Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Les Goddesses

Addendum: Saturday 18 and Sunday 19 August, 3pm, at the ICA London. Tickets.

Another artistic interpretation of Mary Wollstonecraft. Somehow I missed this when it was at greengrassi in London a few months ago, but here comes another opportunity: Moyra Davey's Les Goddesses will be shown at the Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art, 20 April to 7 May this year. The previous (longer?) manifestation of this, her third film, was was well and comprehensively reviewed by Gareth Bell-Jones in Art Agenda, with lots of stills: "With precise observation, this psychological self-portrait is a series of clues with no conclusion." Paul Teasdale of Frieze described the work in detail, saying it switches "between autobiography and historical inquiry". He found it:
disquieting in its simplicity. Using little more than a video camera and voice recorder, Davey films herself walking around her apartment with one earphone in, as she listens to and simultaneously repeats pre-recorded passages. At just over 100 minutes long, it’s the most sustained of her films and perhaps the richest. The set-up is clear: Davey recounts the lives of the writer and political activist Mary Wollstonecraft, her daughters Fanny Imlay and Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (later Mary Shelley), and their stepsister Claire Claremont (the piece is fastidiously researched: errata appear twice as subtitles to correct factual errors). These then segue into reminiscences about Davey’s own family.
It's all here on the website of the Glasgow Festival.
Moyra Davey’s latest film “Les Goddesses” (2011) focuses on the life story of Mary Wollstonecraft, her daughters and her lovers. Wollstonecraft was an Eighteenth-century British writer, philosopher, and advocate of women’s rights and her daughters were Fanny Imlay, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (later Mary Shelley) and their stepsister Claire Claremont, nicknamed ‘Les Goddesses’. The daughters were all at some point romantically linked to Percy Bysshe Shelley leading to the tragic suicide of Fanny at 22, and in 1795 Mary Wollestonecroft also attempted suicide with laudanum following her failed romance to Fanny’s father Gilbert Imlay.

Sitting on the floor and pacing around a sunlit bedroom with a voice recorder and video, Davey adopts the tone of a researcher, recounting the biographies of the female lead Mary & her daughters with a forensic attention to detail. Gradually, however, narrative associations are introduced between the lives of the characters and the artists own family, as Davey divulges into anecdotes of her own youth and figures from her past. Whilst narrating Wollenstonecroft’s story with a cool objectivity, the artist punctuates the film with Black and white photographs of herself and her sisters as young women dressed in punk rock clothes, leading us to suspect that it is Davey who may be the true subject here.

In her own writing Davey has cited the ‘muse’ as an important idea and catalyst in her work and previous films, be it a person, a book, a place, or in Davey’s words “a floating abstraction that reveals itself unpredictably”. In this film the muse manifests in itself in all these forms, as Davey weaves together the characters who inhabit her external and inner worlds, both real and imagined, and her literary inspirations - at one point blowing the dust from books on her shelf by Anne Sexton, Mary Kelly and Sylvia Plath. Slowly through the piecing together images and language, and through the act of reading itself, a psychological portrait of the artist emerges.
It was Aaron Burr, sometime vice-president of the United States of America, latterly a wanderer in Europe, who gave the three girls of the Godwin household the collective label "les goddesses": Claire Clairmont, the earlier daughter of the second Mrs Godwin, Fanny Imlay, abandoned by the American adventurer, and Mary later Shelley, whose birth cost her mother's life. His epithet is a fortuitous link: tomorrow our attention turns to the United States.
Image courtesy greengrassi.

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