Moyra Davey: Les Goddesses/Hemlock Forest

Copublished with Bergen Kunsthall in 2017
Edited by Karen Kelly and Barbara Schroeder
Texts by Moyra Davey and an introduction by Aveek Sen
Design by Filiep Tacq
128 pages, 120 images, softcover with jacket, 6 ½ x 10 inches
ISBN-13: 978-0-9986326-0-5


This book by New York–based artist Moyra Davey is based on two related projects, Les Goddesses (2011) and Hemlock Forest (2016), which each take form through text, photography, and film. Layering introspection and personal narratives with meditations on the lives and works of other writers, filmmakers, and artists—ranging from 18th-century feminist writer and activist Mary Wollstonecraft to Chantal Akerman, Karl Ove Knausgård, and Davey’s own five sisters—the artist explores such themes as compulsion, artistic production, family, and life and its passing.

Praise and Press

“A work, once finished, is ‘like a tombstone,’ ” Moyra Davey writes in her latest book, Les Goddesses/Hemlock Forest. Always aware of the inevitable end, she has constructed a practice conscious of its own past and reliant on radical self-doubt. Her photographs, films, and essays cross-reference and depend on one another as she makes a subject of her own process and its intentions, fears, and failures. 

—Sarah Cowan, The Paris Review

At one point, Davey quotes Isak Dinesen: “The reward of storytelling is to be able to let go.” This book feels like Davey showing us her own folds as she loosens her grip.

—Kate Sutton, Bookforum

Davey’s historical constellations bring together the living and dead, the distant and proximate, and the literary and biographical. At the same time, she constantly foregrounds the instability of this process, which is fueled by a desire for incidence, affinity, and accident. As her texts advance, fragment by fragment, they move from cultural history and biographical remarks to meditations on the process of writing. She circles with a kind of low-grade anxiety around the problem of the writer’s subject, the fear of writer’s block, the need to tell a story. Where to begin? With “the idea of writing from the unknown,” or by “working from notes and journals”? She likens these two methods to similar attitudes in photography: “the vérité approach of the street, seizing life and movement with little chance of reprise, and, in contrast, the controlled practice of the studio, where the artist is less exposed” …

The co-publication of Les Goddesses and Hemlock Forest, shows Davey’s proclivity for partial reprisals of themes, characters, and phrases. They reappear aged and careworn, or retrieved from what she calls her “Pathography,” a document comprising abandoned or untouchable subjects. She interrogates the relationship between record and enactment, historical document and narrative storytelling, generating feedback and accretions of memory as she shifts between one and the other. Les Goddesses prominently features photographic portraits of her siblings taken in the ’80s in Ottawa and Montreal; in Hemlock Forest, she restages the same poses thirty years later. Black-and-white images of the brooding teenage gang are updated to color photographs of her middle-aged sisters. Yet, the careful pacing in pairs or sequences of both older and newer images, be they stills or photographs, invites longer looking to connect visual moments which, like the references in her writing, we know to be temporally disparate. . . .

Switching from first-person narration to the more intimate second person of dialogue and interpolation, Davey inhabits different registers while delivering a moving address to Akerman. Elsewhere in the book, she writes, “I’m reliant on the words of others, and I glom on to the dead.” Yet the affective charge of Davey’s work emerges precisely from her ability to bring the voices of others so singularly into her own.

Rachel Valinksy, Art News

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