Canadian artist Moyra Davey’s exhibition at Buchholz in Berlin “burrow[ed] into a life, termite fashion,” to borrow phrasing she uses in one of the two videos on view, Wedding Loop (2017). Although the show delved into Davey’s memories, stories of her family members and friends, and references to her artistic, literary, and philosophical influences, it abstained from sentimentality, instead reflecting the complicated manner in which a person negotiates her place in an ever-changing world.
For the videos, Davey, who is also a writer, wrote personal narratives that she recites on-screen while pacing her apartment. She appears in and out of focus, never facing the camera, presumably (given her stuttered delivery) repeating recorded versions of the monologues that she listens to through the white headphone in her ear. Hemlock Forest (2016) touches on a number of subjects and themes—the notion of banal, ordinary footage that Davey calls “low-hanging fruit,” as opposed to higher-stakes efforts like her remake (included in the video) of a subway-car sequence from Chantal Akerman’s film News from Home (1977); motherhood as depicted in Akerman’s films and various other sources; aging and its relation to one’s work. Wedding Loop feels like a subsequent chapter of Hemlock Forest. It loosely revolves around Davey’s recounting of how she recently photographed a family wedding, something she also did in 1980: “in the midst of all the tears, angst, anger, drunkenness, I have arrived with my camera and performed the same role,” she explains. A mood of sadness, a fear of failure, and feelings of fraudulence, dereliction, and worthlessness ring through in the work. Contributing to the reflexive, layered structure of Wedding Loop are scenes in which Davey flicks through photographs of her photographs on an iPhone or passes by a computer screen on which she’s also shown pacing, perhaps attempting to see herself the way the audience will.
Davey’s work as a whole, despite its autobiographical and self-referential aspect, does not read as indulgent. She seems to secrete her stories, to use her own term, as if her survival depends on it. At times, the content is banal and rambling, perfectly imitating the disjointed, mundane quality of much of life. At other times, her work takes on a more symbolic, poetic character. The eight close-up shots of swirling cigarette smoke that comprise the photograph suite Untitled (Spirits), 1996, for instance, seem to allude to the meandering journey of human existence as well as its ephemerality.
Unlike most of the people seen in the works on view, the subjects of the portraits Eric, Untitled (after JMC), and Untitled (‘Hands’ after JMC), all 2017—JMC referring to nineteenth-century society photographer Julia Margaret Cameron—stare directly at the camera, meeting the viewers’ gaze. These images offered moments of stillness in an exhibition that otherwise—with its mix of past and present, its merging of internal thoughts and the external world, its portrayals of the artist pacing—had a dynamic energy. The show’s title, “Portrait/Landscape,” emphasized the inextricable connection between people and the world around them—the ways in which inner lives unfold in mutual dialogue with physical and social environments. To quote Simone Weil, as Davey does in Wedding Loop: “We participate in the creation of the world by decreating ourselves.”