London

Willie Doherty

Matt's Gallery

It is dark by the door. You can hear sounds of an urban environment, but see nothing. Cautious movement—a familiar shuffle through darkness with arms outstretched—reveals that the space contains two large screens. You have entered the gallery behind the first; the second gradually comes into view beyond. Large, freestanding constructions, they cut across the room at an oblique angle.

Though parallel, the screens do not face one another directly. Instead, they are shifted so that the optimum position for viewing either projection is alongside, rather than in front of the other. It is extremely difficult to keep a close eye on what is happening on both screens at once. Continual spinning around at a certain point in the center of the gallery, however, reveals that the screens feature almost identical sequences. At times they do indeed show the same thing, but then the next shot brings a slight shift between the two narratives—in either point of view or focus. For the most part the camera stays close to its subject, its refusal to pull back and allow a wider view of the surroundings creating a claustrophobic degree of involvement on the part of the viewer.

You are traveling slowly through a tunnel somewhere, looking at the wall or down at the curb. Girders then come into view, signaling a location easily recognizable as the split-level bridge over the Foyle River in Londonderry, Northern Ireland. Now and then fragments of a walker’s body can be seen, either as a camera-holding protagonist, or, at times, as the object of another’s gaze. The scene changes again to a rural setting, with trees, undergrowth, and grass. A burned-out car—perhaps the result of youthful exuberance, vandalism, or terrorism—is glimpsed, circled, and examined more closely. It is only here (and only briefly), on one screen, that you see a long shot, taken from a rise in the landscape, and showing a figure crossing a stretch of open land. Finally, or perhaps initially—the tape is looped, so there is neither beginning nor destination to this journey in and around Doherty’s native Londonderry—you are in the kitchen of an abandoned house, also destroyed by fire. Was this, you wonder, the result of child’s game gone awry, an accident, poor maintenance by the relevant authorities, or of some equally plausible set of circumstances? Evidence of habitation remains, but the sequence of events is unclear. Perhaps, as seems probable, the house has been lived in since its abandonment?

A new British government, negotiations, and a renewed cease-fire in Northern Ireland offer justification for continued hope, but the situation remains unresolved. In the catalogue Doherty is quoted saying that this new piece, same old story, 1997, is difficult to describe over the phone. As with most installations, you have to be there in order to appreciate its full range of complexities and contradictions. What Doherty has unfailingly insisted upon, in both his photography and his video installations, is the futility of engaging in the pretense that any kind of consensus can be reached. With restraint and formal subtlety, same old story extends the ambiguities of The Only Good One is a Dead One, 1993 (Doherty’s last installation at Matt’s), leaving the viewer with a profound sense of unease.

Michael Archer