New York

Willie Doherty

Seemingly emblematic of “the troubles” themselves, the two wall-sized projections that comprised Irish artist Willie Doherty’s video installation, The Only Good One Is A Dead One, 1994, were shown, symbolically, at right angles from each other. Like the still photographs of Northern Ireland captioned with intimations of terror (for which he is better known), Doherty’s video depicts a landscape inscribed with fear.

Both projections are night scenes: one of the city, its darkness irradiated by hot-orange street lamps; the other of the countryside viewed from the driver’s seat of a car, the blue blackness illuminated by white headlight beams. Gears grind and turn signals click, constructing an almost absurd sense of anticipation and drama. The car halts at a stop sign or intersection, seemingly open to attack, before lurching forward toward some unknown destination. Back in the city, we are confronted with a different set of expectations. Here the camera is steadily trained on the street, waiting like a sniper for a car, bicycle, or pedestrian to swing into view. All of these become potential targets until they pass safely out of range. Here the viewer rather than identifying with the vulnerable passenger traveling through the night is part of the system of surveillance and control. Even the narrative is constructed from both vantage points: as one narrator contemplates the “sadly predictable” routines of his “legitimate target,” the other muses, “Sometimes I feel like I’m wearing a big sign, ‘Shoot Me.’”

It’s the same voice, switching from assassin to victim with unflinching ease, that inflects every aspect of this otherwise simple setup with a complex ambiguity. The road that by day wends through an idyllic “green canopy” of trees is transformed at night into a harrowing passage along blind twists and turns. Though, as in the city street, nothing ever actually occurs, the tales of violence that the voice recounts possess a filmic clarity: “As my assassin jumps out in front of me everything starts to happen in slow motion. . . .” The killer imagines, “I’ve seen it so many times I could write the script,” as could anyone schooled by the daily news and mainstream films. Indeed it is terrorism as a genre—its seeming accessibility—that makes this piece so seductive.

With its Irish intonations, the voice pierces the viewer’s reverie, inserting the generic notion of a “couple of good clean shots” into the political reality of life under a state of siege. The voice itself is transformed into “a legitimate target”—accents are not only regional in Northern Ireland, they’re factional, as telling of birth place as of belief. Thus, as the title of the work suggests, the meaning of even the most intimate reflections depends on who is listening. It’s precisely this psychic space that Doherty maps, within which there is no clear separation between right and wrong, guilt and innocence, Catholic and Protestant, but, rather, a state of moral conflict and deadly uncertainty.

Ingrid Schaffner