Perhaps it should be called a stroll into unfamiliar worlds; worlds strange to us but known to other creatures, manifold and varied as the animals themselves…To do so, we must first blow, in fancy, a soap bubble around each creature to represent its own world, filled with perceptions which it alone knows. When we ourselves then step into one of these bubbles, the familiar meadow is transformed. Many of its colorful features disappear, others no longer belong together but appear in new relationships. A new world comes into being.
—Jakob von Uexküll, A Stroll Through the Worlds of Animals and Men: A Picture Bookof Invisible Worlds
Blue is the name of Derek Jarman’s final feature-length film. Made in 1993, Blue was released just four months before Jarman’s death from complications related to AIDS. These complications rendered Jarman partially blind at the time of the film’s release.
In Blue, a single shot of saturated blue fills the screen. The experience is akin, in ways, to viewing a Rothko up close. When I first stood before a Rothko painting, years ago at the Whitney Museum, I, as many others have similarly reported, broke down; I wept silently before the canvas. My response was visceral, pre-verbal; there was no logical reasoning behind it. Something similar is at work with Jarman’s Blue — the color is overwhelming and filled with light.
The film is narrated by several of Jarman’s favorite actors as well as Jarman himself, each relating fragments from the director’s life, including his experiences with AIDS — its maladies, hospital wards, and so on. The effect is elliptical: Jarman is not asserting anything, per se; it is not a film “about” him, about AIDS, about politics, it is not even “about” the color blue. The effect is also disorienting: there is no center, no “event,” nothing to see (on the contrary, the viewer is rendered partially blind), and there is no narrative. What we get is a series of layers of texts, which speak to and inform one another. But rather than help the viewer to gather or otherwise simplify what she is viewing, the texts in Jarman’s Blue are constructive, not reductive; they complicate.
Moyra Davey’s current show at Murray Guy is titled 7 Albums and is not described in the gallery’s press release. Instead, what’s presented are five paragraphs, one of which is a mere sentence, a quote from Jarman: “The task is to fill up the page.” The remaining four paragraphs are writings by Davey, explaining her process of making 7 Albums and its inspirations. One paragraph reads:
A kind of stubbornness made me read Funeral Rites in its entirety. I both hate and love the book, and in a puerile fashion drew up ‘good’ and ‘bad’ columns to keep track of my thoughts.
7 Albums is elliptical; it is poetic. The show works as an additive — but one that’s both nuanced and gentle. It is a kind of tribute to Jarman or an elegy, and yet it is neither. As with her previous project, Burn the Diaries, a beautifully saturated hybrid text in which Davey deftly integrates and interweaves the writings of Jean Genet, Jean-Paul Sartre, Eileen Myles, Marguerite Duras, John McPhee, and Susan Sontag, among others, 7 Albums gracefully performs a constellating. This constellating is a way of evoking a sense vis a vis the presentation of a number of disparate images or texts; meanings are evoked when the various objects are set next to one another, as with collage or montage. One can have a similar experience looking at Gerhard Richter’s Atlas project, Hanne Darboven’s numerous works, or Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas.
7 Albums is a small show. All 12 of the objects included are shown in one room, while Davey’s film “Notes on Blue” is shown in another. When I first saw the objects — framed C-prints, gelatin silver prints, and a chromogenic color print — I wasn’t sure what to make of them. I knew they were not of anything in particular, that they were perhaps pointing toward something. The striking pieces, which recall her works from Burn the Diaries, are photographed photos of scenes and objects with tiny colored stickies or labels on them. The brightly colored stickies and labels create a miniature constellation, while the photographing of photographs creates a doubling effect, informing the viewer that the work is not to be read or seen as it is. Instead, we are to read the work as a stand-in — it is mirroring something else, something ghosting the show. This something else is Jarman, the man and artist, and Jarman’s final film, Blue.
The adhering of stickies to the photographs is reminiscent of archival work, the process of choosing or approving images with colored labels. In this sense, Davey’s 12 pieces appear as evidence or objects in an archive. Without context, however, the pieces float, as if disconnected from any narrative. Davey’s short film “Notes on Blue” provides a semblance of narrative; it is the adhesive that keeps the pieces afloat. “Notes on Blue” is also a series of fragments, seemingly unrelated aside from their loose connections with aspects of Jarman’s Blue: blindness, autobiography and use of the I, audio vs. visual, and so on. The film, constructed from Davey’s notes, references and folds in such disparate artists and writers as Genet, Fassbinder, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Borges, PJ Harvey, and Chris Kraus. In it, Davey paces throughout the rooms and corridors of her apartment, reciting her notes from what appears to be an iPhone. The notes, associative and exploratory, add ever-additional layers of webbing to the already fragmented presentation of Jarman’s Blue. Davey’s own blindness as a result of multiple sclerosis is connected to Jarman’s blindness as a result of AIDS-related complications. This and other connections remains loose — a note here, an additive there, one more layer appended to Davey’s growing constellation of images, notes, and meaning.
“Notes on Blue” is the result of Davey’s immersion in Jarman’s archive. At one point in the film Davey quotes Fassbinder’s stating that building work out of one’s autobiographical experience allows for a richer experience. True to this, Davey’s stepping into her own life while also stepping into Jarman’s makes for a deeper work. Through the lens of herself, she is able to enter the bubble of Jarman’s own universe, what Jakob von Uexküll terms an Umwelt, and show us around. Invited by the Walker Art Center, Davey submerged herself in Jarman’s autobiographical books and sketchbooks. The pieces in her current exhibition appear to document, to show archived material, and the film is Davey’s own kind of audio-visual diary/sketchbook in response to Jarman’s Blue — it serves as a guide. Constellating, it neither reduces nor attempts to categorize; instead, it adds. Full moons appear throughout the film — moons that are ominous, mysterious, unlike the moon I’ve seen. A rock, a strange new world. These moons appear as almost everything interpreted through the lens, the eyes, of Moyra Davey: unrecognizable, otherworldly.
Moyra Davey: 7 Albums continues at Murray Guy (453 W 17th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through May 22.