– Spring 2012

Pygmalion Desire in Les Goddesses

Isla Leaver-Yap

Moyra Davey, Les Goddesses, 2011 HD video with sound, 61min, stills

‘A young English woman, named Mary Wollstonecraft, lived by her wits and her pen.’

(Fade to a black-and-white, medium close-up photograph of a young woman stretched out on the grass. The camera stares down on its subject, yet the assured gaze of the woman suggests it is she who stares down the photographer. Her worn, short-sleeved sweater and bob haircut puts her in the 1980s.)

‘One day she met an American adventurer, named Gilbert Imlay.’

(Head shot of a young man. His body facing away from the camera, he glances sideways into the lens with shaded eyes and glum hesitancy. To his right is the naked shoulder of a young woman, her body cut off by the camera’s framing.)

‘In love, they moved to Paris, where they had a daughter named Fanny.’

(Soft-focus colour photograph depicts a smiling girl posed against a neutral photo backdrop. She clutches a long- haired cat close to her chest. The girl wears an eccentric red kufi hat. A dog collar encircles her wrist.)

‘But Gilbert travelled more and more, and soon it became apparent he had a wandering eye as well. Heartbroken over this desertion, Mary drank laudanum.’

(Black-and-white photograph of the first woman in a bath. Her elbows are propped on the edge of the tub. Shadows obscure her downcast face. She wears a wide leather studded cuff. The small studs glisten like the water droplets draped across her shoulders and chest.)

Part photo-story, part document, the prologue of Moyra Davey’s video Les Goddesses (2011) features audio and image running in anachronic parallel. Davey’s faltering voice-over relates the tragic experiences of the radical eighteenth- century political philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft and her family, linking these events to

  1. Davey notes a sudden hiatus to her street photography beginning in 1984, after a public altercation with an unconsenting subject on a street in Brixton, London. Conversation with the artist, August 2011.

  2. Quoted from Walter Benjamin, ‘Little History of Photography’, Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings 1931—1934 (ed. Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland and Gary Smith), Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 1999, p.519.

  3. Davey’s work recalls Sven Lütticken’s comment that ‘a thing is to an object as a person is to a subject’. S. Lütticken, ‘Art and Thingness, Part Two: Thingification’, e-flux journal, no.15, April 2010, http://www.e-flux.com/journal/view/132 (last accessed on 4 October 2011).

  4. Jean Baudrillard, ‘The System of Collecting’ (trans. Roger Cardinal), in John Elsner and Richard Cardinal (ed.), The Cultures of Collecting, Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 2005, p.17.

  5. Rosalind Krauss, ‘Notes on the Index: Seventies Art in America’, October, vol.3, Spring 1977, p.75. See also R. Krauss and Yve-Alain Bois, ‘A User’s Guide to Entropy’, October, vol.78, Fall 1996, p.82.

  6. Thierry de Duve, ‘Time Exposure and Snapshot: The Photograph as Paradox’, October, vol.5, Summer 1978, p.116.

  7. Emily Dickinson, ‘Poem 278’, Selected Poems by Emily Dickinson (ed. James Reeves), Oxford: Heinemann, 1959, p.23.

  8. Although these types of images are absent from Les Goddesses, Davey invokes their effects in her voice-over; recalling a dream, she dryly remarks that ‘a work, once finished, is like a tombstone’.

  9. It should be noted that Fifty Minutes includes a similar scene, though the action of dusting the books is shown in close-up, with the dust presented in claustrophobic detail — offered up to the camera as one might a rarified object. In Les Goddesses, the viewer sees the action with Davey facing away from the camera in a medium shot. The dust, appearing in a barely discernable cloud, disperses into the haze of sunshine.

  10. This shot, and the later sequences that exhibit the apparatus of the video camera, appears not merely to be in the spirit of ‘showing one’s working’, but of placing the process of making within a specific chronology of technical capacity, marking the work’s periodicity in the same manner as the clothes worn by Davey’s siblings. The emphatic display of the recording process as mechanical witness is a surrogate for the viewer’s presence.

  11. Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 1: The Movement-Image (trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam), Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, p.133.

  12. In the 16mm film, Frampton provides the narrative of the artist in a voice-over, accompanied by the filmed image of a series of photographs as they are individually set alight on a hotplate. After each photograph is reduced to ashes, another replaces it, while the voice-over describes in advance the next photograph that will appear on the hotplate.