Willie Doherty

For the first time since Willie Doherty began exhibiting in the mid-’80s, his new body of work does not refer more or less directly to the lived experience of his native Northern Ireland and the ways in which daily life (and death) there have been represented to a wider world. Even his 1999 video installation True Nature, which was produced and first shown in Chicago, interrogated the images of a romanticized homeland concocted by second- and third-generation Irish-Americans who had never visited it. But the new work, Extracts from a File, 2000, forty small-scale black-and-white photographs of nighttime Berlin shot during a yearlong residency there, draws in a similar way on familiar, popular perceptions of a city as well as Doherty’s personal experience of an unfamiliar and notoriously alienating milieu. Doherty’s Berlin is a maze of shadowy side streets and subways, dimly lit apartments and office buildings, ominous security grills, bars, and railings, and flights of steps and stairways leading who knows where. It is also a city entirely devoid of people.

Geography aside, several notable shifts in scale, color, and display format mark a clear break between this series and Doherty’s photographic work during most of the ’90s. These shifts include the decisions to shoot in black and white (with a distinct emphasis on black), to print the images on a smaller scale than ever before, and to present them as a series rather than as individual images. Hung—on this occasion, at least—at irregular heights and in groups of five, the segmented, serpentine line of photographs that snaked around the white gallery walls invited a reading in terms of an elusive, episodic narrative. The lack of recognizable landmarks or coordinates and the absence of dramatis personae, however, consistently frustrated any such reading. The show’s title emphasized the incomplete nature of the “evidence” presented and underscored the futility of attempting to construct a comprehensive narrative from such fragmentary and fugitive material. The notional subject of this imaginary file remained absent and obscure.

By summoning the specter of the former East Germany’s notorious Stasi files, the title also provides a crucial link with Doherty’s previous reflections on the dispiriting effect of intrusive surveillance and oppressive security on his own community. Doherty’s large-scale color photographs of Northern Ireland are ominous and unsettling largely because of their formal echoes of images of sectarian crime scenes and the uncovered evidence of paramilitary activity in the news media. The Berlin imagery is refracted more obviously through the cinematic portrayal of cloak-and-dagger espionage in the gloomily romantic cities of postwar Central Europe. Away from home, Doherty’s concern seems less a matter of revealing the prejudices of television and tabloid journalism than of reveling in the conventions of cold-war film noir. Yet the intent remains serious and the strategy consistent: to call into question the ontological status of such categories as truth and fiction, actuality and preconception, substance and style, by constantly blurring the boundaries between them.

Caoimhín Mac Giolla Léith