Willie Doherty
Ireland, 1959
Willie Doherty is a visual artist and two-time Turner Prize nominee who lives and works in Derry. The context he was born into plays a crucial role in his work, which explores the logic and representation of problems linked to the Northern Ireland conflict. Doherty uses his artistic practice to critically examine a series of problems: the neutralisation of the conflict in the media and the idealisation of the Irish landscape, the manipulation of fear and the victimisation of society (The Only Good One is a Dead One, 1993), the production of memory and forgetting (Ghost Story, 2007), the way difficulties associated with the peace process are experienced (At the End of the Day, 1994), and the construction of the imaginary of terrorism through clichés and platitudes (Non-Specific Threat, 2004; Unfinished, 2010). His pieces highlight the irreducible, multisided character of the conflict and the irreconcilable differences that lie behind it. The artist’s work occupies gaps of interpretation in the discourses he explores. As a result, his pieces are intentionally ambiguous and inconclusive, drawing viewers into the uncertainty and malaise of living in a divided territory. In 1972, at the age of twelve, he witnessed the killing of thirteen people on Bloody Sunday. The next day the newspapers denied there had been any deaths. His awareness of the unreliable nature of the conflict-related images and discourse produced by the media had a profound effect on Doherty. When he returned to Derry in 1984 after completing his studies in Belfast, he felt a need to re-contextualise and re-imagine the landscape of Northern Ireland, to overlay the language of conflict on its representation. The technique he chose was black-and-white photography, and he overlaid his images with one or several words to thwart any unequivocal reading. On images that capture boundary building in the city, the polarisation of political factions, or the scars these divisions leave on the landscape, Doherty superimposes words that point to the tensions and anxieties that inhabit this terrain. The conceptual and formal strategies Doherty pursued in the first stage of his career form the backbone of his work. From 1993 on he incorporated moving images (films and video and slide installations) in his practice. These new media allowed him to recreate more complex scenes and narratives. His audiovisual works are characterised by an aesthetic close to film noir and a disconcerting narrative structure that results from his use of multiple screens and voice-over narration that is out of sync with the image. The Only Good One is a Dead One, the work that earned him his first Turner Prize nomination, is a video installation that defies any straightforward interpretation. Two screens show sequences of a car on the road at night and views from the interior of the vehicle. These scenes are accompanied by the voice-over of a man who alternately articulates the fear of being a victim and the fantasy of being a killer. The formal presentation of the piece—on two screens at right angles to each other—echoes the dichotomy of the content, as it is impossible for the viewer to get a comprehensive view of what is happening. The language of Doherty’s works is always ambiguous, transcending any political specifics to explore a shared space for the negotiation of identity, memory and truth.
Julia Morandeira