Frozen Time

Frozen Time

Originally published in Apartamento magazine issue #33


The photograph of the missing being, as Sontag says, will     

touch me like the delayed rays of a star.

—Roland Barthes


We often say we ‘consume images’, thereby yoking vision to gastrointestinal processes. The act of consuming evokes various emotions such as guilt, comfort, and, for those fixated on the uncertainty principle of spoilage inside the icebox, a sense of control. I’m looking at a photograph by the Toronto-born, New York-based artist Moyra Davey of an old, beige, top-freezer refrigerator covered in everything from cereal and cracker boxes to colon cleansing powder, from the plumber’s number to the city’s solid waste collection schedule. The image is audacious in its apparent simplicity and humorous in a deadpan way. It may induce anxiety, depending on who’s looking at it: As Davey recalls in a film titled Fifty Minutes (2006), ‘I think of a fridge as something that needs to be managed. A well-stocked fridge always triggers a certain atavistic, metabolic anxiety, like that of the Neanderthal after the kill, faced with the task of needing to either ingest or preserve a massive abundance of food before spoilage sets in’. Perhaps this is why she titled the photo of her fridge Glad, after the roll of cling wrap peeking out from behind the colon cleanser.

A copy-machine reproduction of Glad is one of the images taped over my writing desk, mainly, I suspect, because writing and eating are for me inextricable activities that I tend to perform unconsciously at the same time, in the same place. I’m also heartened by the fact that Davey has framed something as mundane as a refrigerator in such a distinguished way, a reminder of what a keen eye can do to otherwise banal surroundings. The image, one of Davey’s many unpopulated interiors, is ultimately a symbol of solitude, a fitting icon for the solitary activity of writing.

Apartamento Magazine - Frozen Time
Glad, C-print, 1999. Photograph by Moyra Davey. Courtesy of the artist; greengrassi, London; and Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne/New York.


Human figures were abundant in Davey’s early work, which included bare-chested portraits of her sisters and photographs of strangers on the street. However, in 1984, an altercation in London between Davey and a subject of her street photography, along with her exposure to critiques of representation put forth by Martha Rosler, Laura Mulvey, and other feminist writers prompted the artist to turn away from photographing others for about 25 years. During that period of ‘prohibition’, as Davey calls it, she primarily made films of herself pacing around her pre-war apartment and reciting essays to the camera. She also photographed her dusty books, her apartment’s overhead light fixtures, and the view under her bed. Glad comes from this period and embodies the tensions latent in the genre of still life, with its unabashed fetish for objects. A weathered monolith amongst blue-black shadows, Davey’s fridge is at once tranquil and foreboding, jolly and melancholic. The photograph is richly saturated and tightly cropped, its singular focus evincing a sense of reticence, an obsession with delimitations of personal space that I tend to read as lonely and slightly agoraphobic. In lieu of human figures in the frame, the fridge’s surface contains a subtle archive of their past activities: artifacts like a child’s drawings in bright yellows, reds, blues, and mauves juxtaposed with missives from the civic sphere like a 1995 New York Times editorial on pesticides.

I have an affinity for interiors, as well as for solitude over constant socialising. This was influenced by my mother’s agoraphobia, which dictated a sizable facet of my life growing up. During the day, while my father went to work, my mother ensconced herself in our one-story house in its cookie-cutter neighbourhood in Florida and entertained no guests. Her isolation and anxiety were the fait accompli of my childhood and the subject of gentle mockery among all those who knew, and her prohibitions extended to me, producing periods of time in which I involuntarily accompanied her in her retreat from the world, her renunciation of other people.

Within the agoraphobe’s domestic confines, the refrigerator is a public emissary, a link to the broader world. Needing constantly to be replenished from without, the refrigerator is the only ‘room’ in the house whose contents constantly circulate. Its door is a discursive zone, where memos are stuck alongside appointment reminder cards, calendars, and photographs. Behind the door, one finds more words: words strung together on products that would make little sense elsewhere—‘Cage Free White’, ‘The Cooking Milk’—aphorisms related to digestion that, to this day, imbue foods like yoghurt with a vague aura of femininity and nutrition labels enumerating chemicals whose names I have never tried to pronounce. In short, the fridge is full of sundry souvenirs from the so-called ‘public sphere’. Culminating from long chains of labour, they’ve each been touched by countless hands unseen by the consumer and will continue to be handled as they depart the home as waste.


The first time I saw one of Davey’s C-prints was online: a small, low-resolution image of a ceiling light fixture that I zoomed in on until it blurred. The first time I saw one of her films in a museum—Les Goddesses (2011) at the Art Institute of Chicago—I sat for hours scoping out the interior of the artist’s apartment. Admittedly, I was transfixed. Here was Davey, narrating and enacting the role of a flâneur of the home. Same as my mother. Well, same but different, like the cereal boxes on the fridge in Glad and those in our kitchen—same because mass-produced, different because in a different home, with a different floorplan, different inhabitants.

When we examine Davey’s photographs of domestic interiors or watch films like Les Goddesses, we become voyeurs of her candid or at most semi-staged life. We see her dusty books and unpaid bills, the robin’s egg blue of her kitchen walls, picture frames on the floor in the hall, her mismatched table and chairs. Yet we aren’t given enough specificity to psychoanalyse her based on these details, at least not deeply, and not any more than she does in her monologues. Our only task—the only thing our eyes can do—is simply look, look, look.

Our fridge was a top freezer, like Davey’s. Two unequally sized registers, harmonious in their proportions like a Rothko painting. The bottom door was studded with ceramic magnets and pockmarked with peeling stickers; I remember trying to save the stickers by covering them with the magnets. I remember loving the cold smell of the freezer, whose contents I could barely see and had nothing to do with me, like the idea of heaven. I remember mouthing the words on the sides of jam jars in the cold light and on the receipts my mother and I got from the store we ventured out to once a week. It isn’t lost on me that my mother’s main occupations were domestic in nature and that her agoraphobia was exacerbated by—or at least intimately linked to—having a role in the household centred on what Davey calls ‘managing’ the fridge.

When I entered adolescence, we moved to a different house in a different state. There, my desire to explore the town, my insistence on an independent identity, on cleaving from my mother’s private sphere, led to long, excruciating fights. Between the inside and the outside were minefields of negotiation, dark rabbit holes of guilt. Rain was enough of an existential threat to foreclose any discussion of my going out, but as a mute peace offering, my mother stocked the fridge with my favourite ice creams, yoghurts, jams, and preserves. I still associate the tastes of those foods with her.

It is perhaps for all these reasons that I possess a voracious impulse to consume the spaces that others occupy, those pieces of private property made communal. As Roland Barthes writes in Camera Lucida, ‘The age of photography corresponds precisely to the explosion of the private into the public, or rather into the creation of a new social value, which is the publicity of the private: the private is consumed as such, publicly’. Lacking an image to disseminate, I can only conjure in words the intimations of that lost kitchen in Florida, the blue flowers on the wallpaper, the honey-hued linoleum floors, the light switch that seldom worked, which my mother would call me in to flip as evening crept through, swearing my touch was good luck.

Time has a funny way of congealing what were once forgettable years—as well as periods of suffocating idleness, periods of intense longing—into vivid, almost talismanic images. Just as the temporal metonymy of photography, which flashes fragments of the past into the haze of the present, can make a cluttered refrigerator appear singular and profound, my memories are briefly illuminated when they congregate around the icebox of my childhood home.

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