet Les Goddesses is not just an effective summing-up of a practice that has occupied different forms, but a work whose investigation alters itself. In revisiting previous work that is both concrete (the portrait photographs shown to the camera) and implied (the reflection on the process of making Les Goddesses, a process always unfolding into the past), Davey acquires the desire to reconcile prior forms of looking with future responses. As she paces about her apartment, Davey speaks distractedly into the camera: ‘The thing 
is only alive (and by extension, I am only alive) while it is in process; and I’ve never quite figured out how to keep it ignited, moving. Some stubborn gene always threatens to flood the engine just at the crucial moment of shifting gears.’ Throughout the work, Davey’s voice is both then and now, an intimate confessor and a prophetic storyteller. Her corporeal, skewed ventriloquism presents Les Goddesses in a restless state of becoming and returning. In the process of mourning, the eye serves as the primary sense in the constitution of loss. But here, the artist’s eye has made new connections, patterns between times that don’t simply establish the loss of things past, but seek to reconfigure narratives, characters and images as if they were co-existent within the insistent present of the video.

And despite the insistent traces of 
a figurative return in Davey’s practice — implied through the artist’s own presence on camera, the montage of figurative photography, the invocation of biographies, autobiographies and even pathography — there is nonetheless a definitive moment that transforms the implication of portraiture in Les Goddesses into an unambiguous declaration. As a partner piece to the video’s prologue, the final section of Les Goddesses is another photo-story titled ‘Coda’, within which the artist remarks upon a development that has taken place during the making
 of the video. ‘On the subway downtown on the way to the New York Public Library, in search of Mary Shelley’s diary, I began to notice subway riders absorbed in writing of their own,’ says Davey. Her narrative is accompanied by a new series of still colour portraits, taken aboard a subway carriage with a simple point-and-shoot camera. The artist reflects on the paradoxical process of making Les Goddesses, concluding thus: ‘Just when I’d been writing about the disappearance of the figure from my photographs, I found myself taking street pictures again, in the dim green light of the Manhattan subway.’

A version of this text appeared in Afterall Journal, Spring 2012

[1] Davey notes a sudden hiatus to her street photography beginning in 1984, after a public altercation with an unconsenting subject on a street in Brixton, London. Conversation with the artist, August 2011.

[2] Quoted from Walter Benjamin, ‘Little History of Photography’, Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings 1931—1934 (ed. Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland and Gary Smith), Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 1999, p.519.

[3] Davey’s work recalls Sven Lütticken’s comment that ‘a thing is to an object as a person is to a subject’. S. Lütticken, ‘Art and Thingness, Part Two: Thingification’, e-flux journal, no.15, April 2010, (last accessed on 4 October 2011).

[4] Jean Baudrillard, ‘The System of Collecting’ (trans. Roger Cardinal), in John Elsner and Richard Cardinal (ed.), The Cultures of Collecting, Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 2005, p.17.

[5] Rosalind Krauss, ‘Notes on the Index: Seventies Art in America’, October, vol.3, Spring 1977, p.75. See also R. Krauss and Yve-Alain Bois, ‘A User’s Guide to Entropy’, October, vol.78, Fall 1996, p.82.

[6] Thierry de Duve, ‘Time Exposure and Snapshot: The Photograph as Paradox’, October, vol.5, Summer 1978, p.116.

[7] Emily Dickinson, ‘Poem 278’, Selected Poems by Emily Dickinson (ed. James Reeves), Oxford: Heinemann, 1959, p.23.

[8] Although these types of images are absent from Les Goddesses, Davey invokes their effects in her voice-over; recalling a dream, she dryly remarks that ‘a work, once finished, is like a tombstone’.

[9] It should be noted that Fifty Minutes includes a similar scene, though the action of dusting the books is shown in close-up, with the dust presented in claustrophobic detail — offered up to the camera as one might a rarified object. In Les Goddesses, the viewer sees the action with Davey facing away from the camera in a medium shot. The dust, appearing in a barely discernable cloud, disperses into the haze of sunshine.

[10] This shot, and the later sequences that exhibit the apparatus of the video camera, appears not merely to be in the spirit of ‘showing one’s working’, but of placing the process of making within a specific chronology of technical capacity, marking the work’s periodicity in the same manner as the clothes worn by Davey’s siblings. The emphatic display of the recording process as mechanical witness is a surrogate for the viewer’s presence.

[11] Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 1: The Movement-Image (trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam), Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, p.133.

[12]  In the 16mm film, Frampton provides the narrative of the artist in a voice-over, accompanied by the filmed image of a series of photographs as they are individually set alight on a hotplate. After each photograph is reduced to ashes, another replaces it, while the voice-over describes in advance the next photograph that will appear on the hotplate.