One of the few positive aspects of the much-slated documenta 14 was the prominent place it gave to Moyra Davey. In simplified terms, the Canadian artist’s work addresses the process of documenting and monumentalizing information, and the ways in which these documents and monuments are dealt with by both individuals and society as a whole. The artistic cosmos she creates in order to achieve this is both rigorous and flexible, as is proved by ‘Empties’, her compact yet wide-reaching show at Galerie Buchholz in Cologne.
At the entrance to the gallery hang five large-format colour photographs, taken from the ‘EM Copperhead’ series (1990/2017). Each shows the profile of Abraham Lincoln on a US penny, cropped to such an extent that the wear and tear of daily use – the scratches, the oxidized metal – becomes clear. By focusing so strongly on the patina of contact, Davey redirects attention from the monumental figure of Lincoln to the lingering traces of hands. But the fading presidential profile, when considered against the artist’s decision to revisit the early series, can also be read in relation to the recent rightwards drift of American politics.
In a separate room, EM Copperheads (2017) consists of 150 somewhat smaller prints, left unframed and pinned to the wall as a single block. The subject – a metallic Lincoln – remains the same, but there is a key difference between these works and their predecessors: here, the images are littered with scratches, folds, scraps of tape, franked postage stamps and addresses. Ahead of the exhibition, each print was sealed with brightly coloured tape, stamped and posted to the gallery as a folded letter – Davey literally put the old series back into circulation. In uniting the blemished surfaces of these works with the weathered faces of the coins they depict, Davey highlights the distribution and use value of pictures, while also introducing new elements to the actual photographs. Most striking are the postage stamps, many of which show African American icons including Jimi Hendrix and Sarah Vaughan, lending further weight to a reading of the series as a political commentary on the ever-increasing racial tensions in Donald Trump’s USA.
I get the feeling that Davey’s posted photographs are not meant for me. The way the prints are addressed to specific people leaves the viewer as an external third party, intruding on a personal, sometimes intimate, interaction. This is particularly apparent in the work that lends the exhibition its name: Empties (2017). The 55 black and white still lifes, each depicting an empty liquor bottle, offer an insight into the artist’s private world: we see which books she has read, which photographs hang on her walls. But we also see how regularly these things have played second fiddle to alcohol – to wilful distraction.
These reduced, delicate compositions were also sent through the post, this time sealed by a reflective silver tape. Here, the postmarks are identical, in contrast to those affixed to the EM Copperheads mail-outs. A moiré stamp with the same colour scheme as the American flag explodes against the washed monochrome of the photographs, making the drinking appear as something past, something that has been lived through. Then there is a second stamp, which features a black sun and the words ‘Total Solar Eclipse’. While providing an appropriate accompaniment to the dark period that the still lifes suggest, these sun stamps are printed with temperature-sensitive ink that turns red when touched, as has happened in some cases here. In Davey’s pictures, anything and everything can leave a meaningful trace.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell
Main image: Moyra Davey, EM Copperheads, 2017, installation view at Galerie Buchholz, Cologne. 150 digital c-type prints on Fujicolor crystal archive paper, tape, postage, ink, each 31 x 46 cm, overall dimensions 2.7 x 7.6 m. Courtesy: the artist and Galerie Buchholz, Cologne/Berlin/New York