Willie Doherty

The trajectory of Willie Doherty’s photographic work since the early ’80s, as well as his subsequent work with slides and video, resembles that of a dissatisfied detective who repeatedly returns to the scene of an insoluble crime. Or perhaps it more closely resembles that of the perpetrator of the crime who falls prey to a similar urge. It is no coincidence that this very ambiguity lies at the heart of one of Doherty’s most powerful installations, The Only Good One is a Dead One, 1993, in which a voice-over monologue switches unnervingly between the point of view of an assassin and that of his potential target as we watch surveillance footage of a seemingly innocuous residential street in late evening, while an adjacent screen shows footage shot from a car speeding down narrow country roads at night. This was one of the five video/slide pieces from the ’90s that were brought together in this survey, which also included a generous selection of photographic works (dating back to 1985) and a newly commissioned installation, Somewhere Else, 1998, Doherty’s most complex and ambitious work to date.

The place that Doherty has felt compelled to revisit again and again is that problematic space between traumatic events and the images and narratives through which they come to be remembered. Problems of commemoration and representation, in every sense of the word, remain understandably fundamental to an artist who has continued to live and work in his native Derry throughout the painfully protracted Northern Irish “peace process.” During this period, many of his works have sounded a cautionary note against the perils of both premature euphoria and willed political amnesia. For example, in the film loop At the End of the Day, 1994, which was shot from a moving vehicle at dusk, the camera repeatedly comes up against the impasse of a rural roadblock while a voice-over dully intones a series of hackneyed expressions of optimism: “The only way is forward”; “There’s no future in the past”; “Let’s not lose sight of the road ahead.” Other works such as Uncovering Evidence that the War is Not Over (I & II; both works 1995), both of which are photographs depicting suspicious-looking devices hidden in a tangle of undergrowth, are mordant comments on the seeming futility of attempts to disarm the various paramilitary groups involved in the “troubles.”

The highly mediated and partial nature of our perception of disturbing, even cataclysmic, events that happen elsewhere is highlighted in Somewhere Else, 1998. This determinedly theatrical installation, with its multiple projections and sound tracks emanating from diverse sources, is too physically complex to digest in anything but a piecemeal fashion. A voice-over monologue offers the most promising means to make sense of the “plot” (“a straightforward story with a twist,” we are told) presented to us through a fractured and elusive set of video projections. Yet the voice-over continually draws attention to the narrative’s own means of production: “Fade up to a scene in the forest”; “A high crane shot gives us this unnatural vantage point.” Voice-over and video combine to offer us alternating scenarios of foreboding and reprieve, extreme violence and imaginary escape into a less troubled world. The story is set in Northern Ireland, yet its concerns are such that it might have taken place just as convincingly, just as compellingly “somewhere else.” Ireland is a country long obsessed with the politics and poetics of place, but it is not unique in this regard. By remaining close to the specifics of his immediate sociopolitical environment while deconstructing the more general means by which “sense” is made of such particulars, Doherty has generated a body of work that has a vital purchase on a world far beyond the bounds of the community within which it was produced.

Caoimhín Mac Giolla Léith