New York

Willie Doherty

“You think you know me. I am unknowable.” The male voice is measured, calm, and somber. “I am invisible. I disappear in a crowd.” Pausing between lines, the speaker allows a few seconds for each statement to sink in before proceeding to the next. “I share your fears. I know your desires.” As the recitation continues, we watch a projection of a lone young white man with a shaved head and severe expression; he remains motionless and silent as the camera circles him, steadily and unceasingly. “There will be no television. There will be no radio.” Interspersed with what we assume to be the subject’s characterizations of himself and his relationship to us are predictions of a desolate future in which the conveniences of modern life have melted away. “I am fictional. I am real.” The man, dressed in a denim jacket, black T-shirt, and gold chain, stands in an abandoned warehouse, sufficient detail for us to infer a contemporary urban context but little more.

Willie Doherty’s NON-SPECIFIC THREAT, 2004, is a simple single-channel video that lasts a mere seven minutes, forty-six seconds but lingers chillingly in the memory. Its title perfectly sums up the artist’s ongoing project to map the paradoxes and contradictions inherent in the philosophies used to explain and justify acts of aggression. If there is one key phrase in NON-SPECIFIC THREAT, it is surely “I am the face of evil.” Here, Doherty presents us with a real individual, closely observed from every angle, whose origins, motivations, and intentions remain frustratingly uncertain. This man, who may or may not be the person—the terrorist?—we want him to be, who returns our gaze with eyes obscured by shadow, is threatening precisely because the nature of his dissent is so nebulous, shifting according to our own position and matching us move for move.

Doherty is a native of the Northern Irish town of Derry and since the mid-’80s has drawn on the sectarian divides of that region. As a child he witnessed Bloody Sunday, the day in January 1972 on which British paratroopers shot dead thirteen unarmed protesters, and the event and its implications continue to inform his work even when specific references to the Troubles are absent. With rare exceptions, he uses the specific situation of Northern Ireland as a model whose essential characteristics recur elsewhere. Despite their polished surfaces and an ominous chiaroscuro that has prompted comparisons to film noir, the hard, functional look of surveillance footage and forensic photography remains a key referent in Doherty’s imagery, while his use of language has the insistence (and unreliabilty) of propaganda. In Same Difference, 1990, an important early work, conflicting descriptions derived from partisan media reportage accompanied two identical shots of an IRA suspect. NON-SPECIFIC THREAT plays a similar game but is all the more unnerving in its refusal to identify the subject’s affiliation.

A suite of color photographs in the front gallery picture again the subject of the video, from a variety of viewpoints but in a similar setting, a grimy street corner with (political? territorial?) graffiti sometimes visible in the background. Here, it is the works’ subtitles that help to provide the images with their charge, which borders at times on the melodramatic. In NON-SPECIFIC THREAT II (Monstrous Depravity), 2003, the man looks in our direction; in NON-SPECIFIC THREAT VII (Unrelenting Vengeance), 2003, he turns almost completely away. If the teasing pose is reminiscent of Gerhard Richter’s bittersweet Betty, 1988, its implications—defiance, negation, alienation—could hardly be more different.

Michael Wilson