Willie Doherty: Unseen

This review of Willie Doherty’s retrospective exhibition ‘Unseen’ was published in Art Review’s Jan/Feb issue, 2014

DohertyWillie Doherty, Remains (2013)

It is surprising that the link is so rarely made between psychogeography – the practice of walking to uncover and document the psychological affects urban spaces have on city dwellers – and the work of Irish photographer and video artist Willie Doherty. For while notable London psychogeographers like Iain Sinclair and Peter Ackroyd align the practice with arcane histories stretching to William Blake, Doherty’s images of abandoned streets and alleys are a far more cogent unearthing of the psychological realities of contemporary urban living.

Since the mid 1980s Doherty has been predominantly walking through, interrogating and excavating one site, Derry in Northern Ireland, the place of his birth. It is a complex city divided in two ways. By religious allegiances sharply defined through politics, separatist ideologies, and a long history of violence; and by the river Foyle, a wide, powerful waterway that effectively divides the city into two islands. ‘Unseen’, a serious and quietly moving retrospective, spanned twenty-seven years of Doherty’s career. It presented an unparalleled portrait of his hometown, reaching the metaphysical territories of identity, memory and being that lay beneath its concrete surfaces.

What is striking about Doherty’s early works – large black and white photographs with printed text overlays – is that they seem to emerge as fully formed, fully realised ideas. There are no tentative forays, just confident and concise executions of intent. The Blue Skies of Ulster (1986) pulls apart the mythical identity constructs of Republican and Loyalist ideologies. The image is a fog-hazed panorama of the Foyle alongside firebrand protestant minister Ian Paisley’s statement ‘we shall never forsake the blue skies of Ulster for the grey mists of an Irish republic’. Clearly using atmospheric conditions to indicate essential land ownership for opposing groups is a nonsense (grey Republican mists are just as much Ulster’s), but it is through a post-conceptual approach to language and image making, one that problematises both language and the documentary nature of photography, that Doherty highlights this. The work exists in a liminal space of visual paradox, the home turf of Doherty’s early period where images simultaneously refutes and reinforce their own veracity.

Remains (2012), a fifteen minute video comprising slow panned shots of glass strewn back alleys and footage of a burning car, narrated by the fictional victim of a paramilitary punishment attack, is the most recent work on display. It is an unofficial companion piece to the photograph Silence After a Kneecapping (1985/2012), an early morning, hoarfrost covered street scene. Both works deal with the spectre of anti-drugs vigilantism (perpetuated by both sides) haunting Derry’s post-ceasefire streets with the psychic residues of distressing violence. In Doherty’s capable hands the stillness and detachment that surrounds these events is brought to the fore.

For some, Doherty’s focus on Derry’s checkered history and present may seem a case of morbid monomania. But what emerges from his narrow but deep focus is a project, incontrovertibly combining psychology and geography that continues to speak to the experience of city dwellers worldwide. To paraphrase the opening line of Morrissey’s recent autobiography, our urban lives are streets upon streets upon streets upon streets. In Doherty’s ‘Unseen’ the reality of that seemingly ambiguous statement is emphatically shown.

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