In John Berger’s 2005 book Here is Where We Meet, ‘John’ discovers his dead mother living in Lisbon. As though fifteen years of death and life has not separated them, she takes John by the arm and leads him through the city. As they traverse its vertiginous streets and steps, they talk through their own shared history and that of Lisbon—its enduring tram system, steep, precipitous foundations, the ‘Great’ 18th-century earthquake and tall, sprawling tidal waves. Recounting stories, remembered and misremembered, they stumble through the city, seemingly directionless until she suddenly announces they have missed a turn: “We’ve come too far, we should have turned left miles back … no point in turning back, it’s too late.” On recognising his mother’s favourite lament, John recalls ‘the feeling of fury at having to hear the words too late pronounced too calmly.’ Every utterance of ‘it’s too late’ is indicative of a failure, a death or a mistake that cannot be atoned for. The calmness of its delivery emphasises this irrevocable finality—the impossibility of returning to a certain moment or opportunity.
Every photograph is symbolic of its own too lateness. While the photographic image encapsulates a singular moment, it also evades any continuity of narrative, history or future; it is fundamentally representative of its own passing. Holly Davey’s exhibition The Conversation at g39 stems from an archive of inherited photographs and papers which once belonged to her grandfather. The documents, housed for decades in a buff foolscap folder, include ten polaroid photographs of his travels from Los Angeles to Sacramento in 1972 and hundreds of ubiquitous travel postcards of endless skylines, buildings and landscapes. Using museum archives, internet searches, youtube footage and google maps, Davey has, over the course of three years, gradually reconstructed her grandfather’s journey, rooting it in the specificity of anonymous tourism: an exhibition of (exclusively) male artists about the female form, the house facade from Psycho at Universal Studios, a cinema showing The New Centurions. Davey’s research surpasses the significance of the archive itself. As she extracts and manipulates the material, a body of work emerges which is both a physical re-enactment of the archive and an imagined history—caught somewhere between the evidentiary force of the photograph and a fictionalised, personal history.
At the entrance to The Conversation, the archival folder sits, closed, inaccessible and constrained by its placement on a plinth. Leaning nearby against the wall are several large plywood shapes, stacked on top of one another, resting like a mute jigsaw puzzle awaiting assembly. Angular and repetitive, the forms are abstracted from the idealised skylines which permeate holiday postcards; the serrated edges of the wood represent the removal of foliage, churches and houses. These vertical structures recur throughout the exhibition. They manifest as microcosmic stage-sets, each enclosing an intervention of the archive: a 1970s TV monitor, a whispered recording of The New Centurions, a 35mm slide of Psycho House and tiny, crude clay models of Picasso’s bronze Women sculptures. Photography collapses subject into object; it democratises its referents, irrespective of hierarchies of sale, range and significance. Although Davey’s translation of a two-dimensional encounter into a three-dimensional one paradoxically opposes the photographic action, it affords the ‘skies’ a similar democratisation—the uniformity of the universal sky.
The photographs which make up the archive are almost exclusively devoid of human presence, apart from one. A series of spindly mock-western buildings are surrounded by tall, industrial structures rigged with spotlights. Against the sky, a man is mid-fall, his body curved over into a dive as though his feet are glued to the building he is about to depart from. The image captures a stunt rehearsal for a Universal Studios ‘Wild West’ tour. As part of the tour, once an hour, a stuntman runs across the roof, pretends to receive a fatal gunshot wound, and ‘falls’ from the building. In her research, Davey located a youtube video of the same stunt-show from 1972, affording her grandfather’s static, ambiguous image the instructive momentum of film. Cropped, enlarged and projected in a loop onto the back wall of the gallery, the stuntman is stuck in a perpetual cycle of scaling a building simply to throw himself off it: climb, run, stop, shift, shoot, fall. As the footage plays over and over again, his Sisyphean action comes to embody the duplicity of the photographic image—what Roland Barthes terms as the illogical conjunction of the “here-now and the there-then”.
Davey’s re-appropriated archive is as fragmented as the one she inherited. Her construction incorporates lighting gels, timed spotlights and recorded birdsong, which her grandfather would play to her as a child, indoors, while she stared at the outdoors. The joinery is visible on the exposed plywood and wires snake across the floor. Alongside the falling stuntman, these theatrical conventions reference the artificiality of the archive. The transparency of signs that are often hidden as part of a performance allows for the disjunction of exterior and interior; the viewer is simultaneously inside the archive and apart from it. This is the fundamental dichotomy of the photograph: the spectacle of the photographic image brings with it a return of the dead, along with its own too lateness. The photograph, in absence of the photographer, provides an illusion of collapsing time, of conjoining heritage with the contemporary, of beginning a conversation. Instead, it inevitably operates in an unreality; the photograph is neither illusion nor a presence, it simply communicates the ‘having-been-there-then’ to the ‘being-here-now.’
The Conversation capitalises on the dislocation between these ‘realities’. In the absence of conversation—between photographer and viewer and grandfather and granddaughter—Davey’s expanding body of work fluctuates between past and present, evidence and imagination and private and public space. Davey’s re-imagined inheritance, in its constant oscillation between the ‘there-then’ and ‘here-now’ cannot fully rest in the present moment, nor is/was it ever fully there, in the archive. As the stuntman resurfaces, unharmed, his pixelated body re-climbs the ladder and hurtles towards the ground again.
Kathryn Lloyd is an artist and writer based in London. In 2016 she was Writer in Residence at Jerwood Visual Arts