From September 19 to December 28, 2014, the Institute of Contemporary Art, or ICA, at the University of Pennsylvania, is showcasing an exhibit titled Moyra Davey: Burn the Diaries. Moyra Davey is an artist who has built her career from creating works of photography, writing, and film. In addition, her works have revolved around a variety of subjects, ranging from personal experiences to philosophical themes. Burn the Diaries in particular is a publicly displayed collection of C-print photographs from Davey’s art book of the same name. Each of the photographs has been mailed to other locations, as they are all labeled with stamps, Davey’s mailing address, and the shipping address of the recipients. The photographs appear to have folds in them, evidently a result of them being compressed to fit in an envelope. Most of the images are either mundane, ordinary objects strewn across Davey’s home, or interesting sites found about her city of residence. Some objects found in her home include a stack of books, her pet dog, and a letter, while the outdoor objects include a religious statue, a stone carving of a butterfly, and a brightly colored fence. Placed at the center of the exhibit upon a desk is the Burn the Diaries book itself, which not only contains the photographs, but also interviews and essays that accompany them. The book explains that the purpose of these photographs is to pay homage to the French playwright and political activist Jean Genet. Here, Davey relates Genet’s quotes to pieces of her own life, which she visually demonstrates through the photos. As the final segment of Burn the Diaries, Davey’s film My Saints is played via projector against a blank wall. The film shows Davey interviewing her friends and family about their reading of a Genet passage titled The Thief’s Journal. My Saints solidifies Davey’s portrayal of Genet’s work through open spoken discussion, stressing the theme of artists committing the “crime” of stealing time and experience to create their works.
Burn the Diaries is Davey’s rather personalized method of conveying her main theme. Though visually simplistic, the photographs of the various objects and surroundings reveal a genuine picture of Davey’s everyday life. Combined with their deeper context, they excellently symbolize the topics that hold meaning to her. The photograph of the stack of books may represent her passion for literature, and the photograph of the dog may represent a more sentimental side of her character. Also, labeling the photographs with mailing addresses implies a major significance of the recipient, perhaps a close relationship between them and the sender. Viewers are given a glimpse of Davey’s personal life and thoughts through not only the pictured objects themselves, but by the portrayal of her interactions with others.
Though the Burn the Diaries exhibit appears to be a genuine, unique representation of Davey’s life, there is not much visual emphasis on the photographs’ connection to Jean Genet’s quotes. Genet’s impact is described in detail in the book and background information, but only seems visible in the thusly-titled work, K, with Genet. The exhibit would have been enhanced by at least one image in all of the photographs signifying Genet’s philosophical influence; it would have been a fitting addition to the works’ subtle ambience. Nonetheless, the photographs were initially chosen because of their relevance to Genet’s themes, and they realistically communicate their primary concepts.
Article by Nia Hunt