BY George Baker in Features | 01 APR 10
Featured in
Issue 130

Some Things Moyra Taught Me

The intertwining of melancholy and possibility in contemporary photography

BY George Baker in Features | 01 APR 10

Moyra Davey, 32 Photographs from Paris (detail), 2009. All images courtesy: Murray Guy, New York.

Thinking about this column has stirred a vague set of memories. It is the winter of 2003, the last winter of my life as a New Yorker, the final months before I moved to Los Angeles. Perhaps because of this, I remember a lot of snow: tramping and stumbling about in the stuff, visiting Chelsea galleries. In the wake of one particularly brutal blizzard, I make my way to American Fine Arts. I am, rather auspiciously, with Kaja Silverman and James Coleman. But these are the final months of the gallery’s existence, not long after Colin de Land’s death from cancer earlier that year. The exhibition is Tom Burr’s ‘Gone, Gone’, an installation of all-black sculptures that seemed to react to the gallerist’s passing, to his partner Pat Hearn’s death and perhaps to larger, more collective losses. A series of monumental black vinyl flowers have been strewn throughout the space, thrown or draped or hoisted into the air by cruel wires. A reflective black box stands littered with cigarettes and empty glasses, as if it were a bar. Indeed, bar stools pose beside it and lie toppled all around, some of them covered by the vinyl flowers, like shrouds. The party, it seems, is over, and other activities have come into play, a sculptural process more reminiscent of the fort-da game Sigmund Freud played with his infant grandson, or the charged psychic labours of destruction and reparation.

The next month, I was back at American Fine Arts. Was it for the last time? I cannot remember. But I had also forgotten until now that the show immediately after Burr’s was by the photographer Moyra Davey. Again, it had snowed and, again, I was visiting the gallery with close friends; with my sister, I think, and a very young Gary Carrion-Murayari, before he started curating. We were all touched by Davey’s small-scale, delicate photographs, and spent a long time wandering back and forth from print to print. Although many of the photographs were of empty liquor bottles irradiated by light, I did not associate them with Burr’s drunken, passed-out bar stools from the month before. The photographs seemed an obsessive, if random and half-hearted, mapping of Davey’s domestic interior: photographs of dust along a floorboard, of vinyl records or books heaped upon a groaning shelf, of dishevelled, paper-strewn tables and desks. It did not occur to me until now that Davey’s photographs were as much a reaction to – and mourning of – De Land’s death as Burr’s blacked-out party space. It was as if De Land’s dishevelment had become Davey’s too, as if her forlorn photographs had taken on qualities linking her home to the typical condition of his gallery, her images to his notorious persona – and this introjection of the lost object remains one of the defining experiences of melancholia.

These memories return to me at a moment when I have been attempting to think about the fate of photography – analogue photography, the indexical image – in the face of its technological demise, but also potentially of its afterlife; what I have elsewhere called photography’s ‘expansion’. It seems to me that melancholia has coloured photography’s fate, and it is artists like Davey who embody this relationship most incisively. For here is an artist who seems to have closed off the outside world to become a prowler of the domestic interior, shut off from the city streets that so long nurtured the hopes of the photographic document. Here is an artist who seems to emulate Marcel Duchamp, with his laziness and his dust, and one whose artistic process seems an extended languishing – a flânerie of books and articles and films – an almost passive consumption of other products, in the hope that they might spur an image or produce the desire to make a photograph. In Davey’s video 50 Minutes, begun in the summer of 2003, she interspersed footage of her own domestic photographs with a deep reflection upon nostalgia, declaring it ‘the intellectual’s guilty pleasure’. Quoting a critic, she continues: ‘I admit to being disconcerted by a grieving that has been made beautiful. Grief, absence, loss, longing, wandering, exile, homesickness […] nostalgia is itself a lovely and piercing word.’ In her more recent video, My Necropolis (2009), the artist fixated on Walter Benjamin, a notoriously saturnine thinker, interspersing images of tombstones in Parisian cemeteries with footage of the artist’s friends trying to decipher a letter Benjamin once wrote to his friend, the philosopher and historian Gershom Scholem, in which he mourns for a clock visible from his apartment window – an object he cannot own but to which he is attached nonetheless, and that he calls ‘a luxury it is difficult to do without’.

‘But,’ objects Josiah McElheny, to whom I am explaining some of my ideas, ‘Moyra’s work is not melancholic.’ And that’s just it: Davey shows us that an attachment to loss – of the photographic medium to its own loss – has become a space of possibility for contemporary photography. Far from a pathological fixation, such melancholia should be understood as a space of opening (an open wound, if you will). Consider, for example, Davey’s series ‘Copperhead’ (1990). Produced during an earlier economic recession (one to which we can reconnect today), Davey’s low-tech images focus on the profile of Abraham Lincoln engraved on the United States penny – the most devalued piece of American currency. Although almost worthless, the pennies that Davey depicts are ‘like’ photographs in many different ways: they are objects of circulation and of use kept close to the body, in wallets and pockets; they are tokens stamped with their date. They are miniatures, enlarged by the photograph’s innate habit of holding on tight to its object-world, progeny of the close-up and the zoom. They are obsolete, throwaway vestiges, but also keepsakes, collectors’ items, the useless avatars of blind luck or cunning thrift simultaneously. Indeed, each ‘Copperhead’ seems a memorial to photography’s eradication, or – what amounts to the same thing – its ceaseless dedication to that which is on the verge of disappearance. The photographs capture the immeasurable variety of the decay of each cast profile upon the penny’s surface, embodying meditations upon loss, erosion, and the slipping of a thing into the status of detritus.

Moyra Davey, 32 Photographs from Paris (detail), 2009.

And yet, in fixating on this image-loss, the ‘Copperhead’ series depicts the penny as a receptor surface, a skin infinitely susceptible to wounds, gouges and scratches – in other words, a site of contact; an object, like the photograph, endlessly open to receiving the marks of the world. In recording this, Davey’s work mirrors photography in yet another way: these are images of serial objects, replicas, all given over to the condition of absolute chance and singularity. If each photograph seems an image of disappearance, a cast or imprint fading away before our eyes, the images’ condition as ‘last photographs’ can also be reversed. It’s as if we are gazing upon photograph after photograph of what seem to be latent images, a form at the point of its emergence, like a landmass surfacing from the ocean’s depths, an unknown object blanketed by deep snow. The photographs are at once images of destruction and resurrection, loss and potential rebirth.

This points to both how and why melancholia has become a tactic, today, in the process of being transvalued by many contemporary artists. For melancholia, we might say, is above all a form of connection. It is a recalcitrant insistence on attachment, a passionate embrace, but to an object that is in fact gone; this is a connection staged around loss. Melancholia thus embodies a form of impossible connection. For photography, at least, this has always been the medium’s central condition, but it is a paradox we can only fully sense today, as the medium itself has been subjected to its own processes of death. To seize upon connection at the point of loss: Freud once insisted, in ‘Mourning and Melancholia’ (1915), that melancholia was not only a fixation, but also a ‘taking flight’, a mysterious passage of the lost object into the ego, so that – just perhaps – ‘love [might] escape [...] abolition’. And so it is with photography today, as well.

George Baker is Associate Professor of Modern and Contemporary Art, Vice-Chair UCLA, Department of Art History, Los Angeles, USA.