While Davey presented new photographic and film works at the recently ended documenta14 in Athens and Kassel, the exhibition at Portikus features an older work: the film after which the exhibition is named, Hell Notes (1990). Shown only once in 1991 at a screening at the Collective for Living Cinema in New York, the film is complemented by the photographic series Copperheads (1990-ongoing).
The Copperheads are photographic reproductions of Abraham Lincoln’s (1809-1865) profile on the American one-cent coin. These are macro photos; very enlarged depictions of the former American president on the lowest-value coin in the US. This ongoing work emerged in a time of political upheaval, marked by the American financial crisis of the 1980s, as well as the fall of the Berlin Wall and the concomitant media-celebrated end of communism. Minted on a coin, the face of Abraham Lincoln as a symbol of freedom is a commentary on developments pertaining to the idea of freedom after the end of the Cold War.
Although Copperheads began in the 1990s, the work, consisting of hundreds of images is more relevant today than ever before. The sheer quantity of photographs of different penny coins underlines their actual use as a means of payment, passed hand to hand and covered with countless traces of use. Their surfaces vary – sometimes notched, scarred, tarnished or rusted – making them reminiscent of aerial photographs of deserted, unknown terrains. As an analysis and at the same time fascinated by the psychology of money, Davey wrote in 2010:
When I began collecting pennies for the Copperhead series, I’d just moved to NY, had no money and was thinking a lot about the psychology of money: Freudian ideas that equate money with excrement; the Potlatch custom of shaming a rival with extravagant gifts; profiles of 19th century misers; and one famous counterfeiter.
The Copperheads are a direct manifestation of her work on the film Hell Notes (1990), a 26-minute work shot on Super-8. In principle, within the film Davey develops theories on the nature of money. We see images from New York in the late 1980s, learn about the skyscrapers that characterize Wall Street and hear background information about the bedrock in Central Park and the construction of the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine. At the center of the film is the artist herself, sitting on a park bench talking about money and feces, the devil and hell. Somehow humorous and yet serious, she draws a long line from the Reformation and the Indulgences to links between money and religion.
The exhibition and the film Hell Notes at Portikus is a psychoanalytic exploration of currency and value, materiality and function. The older works presented here aim to provide an introduction to the work of Moyra Davey, which has grown in size and complexity over the years. In times of increasing acceleration of art production and mediation, the exhibition allows a concentrated focus on a specific work that, despite the year it began decades ago, is relevant still.
The exhibition is supported by the Embassy of Canada in Germany.
The exhibition Hell Notes by Moyra Davey is co-produced in collaboration with Bielefelder Kunstverein, where her work will be on view in early 2018.