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Iman Issa and Moyra Davey on first-person narration in art


How to tell a story is without a doubt one of the most age-old concerns of artists and writers. Too often are those who use first-person narration, or “I,” written off as self-involved or even narcissistic. (Sometimes for good reason, others not.) Two of my favorite artists, Moyra Davey and Iman Issa, sat down to speak about using “I” in their work. Check out the conversation in full on, or the excerpt below.

For several years now I’ve been engaged in an itinerant conversation with Moyra Davey. It began when I wrote a short paragraph on her film Les Goddesses for Artforum concerning her use of first person narration. At the time, I was thinking a great deal about what it means to use oneself as the source of one’s work—trying to make sense of the “I” through which we choose to speak and articulate positions, sentiments, and facts. Moyra’s film appeared to pierce through these issues head on and became a new lens through which to view the rest of her work. Her photographs, videos, and writings completed over three decades started to form a coherent whole in my mind, and I was eager to revisit her work from my newly found angle. Until now, I’d never had the chance to properly unpack these ideas. This conversation is an attempt at doing that.

Iman Issa: One of the key moments that brought me further into your work was seeing Les Goddesses in 2011, both at the Whitney Biennial and during your solo exhibition at Murray Guy. At that time, I was struggling with the use of what one might describe as the “personal voice”. I felt uncomfortable with the enormous leeway an artist can have when using such a voice. As if it gave one license to draw connections between different elements and narratives with no justification beyond the incontestable claim of subjective inclinations. At that same time, I was convinced that certain elements and topics could only be accessed with it. Seeing your work was revelatory; I felt it was using the personal voice differently. How would you describe your relationship to that voice?

Moyra Davey: Fundamentally I’m interested in storytelling, although I don’t often put it like that. Some background on Les Goddesses: I had just moved to Paris for ten months and was flooded with memories of when I lived there at the age of eighteen, and had hugely struggled with the city and the people I knew at the time. I wanted to write about what I considered “unspeakable” memories. That was the idea, the “agenda”, even though a big part of me thought it was impossible. A well-known writer, whose name escapes me, counseled that I should write from a place of the greatest discomfort. Knausgaard is able to do it via auto-fiction.

For myself, I can only imagine that via fiction—a novel, a story—genres I have never tried. Les Goddesses was an attempt to get close to painful material, and I came up with this device of linking my story to these historical, literary women: Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley. This was something of an enabler; a way to create parallelism and give the ‘muck’ a foil.

But Borges points out that people “long for confessions”, and viewers have told me the same, that they prefer the grittier, autobiographical material in my narratives. Les Goddesses became somewhat of an idealized portrait of my family. And so in this new video that I’ve just begun to edit, tentatively titled Hemlock Forest, I’m asking what it would mean to revisit Les Goddesses, but to show us (my sisters and myself) as we are now, not via photos taken thirty-five years ago when we were in our heyday. I cite what you wrote in Artforum, about Les Goddesses having a “desperate” quality. I thought you hit the nail on the head.

II: The idea of an “agenda” is interesting in relationship to your work. It makes me think of the autobiography of Inji Aflatoun, an artist who, in the 1960s, was accused of being a communist and put in prison for several years. The last lines in the book read something to the effect of, “Now that I’m leaving prison, it is time to end these pages. What is coming is not for public ears. It is private…” Comparing this to Les Goddesses, I would say that your agenda comes across more as a search. That is what I meant by the word “desperate”; someone trying to find something without clearly stating what it is, or knowing how to search for it.

MD: I interpreted your use of the word desperate to denote a space of risk. And there is risk-taking in Les Goddesses. I left stuff in there that to this day still makes me cringe. One of the themes I’m working on with in Hemlock Forest is the idea that some shots are “low hanging fruit”; they’re easy. There’s little risk. I can’t let go of the idea that accident and risk are vital elements in any work.

II: This makes me think of a [Rainer Werner] Fassbinder quote you often cite, “The more honestly you put yourself into the story the more the story will concern others as well.” I am not sure I relate to or understand this quote, but I’m interested in the use of the word honestly. What does it mean to put oneself honestly in a story?

MD: The quote is from a filmed interview and he briefly qualifies the word honestly, but I don’t include that comment in my citation. He might put it in air quotes, but then he decides he is not going to go there. He’s just going to go with his idea, even if part of it is problematic to him. I’ve actually collected four such quotes. I have one by PJ Harvey who says almost the same thing, another one by Chantal Ackerman and one by Laverne Cox. I think it all kind of comes back to the idea that you start with the particular and this enables you to speak about larger things.

II: With many of your works, I get the feeling, as a viewer, that I’m supposed to work with you to try and unravel something. Even in the videos in which you are a main subject, you are never central. You walk in and out of the frame; sometimes parts of you are cut off. You point us to things you are using or inspecting, but also just film your surroundings and yourself moving, looking, and thinking. You speak a scripted text, yet your delivery is far from smooth. If you could expand a little more on what it means for you to put yourself “honestly” in the work? How would you say your own intentions enter the work?

MD: That question, regarding how honestly do I do it, is still a huge question and I’ll come back to it, but let me say something about intention. Whenever I start a new video project, I always show it to my partner and he looks at me and says, “What is this about?” And I can almost never say. And to be frank, even after it’s done, I have a hard time summing up and saying it’s about this and this and this. I don’t know if it’s laziness or stubbornness, but I have a resistance to doing that.

I am really fascinated by Fassbinder’s idea and the other iterations I mentioned because, in a way, it’s a very old-fashioned idea about writing: “In the particular is contained the universal.” In the case of Fassbinder, it was unusual. It was not the way he usually spoke, and I think that’s why it struck me. It’s a paradoxical idea: you take material from yourself that’s highly personal, idiosyncratic and strange, even to yourself, you make your work from that, and somehow that is supposed to address more people than if you started with an abstraction. I mentioned Borges and his idea that people are drawn to the confessional. Viewers or readers feel they can trust you if there is an element of confession. But, do I feel like I’m being honest in my work? Sometimes. When you’re constructing these narratives and stories, you are always “shaping” the material even if everything you are saying is true. Everything you omit is probably just as relevant, but you cut it to direct the narrative in a certain way. Regarding intentionality, I’m not an activist, nor do I have an overtly political message. There are obviously many things I care about and I take positions, but I come at them sideways and let them surreptitiously slip into the work.

*Image: Moyra Davey, Still from Les Goddesses, 2011