A renowned photographer, writer, and video artist, Moyra Davey has been making art for over four decades, garnering a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2020 and numerous solo exhibitions along the way. In a short video piece posted on YouTube this past March, titled Portrait of Moyra Davey, the artist explains some of the ideas behind her body of work, which includes photography, conceptual pieces reminiscent of On Kawara, and the filming of footage for what would become her new feature-length video work, Horse Opera. She describes waking up at 4:00 AM to capture images of horses during the sunrise, while drawing inspiration from her own prior work as well as from others, a process she describes as “forms of love, homage, reenactment, and reposition.” Horse Opera manages to fuse these disparate forms into a rigorous, if opaque, study of nature and seclusion. Composed of footage shot between 2019 and 2022, the video chronicles horses and other animals around Davey’s home, as well as various odds and ends from inside the house (stacks of records, the kitchen, her workshop, etc). Davey herself delivers a constant voiceover narration for the duration of the video that concerns a woman named Elle, and which recounts various anecdotes about going to clubs, partying with friends, and imbibing copious amounts of drugs.
Michael Sicinski has called Horse Opera a “plague diary,” and it certainly is that. Stuck at home, Davey has found a way to transform her surroundings into organizational units, juxtaposing the Elle narrative — expansive, sprawling, full of people with vivid interior lives — with her own isolation. The view outside her windows becomes Davey’s whole world, albeit also full of life in its own way. The video consists entirely of these oppositions, closeups of horses and ponies oblivious to their owner’s predicament while the narration accumulates an entire biography’s worth of information. It’s not clear if Elle is a real person or not, or if Davey has created this story out of whole cloth. It doesn’t seem particularly important either, even as the connections between these two strands aren’t always immediately clear. There is obviously a desire on the artist’s part to create something (she says that she has made her home central to her visual art so that she can always be working), to give the long hours and days some sort of purpose. Footage of the animals is masked so that the frame becomes a circle, like old-timey portraiture (an act of homage by Davey’s own admission). Repeated scenes of bird feeders, horses urinating, and tails swishing away flies seem to speak to the way days and weeks melded into each other during quarantine. There’s beauty here, of course, but also a kind of distance.
Davey’s vocal delivery is a flat, halting monotone, almost soothing in its robotic rhythm, as she spins her detailed yarn about Elle’s vibrant nightlife that Davey herself can’t experience. She fills the video with music, adding some vibrancy in the process, and eventually expands the piece’s very loose narrative to include friends and family as well as several sequences of herself recording her narration into her phone. In this sense, the video is very much about the process of its own creation, a self-reflexive bit of commentary that suggests an endless number of possibilities for collating and organizing visual information. At a brief 71 minutes, Horse Opera can sometimes feel a little too loose; one can imagine a 30-minute version of the project that functions just as well, or a two- or even three-hour version that is more immersive and durational. But what shines through is her fascination with what writer Janique Vinier calls an “unwavering attention to the objects and accidents of everyday life.” A curious work, Horse Opera in its own odd way nonetheless becomes a key reflective work of our Covid era.
Published as part of TIFF 2022 — Dispatch 2.