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Willie Doherty

On 30 January 1972 in Derry, Northern Ireland, the then thirteen-year old Willie Doherty witnessed twelve people being shot.[1] This day, part of the ‘Troubles’, became known as Bloody Sunday. It was a decisive moment for the future artist, whose photographic images and video installations continue to address violence. Born and raised in Derry, where he continues to live, Doherty creates work that provokes viewers to consider the ambiguities within politicised conflict. Twice nominated for the Turner Prize, his work grapples with questions of collective trauma, and makes the argument that these events are difficult to process and leave lasting impacts on both perpetrators and victims.

Rather than attempting to produce documentary-style images of the deeply entrenched political turbulence of the Troubles, the artist produces evocative work centred around themes of anxiety, displacement, and disillusionment. In Doherty’s photographic and video work, and with these broader thematic concerns, Doherty attempts to “engage the viewer in some kind of dialogue, some kind of process, that … was also very related to the geography of the place and trying to get a look at the way that was implicated, so it wasn’t simplistic, there was always more than one possibility.”[2]

This conscious consideration of the particular and the universal allows Doherty’s work to resonate across the world; indeed, given the artist’s expansive exhibition history at global exhibitions including the Venice Biennale, Istanbul Biennale, and several major institution collections across the world, it is clear that Doherty’s work taps into the contemporary global concerns.

Much of Doherty’s work also considers the fallibility of obtaining a stable perspective or point of view. Works such as The Only Good One is a Dead One (1993) employ double projections of two separate but linked locations, with a voiceover illustrating the vantage points of both a perpetrator and victim of sectarian violence. In other works Doherty displays photographs in diptychs or projects simultaneous videos to highlight instances of incongruity within a single event, seen from different political or aesthetic vantage points.[3]

As the title of the work suggests, Doherty’s Non Specific Threat (2004) examines ambiguity as a generative force in considering political violence. In this video, an unnamed man stands beside a wall in an abandoned building. A voice narrates the man’s thoughts: I’m any colour you want me to be. I’m any religion you want me to be. I am the embodiment of everything you despise. I am your victim. You are my victim. The fine line between victim and perpetrator, between criminal and authority, is Doherty’s point of departure. In a 2007 interview, he reflects on the aesthetic choice to portray Stewart as a skinhead, alluding to the Northern Irish paramilitaries’ alignment with neo-Nazis; and more broadly on how anxieties between groups are projected onto an “unknowable other.”[1] With its tight focus on a single individual, the video is a meditative and introspective consideration that violence as a phenomenon manifests within individuals, regardless of motivations and origins. I will be anything you want me to be. You manipulate me. You create me. Doherty’s 360° pans of his protagonist, and the clipped monologue delivered by an omniscient voice, create disquiet, conveying the very human dimensions of violence within our contemporary society.

Willie Doherty, The Only Good One is a Dead One (1993). Video installation with two colour projectors and sound // image via https://www.mattsgallery.org/artists/doherty/exhibition-2.php

Doherty’s 2013 video installation, Remains, presents a tense commentary. In these lingering shots of burning cars, gray stucco covered in graffiti, and derelict buildings, Doherty meditates on the ways in which history repeats itself, focusing specifically on the IRA’s practice of shooting alleged traitors in the kneecap as a form of punishment. As the camera pans across emptied lots strewn with detritus, a solemn voice muses on the violent nature of collective memory. Like father like son, isn’t that what they say? Past as present. The past as present. The sins of the father.[2] In this gripping narrative, delivered to an unnamed audience in stilted fragments, the lingering brutality of the Troubles through three generations is placed at the forefront. Rather than situating this violence as an historical event, Doherty evinces, through shots of empty housing projects and anonymous locations, that the political wounds of Northern Ireland are still fresh.

 

Willie Doherty, Remains (2013) Still from single channel high definition video installation with Dolby Digital 5.1 digital surround sound // image via https://vimeo.com/78829732

Commissioned by the Arts Council of Ireland as part of ART: 2016, Loose Ends (2016) explores the valences of the 1916 Easter Rising on the occasion of its centenary. Consisting of a video installation and two photographic diptychs, the work shunts between two locations related to the 1916 Rising: Moore Street in Dublin, where the Rising ended after Patrick Pearse surrendered to British troops, and Gola Island, off the coast of Donegal where two fishermen delivered ammunitions used to support the Rising. Doherty examines the traces of the 1916 Rising in each of these locations after 100 years and in doing so suggests that physical landscapes are containers for collective memory, bearing traces of the past within their foundations. By selecting two locations that are connected by the thread of violent history, Doherty asks the viewer to consider how their personal perceptions inflect these spaces with meaning.

Willie Doherty, Loose Ends, (2016). Video still // image via the artist, Kerlin Gallery and Matt’s Gallery.

Earlier in 2018, Willie Doherty’s work was exhibited at Galería Moisés Pérez de Albéniz in Madrid. This exhibition explored the life of Federico García Lorca, a poet who was executed in 1936 during the Spanish Civil War, and buried in an unknown location somewhere along a road in rural Granada. The artist made a series of visits to the sites between 2016 and 2018, and these culminated in a psycho-geographical series of works haunted by a mournful presence.

Willie Doherty, Inquieta, (2018). Video still // image via https://www.instagram.com/galeriampa/

By Tausif Noor

Ed. by James Elsey

 

[1] Willie Doherty, Non Specific Threat (Production Still) 2003, 2007. Tate Modern

< http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/doherty-non-specific-threat-production-still-2003-p79361>

[2] Willie Doherty, Remains Clip, Vimeo < https://vimeo.com/78829732 > Uploaded 2013

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