The filmic works of artist Moyra Davey hold the intimacy of a letter—inviting one in, as though offering a personal encounter—while maintaining a scripted distance. Hemlock Forest (2016), which recently premiered at La Biennale de Montréal’s “Le Grand Balcon” (at Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal), typifies this. Davey, often pacing before the camera, speaks of her family and their trying experiences (death, addiction, children growing up); what she reads (Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House); and what she studies (the films and life of Chantal Akerman). But her sharing is measured. As Davey speaks, a headphone cord plainly hangs from one ear; she’s listening to a recording of her own voice, which she repeats to the camera as she listens. Cut together as a series of fragmentary scenes, Hemlock Forest is a non-linear amalgam of Davey’s life as of late through people, images, and influences—all shrouded in references (the film is followed by a “works cited”).
“It’s like life redacted,” the New York-based artist tells us. “It’s always a very subjective version of the real thing. Of course it’s a lot easier for me if I think of myself as a character to say certain things; it gives me a kind of liberty to say things that I otherwise wouldn’t. It’s always my hope that it will come across as me and not me at the same time.”
For Davey, Hemlock Forest nearly serves as a corrective measure. After coming to the realization that her 2011 film Les Goddesses was perhaps “too rosy” a look at her family, she made Hemlock, a 42-minute long follow-up. It wholly embraces the snapshot aesthetic. “I have to confess … I just put the camera on automatic,” says Davey. Each shot appears uncomplicated, often not color corrected or fully in focus. This furthers the sense that one will not find a satisfying single narrative, prettified and clear, in Hemlock Forest; Davey instead asks questions of herself and of those who watch.
Interview spoke with Davey in Montréal on the day that Hemlock Forest (and La Biennale de Montréal) opened to the public. The film is now on view in Montréal at Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal and at Bergen Kunsthall in Bergen, Norway as part of Davey’s solo exhibition (which is also titled “Hemlock Forest”).
HALEY WEISS: To start off, I want to talk about one of the phrases that I found really striking in the film, which was, “To live one’s life or to tell it,” which seems core to the way that the video is structured. In the film you said that your son’s response to that was something like, “I don’t want to write a diary, because I want to live my life and not tell it.” How do you think about living your life versus telling it?
MOYRA DAVEY: I think it was Yeats or one of those poets, he didn’t exactly coin that phrase, but [what he said] was something similar to that. It’s been a long-standing conundrum for artists and poets to live the life or to write it. When I [mention] it the first time in the film, it’s [Jean-Luc] Godard from his film Goodbye to Language. For me it’s not really a choice. I’ve always made things either paintings, drawing, photographs, or writing. It’s all kind of the same thing. It all involves saying more, I guess. It involves separating life, breaking off this chunk that’s devoted to making something. There’s a lot of pleasure in that, but there can also be a lot of struggle. There’s always this fantasy that you could just live life and not have to think about it.
WEISS: I can’t imagine doing that though, without writing or reframing it in some way.
DAVEY: I know. And when it’s going well, what could be better? When it’s not, when you hate the thing that you’re working on, that’s when you question it.
WEISS: I love the idea of having a “works cited” for an artwork, because I’m so often interested in how artists have been thinking about what they’re doing. It’s a jumping off point to learn more. Do you have a voracious attitude towards all media forms?
DAVEY: Kind of, [but] I always credit; I never just steal something. I’m very much a product of everything that I’ve read and seen and heard or listened to.
WEISS: Because you’ve worked a lot with letters and that epistolary mode of thinking, I wonder if you see these films as addressed to someone in particular. At times it seems like you’re speaking to your son, but then you also seem to be reciting for yourself. Do you think there’s an addressee in this work?
DAVEY: Well, in this film the personal pronoun shifts a lot from “I” to “you” to the third person. Usually I do that just to enable the writing, because sometimes I want to speak in the first person but it’s too difficult, so I shift it to the third person. The same thing with when I’m talking about Chantal Akerman; I felt I had become so familiar with her, she was just such a likable person. I’ve never met her but you can encounter her virtually; there’s tons of stuff on the internet. So at a certain point it just made sense to shift from the third person to the second just to say “you” to Chantal Akerman. The same thing with my son; there are certain sentences that just don’t sound right in the third person, so if you switch it over it comes across in a different way. Do I think of audience, and do I think of an ideal audience? It’s essentially the people who are close to me that I’m making these things for. It’s never a specific person. It’s kind of a group, I’d say, of my peers and loved ones.
WEISS: When you say it’s difficult sometimes to write in the first person, do you mean structuring it that way or difficult emotionally speaking?
DAVEY: Describing some kinds of feelings comes across as too excessive in the first person. If you put it in the third person, you’re taking a little bit of a distance, and that way it becomes more apprehensible to a viewer. You’re always riding this fine line of risking saying too much, do you know what I mean? When you feel you’re in that area, if you shift the address a little bit it can alter it.
