New York

Willie Doherty

In Willie Doherty’s new video PASSAGE (all works 2006), two young men stride determinedly along a roadside path at night, apparently heading toward each other. Silent and grim-faced, they seem to have some felonious, or at least nefarious, purpose in mind. Our view cuts from one to the other with metronomic regularity, usually focusing closely on the subjects but sometimes pulling back a short distance to include more of their surroundings, which would seem to be a scrubby postindustrial wasteland. After some time, just as we begin to assume that the implied rendezvous may never actually occur, the two share the frame for a split second as they pass each other. Each casts a quick look back but never stops, moving ever-onward toward an unnamed destiny.

Over the course of seven minutes and fifty-two seconds, the pair pass each other a number of times in the same place, the same thing happening on each occasion, before the video loops seamlessly back to its beginning. But while the tension of the situation is palpable, the men’s eyes remain cold and the extent of their mutual recognition—if any—uncertain. PASSAGE offers no dialogue, no music, and—other than the swish of passing cars and the muted crunch of the men’s footsteps—no sound that might provide a clue as to exactly what we are witnessing. An awareness of Doherty’s specific and long-standing concern with issues around the Troubles in his native Northern Ireland does help in establishing some context for the scenario at hand. As with all his recent works, a large part of this video’s effectiveness lies in its skirting of cleanly defined narratives, references—even questions—in favor of sheer, most often foreboding, atmosphere (Doherty’s 2004 show at the gallery was titled “NON-SPECIFIC THREAT”). PASSAGE is, then, a study in anticipation, indeterminacy, and the poetics and politics of the interzone or “non-place,” and it haunts the memory as insistently as anything the artist has produced.

In the show’s other video, by contrast, one quickly stops expecting anything to “happen.” EMPTY records the exterior of a shabby-looking Belfast office building at various times of day and in slowly shifting atmospheric conditions, exploring its surfaces with near-pornographic attentiveness. Shuttered and abandoned, the tumbledown block lurks in another windswept no-man’s-land, its paint peeling, its window grilles warped and rusting. Again, the only sounds are ambient and hushed: a helicopter passing overhead, distant traffic, the wind and the rain. No one is around, nor is anyone expected to appear; the hovering suspense of PASSAGE has been displaced here by something closer to absolute stasis. Like a depopulated theatrical set after the end of a play, the site feels not only used but inflected, infused with stories the endings of which we may never discover.

Both PASSAGE and EMPTY are formally elegant, produced with a lush cinematic smoothness all the more noticeable for the grunginess of their subjects, but the latter perhaps takes fullest advantage of the medium. Shot over the course of a single day, it charts the shifting light and the building’s weathered textures with mesmerizing delicacy. Yet far from detracting attention from the artist’s interest in, say, surveillance as an inherently politicized mode of looking (one with which Northern Ireland retains a particularly intimate relationship), Doherty’s decision to linger over visual detail while allowing viewers to fill in the narrative blanks actively augments his works’ conceptual heft. What Doherty provides is not a map of the interzone but something rather closer to reality.

Michael Wilson