- On (Re)arriving at a Subject
192 Pages; Print, $17.95
Index Cards opens with a recollection of Moyra Davey having a houseguest. She can’t remember this visitor’s name, but she remembers that he told her his cooking has to do with managing the contents of his fridge. This seems to boil down two actions into one process with room to (with a little stretch of the imagination) revise based on previous plans and spoilage, what to cook next, revising the arrangement of items in a fridge. It’s a “Sisyphean” problem related to consumption. And digestion. Davey says in one essay — “Notes on Photography and Accident” — “Read. Read something else. Go back to the first thing and see how it is changed.” In Index Cards, Davey talks about revisiting in another manner too, revisiting by reusing old photographs from her archives in a new way almost as a means to combat image production and consumption, to use what she has, which ultimately is a revision of context. It’s like she’s presented with the same problem when she revisits her archive or opens her fridge — she’s presented with the context of that specific present, and, to Davey, this means new ways to use the materials in front of her. It seems more often than not Davey always wants to boil down at least two things into one progress, discourse with photography, essay with film, reading with writing — at least.
New York artist Moyra Davey’s new collection of selected work, Index Cards, is encyclopedic and erudite, yet interested in the fragmentary and accidental. Comprised of fifteen essays written between 2006 and 2019, some of her own photos, film stills from a work she has taking on as a subject, stray notes and lists, and diary entries and letters written by both Davey and other artists, the collection weaves in and out of topics ranging from psychoanalysis and famous cemeteries to the relationship between image and text to illness and artists abroad — like Johann Goethe in Italy or Mary Wollstonecraft in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark. And though Davey’s range and repertoire are encyclopedic, Index Cards doesn’t require the reader to be familiar with every single reference. The book in and of itself is a series of lessons on reading, art, theory, and even the obscure histories of a couple Quebecois revolutionaries. Davey is interested in storytelling and raw material, following leads and hints in works of art, in a kind of risk she calls the “opposite of low-hanging fruit.” The works in Index Cards lay bare the thinking, reading, and note-taking which she calls in one essay rehearsal writing. For Davey, this notetaking is the real writing, the real story. Her work is about tracing the paths of new understanding, attempts to understand, and the lack of understanding.
The essays in Index Cards seem to share a structure with the shape and movement of Davey’s adjacent train of thought, for instance some essays, like “Notes on Photography and Accident” are divided into smaller sections that give attention to individual texts, concepts, or art objects as that subject and end up wandering through connections to other works and ideas or end up wandering back to some of her previous ideas and favorite texts. Davey often refers to writing as snapshots, as if a snapshot and notetaking are interchangeable. This makes the structure of “Notes on Photography and Accident,” being divided into small sections, feel like a series of snapshots of thought, a documentation of Davey’s thinking through and processing things like Martha Rosler’s critique of documentary photography, note-taking, or writing itself. In “Notes on Photography and Accident” Davey writes, “I go out into the world of other people’s writing and take snapshots.” Davey allows accidents to emerge from all the collision of these different art works, transcriptions, and writings, and tries to follow where they lead. She explains, “I decide to allow chance elements, the flânerie, as it were, of daily life, find their way into this essay...