Willie Doherty's Unseen City
The Turner Prize-nominated artist on the City of Culture 2013 programme and how Derry has shaped his oeuvre
'Language is slippery.' So says Willie Doherty, the Turner Prize-nominated artist who was born in Derry in 1959, grew up during the Troubles, and witnessed the Bloody Sunday massacre of unarmed nationalist civilians by British paratroopers in 1972.
And there you have it. Having processed the information in the former paragraph, you now know who Willie Doherty is. But what if he had been born Billy Doherty? What if he was raised in Londonderry rather than Derry? What if he had stood on the soldiers' side during the events of January 30, 1972?
In his 2004 video projection, 'Non-Specific Threat', Doherty’s camera remorselessly circles a male figure, probably in his early 30s, dressed in a denim jacket. The man stands still, stares straight ahead. He is shaven-headed. He is a terrorist suspect. He is an enemy soldier captured by freedom fighters. He is gay. He is a neo-Nazi. He isn’t shaven-headed, he’s naturally bald. Just who the hell is he?
Northern Ireland is a land of words and images, borders and lines, walls and territories. Ears and eyes are attuned to clues of identity. Doherty has always explored this hidden language in his work.
He often gives the viewer the chance to make assumptions about a particular image, and hopes, presumably, that those assumptions will then be questioned. If Willie Doherty shows you a wall, you must decide on which side of it you stand. Then you begin to wonder if you’re right; if such a thing as right actually exists.
Doherty has twice been nominated for the Turner Prize, in 1994 and 2003. In October 2013, the Turner Prize will be coming to Derry~Londonderry, bringing with it all its attendant glamour and controversy and attention. It is a massive coup for the city, providing a cornerstone for the city's year as the very first UK City of Culture. Doherty is pleased to see it coming.
'It is a great thing to have, with the potential to pull in numbers,' he says. He feels no pangs of sentimentality or regret regarding the prize. The nominations he received shone a light on his work, and that pleased him. Now, he states simply, he’ll be interested to see the work of the artists nominated next year.
Regarding Derry~Londonderry’s role as UK City of Culture, he feels the same mixture of pride and concern that many in the city feel. 'It was a good bid, with compelling reasons to win.' He talks – as does his art – of the power of transformation, and the power of culture to effect that transformation.
Doherty is also interested in people’s 'attitude towards culture, and how culture can celebrate and redefine where we are'. He happily acknowledges the importance of cultural tourism and business spin-offs in a city that no longer produces anything worth exporting. He urges, though, that all agencies involved remain 'mindful of legacy'. It’s no use having a year-long party followed by a year long hangover.
In the same October month that the Turner Prize comes to Derry, so will a major exhibition of Doherty’s work. He has shown rarely in his hometown, and Unseen will go some way to rectifying that.
A collection of photographs of an unseen or unnoticed Derry, it is something of a retrospective of Doherty’s work photographing the city through the years, and will explore the relationship of his work to the city, his concerns with, among other things, the walls and the areas around the borders.
'I was always interested in getting to places where you weren’t allowed to go,' he says. Such curiosity took him to army surveillance spots on the walls above the city. 'I wanted to think about the whole business of looking, and the two-way dynamic it involved.'
Doherty grew up in a plain-clothed world where you could be target or trigger or both or neither, where everyone was watched to some extent, and where everyone was in the 'self-conscious position of being a subject while also looking'.
Much of his work shows a scarred and fractured physical and psychological landscape, where history has turned the present ugly. Alongside the retrospective exhibition, there will also be video installations, including the Derry premiere of Ghost Story (2007) and a brand new film work. Amnesia will present a dystopian vision of how Derry will look in 50 years time, and walk the scarred border between past and future. 'I am not interested in being pigeon-holed,' Doherty asserts.
Despite the central place the city will take in his work for the City of Culture exhibition, Doherty says he is now 'less interested in looking at Derry'. And perhaps the city has always been a vehicle for exploration of themes. It just so happened that he was born there.
Germany is a country that has long provided a similar creative prism through which artists can explore important social and artistic themes. From 1999 to 2000, Doherty lived in Berlin – after the destruction of its own internal border – and that period added to his fascination with reconstruction and how the past is dealt with.
His latest work is Secretion (see still above), a 20-minute video shot in the area surrounding Kassel, in Germany. More and more a storyteller, the film’s narrative is concerned with trees that are dying having been contaminated by effluent released from nearby detention centres. 'What happens to the waste?' he asks. 'You flush it away and it comes back.'
The film, which is on display in the National Gallery of Denmark until February 2013, uses the conceits of science fiction, just as previous films used the thriller, and the audience’s understanding of the genre. The images – distorted trees, plants, fungi – are potent and imminent. They threaten and encroach. They are familiar but skewed.
In talk of Northern Ireland, Doherty worries that the political process of moving on is being driven by denial. That same denial and forgetting has wrought mutation on the landscape in Secretion. To ignore it would be folly. Distortion. Mutation. Doherty forces us to look at how both are practised, and the consequences of such practice. He puts it slightly differently: 'I’m someone who plays with language.'