Burn the Diaries

MOYRA DAVEY, best known as a photographer, is also a writer. Since the early ’90s, the self-described homebody has taken the precariousness of the everyday, often outmoded objects in her life—dusty records, books, hi-fi gear—as a primary subject of her art. In this volume, she extends that inquiry, examining just how elastic the category of “autobiography” can be. Pairing excerpts from writings by (and about) Jean Genet with her own thoughts on keeping a journal, Davey also integrates several recent color prints, all of which document her belongings, travel, and diurnal activities. As in her earlier essays, such as “Index Cards” and “Notes on Photography and Accident,” her essay here consists of short paragraphs about broad topics. She begins with lucid observations and quotations, which appear like textual snapshots under the headings of “Blankness,” “Snow,” and “Dream,” and goes from there, with pictures punctuating verso, recto, and spread. Like her laconic paragraphs, the images—of Parisian cemeteries, passengers on the subway, and Midwest landscapes—record her life, yet ultimately come off as restrained, giving us only part of the story. Similarly, the pictures from her home always focus on something mundane and particular—a cluttered desk of papers with Post-it-marked pages, an open drawer with notes, a sleep mask, and tangled earbud wires. This close-up, writerly embrace of the examined life never feels static, and follows the vicissitudes of Davey’s experience: If in “Notes ” she mined the diary’s “clarity of . . . address,” in Burn the Diaries she ponders “the dross of the diary, the compulsion to scribble, the delusion that we can hold on to time.”

Moyra Davey, Bio, 2013, digital C-print.

The book accompanies Davey’s solo shows this year at Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien (Vienna) and the Institute of Contemporary Art (Philadelphia), and like her other publications, it stands out against the heft of most exhibition catalogues. (Davey has never opted for a majestic, coffee-table-book treatment.) She also eschews the typical monograph’s pristine presentation of artwork: The images are often creased, and some have tape, postage stamps, and a friend’s address handwritten on them, evidence that the photos are part of Davey’s ongoing project of mailing her artwork to loved ones. These sent items are found throughout the pages—studies of time and touch, the trace of distribution as well as retraction, of taking back. A few have been posted to her friend and collaborator Alison Strayer, who wrote the book’s second essay. One is never sure about the writer’s use of “I,” in Strayer’s or Davey’s texts, nor of how much of the material is self-criticism or autofiction. Perhaps Davey, like anyone fatigued by her always-online life, is vexed by the way she “cannibalizes” (as she says) her life in her art. With Burn the Diaries, she achieves a self-portrait through partial withholding. In the end, we’ve learned a lot about her, but it seems like she’s not all there, which makes this work timely—the opposite of selfie-promotion.