My first encounter with Moyra Davey’s video work was as an intern in the New Media Department at the Centre Pompidou in 2012. I was instructed to review a collection of video works to make sure they were playing correctly (i.e., intern work). I watched the videos at my computer with headphones on, in imposed isolation at the office. I started with Les Godesses (2011, video, 61 minutes), which captivated me from its first shot — a black-and-white photograph of a young woman with thick brows and even thicker eyelids lying in grass. The voiceover begins by narrating the life of a young Mary Wollstonecraft — her loves, her disillusionment, her failed suicide attempts. The style intrigued me and brought me back to Chris Marker, a pioneer in the essay-film genre. Marker was, like Davey, a similarly unwieldy combination of photographer-writer-artist-filmmaker, whose films I had been completely immersed in at the time.
Today I found myself watching Davey’s newly commissioned film for the Walker Art Center, one of a series of moving-image works created by six artists that will be viewable ephemerally online, for one month, beginning June 1. Davey’s piece, Notes on Blue (2015, video, 28 minutes) touches on, among many topics and lives, that of Derek Jarman, who released his film Blue (1993) only months before his death from AIDS-related complications. As with Les Godesses, the viewer sees Davey in the process of recording the voiceover, walking to and fro in her New York apartment with headphones in her ears. Her soothing, monotonous voice drew me into a meditative state, after which I hung on to the following thoughts.
Blindness and color. Both Jarman and Davey have experienced blindness, yet they still have vision. For Jarman, vision is International (Yves) Klein Blue; for Davey, it is the opposite, yellow. Art and medicine are essential to life in equal degrees — the imagination urges you to see what you cannot, when you cannot, while knowledge through evidence tells you that sight is light. Without it you are lost. During the screening I closed my eyes, cocooned in sound and bathed in the images flashing before my mind.
The work is intimate. Davey ambulates through her apartment, feeds her dog, rides the subway. My eyes scanned throughout, trying to connect the dots in her private space — the tousled sheets, the dusty lamp, the peeling walls, the cluttered desk — as the intertwined voices of Jorge Luis Borges, Julia Kristeva, Sylvia Plath, and others that Davey cites to make sense of her inner life receded into the background. The film is full of dream-like episodes shot on Super-8 film, depicting young, lithe women framed by subways and their platforms. Are they apparitions, muses, hallucinations?
“I live in a strange suspension, straddling the analog technologies I used to know but am quickly forgetting, and the digital ones I struggle to learn, imperfectly at best,” Davey repeats after her audio prompt. Jarman’s Blue is punctuated by the Zen bell, sounding time passed in meditation; Davey includes the same tone towards the end of her film. But there is more than merely the sound of Zen here: there is also its insistence on the primacy of change, our powerlessness in its hands, and the acceptance of life as it is shaped before you, in you, upon you. Illness, the struggle of artistic expression, technology — these things grow into you as a tree envelops obstructions into its bark.
Notes on Blue premiered at Superscript: Arts Journalism and Criticism in a Digital Age at the Walker Art Center. It will premiere online on June 1 as part of Walker Moving Image Commissions.