WEISS: I know Hemlock Forest relates to your prior film, Les Goddesses, but do you consider it a sequel? Or is it a separate work that happens to have tie-ins?
DAVEY: It’s a separate work but it revisits aspects of Les Goddesses, because, as I say in the film, Les Goddesses was a letter to my family. I felt to a certain extent that I had idealized them. After I made that film a lot of bad things happened in my family; my niece died of an overdose. I kept thinking, “I should really go back, I should revisit Les Goddesses and I should update it a little bit.” So that’s one part of Hemlock. A lot of Hemlock is about risk, and I frame that by using this idea of low-hanging fruit; there are certain things that are just really easy … they don’t risk anything. There’s always this idea of putting yourself on the line and pushing yourself; that’s where the reward comes, I think—when you can pull that off.
WEISS: Is there ever too high-hanging fruit? Are there certain things where you’re like, “I can’t go there, I can’t touch that”?
DAVEY: Oh my gosh—yes, yes. [both laugh] Because I’m actually a shy person. I’d love to be braver and to just put myself in many more situations. Even just doing that subway shot [in Hemlock Forest], as I mentioned in the film: I have such a fear of authority; I have an overactive superego or whatever. I’m always convinced that I’m going to get caught. Whereas I notice other people, like my students and friends, they would never think twice about doing that subway shot. It’s just automatic—go down there with a bag full of equipment. There’s tons of things I wish I could do that I feel like are not in my reach.
WEISS: You also mentioned in the film that you have to take the good and the bad, otherwise you’re a hypocrite. Is that something you feel like you’ve learned since making your last film? You said that these bad things happened in your life—is that a lesson that you’ve learned lately?
DAVEY: I’ve been absorbing that lesson for a long time. [laughs] I have a very good friend who said that to me maybe 20 years ago. It’s something that I think about always, especially as you get older and things change and you go through hard stuff. You can’t be judgmental. You have to do your best not to be, I think.
WEISS: What kind of conversations do you have within your family when you’re about to make a work like this? It’s very revealing in some aspects, but I think it’s also protective of them.
DAVEY: They’re incredibly generous. They’re willing to participate. When I show them the films, they’ve never objected to anything. For years, because I started photographing them all in the ’80s, they’ve always been super generous.
WEISS: With installations like this, people come and go as they may. When I entered there were about 10 minutes left, so I saw the ending before I saw the beginning. Do you see it as—it’s not linear—but, “This is the beginning, this is the end”?
DAVEY: I actually like a film in a gallery, because you don’t have to show up at a certain time to see something, you can just walk in whenever. I like that freedom to be able to see something anytime. I personally don’t mind watching something knowing that it’s not the beginning and then just letting it run its cycle.
WEISS: It seemed like you were almost taking advantage of that within the film. At one point you’re wearing a sweater, and then there’s a scene where you’re taking off the sweater and I thought, “Oh, then that was filmed after.” You try to make that chronological leap but it sort of fights against that.
DAVEY: I basically write in fragments, so it’s structured in a very fragmented way. I think that also helps in this gallery viewing situation. Your chances of catching it in the beginning are… I don’t know what.
WEISS: You say you start with fragments, and you said in filming that you don’t have the story in mind that you’re going to make. When does that story reveal itself to you?
DAVEY: I start with fragments, an idea of what I think the film is going to be about, but I’m usually not sure. I always write the whole text before I start to shoot. As I shoot it I might drop something; I might get an idea to write a new scene. So it starts with the writing and it usually changes once I start to shoot.
WEISS: And when you have the headphones in, you’re listening back to your own voice, right?
DAVEY: Yeah, exactly. The very first shirt video I shot was called Fifty Minutes  and it’s exactly 50 minutes long, which is the length of a shrink appointment, or it used to be. Now they’re 45 minutes, but it used to always be the “50 minute hour.” That video I did in analysis in New York, so I ended up writing about that. With that film I was trying to memorize the whole text and it took me three years to make it because it was so hard. I’m not an actor. Then I saw a friend’s performance, Suzanne Bocanegra, and she had a male actor from the Wooster Group playing her, listening to her voice. And I thought, “Oh, bingo. That’s what I need to do.” … I still make mistakes and stumble because sometimes I lose the thread. I realized with Fifty Minutes that those are the takes that are usually the most interesting.
HEMLOCK FOREST IS ON VIEW AT LA BIENNALE DE MONTRÉAL‘S “LE GRAND BALCON” AT MUSÉE D’ART CONTEMPORAIN DE MONTRÉAL THROUGH JANUARY 15, 2017. “HEMLOCK FOREST” IS ON VIEW AT THE BERGEN KUNSTHALL IN BERGEN, NORWAY THROUGH JANUARY 8, 2017.