Willie Doherty's flagship City of Culture exhibition captures his native Derry~Londonderry in all its stark glory
The exhibition is called UNSEEN. It is unseen in that much of the work, all shot in and around Derry~Londonderry over the past three decades, has never been exhibited in the city before now. It deals with the hidden, the blurred, the notions of watching and being watched.
One of Willie Doherty’s pieces was shown in the Picturing Derry photography exhibition at the City Factory earlier in the year, within a small part of that show given over to an artistic vision of the city. Otherwise, it was all photo-journalism, pictures of a city at war – heated, angry, ebullient, energetic, poignant.
There is an element of reportage in Doherty’s work, but it is skewed and mutated, and the war he covers is a cold, still one. The atmosphere created by the photographs and videos now on show as part of UNSEEN in the City Factory is one of malevolence, of a creeping world of insidious surveillance and imminent threat.
Presented by the Nerve Centre and Matt's Gallery, London, UNSEEN is, in many ways, a retrospective of the twice Turner Prize-nominated artist's work, an opportunity to look with hindsight at the oeuvre of a major artist from Derry-Londonderry.
Like Momentous Times, the current exhibition at the Centre for Contemporary Art in Derry~Londonderry, UNSEEN belongs in the category of 'purposeful enquiry', which, alongside 'joyous celebration', was intended to feature strongly in all events taking place during the UK City of Culture 2013 year.
Of course, so much of Doherty’s work is concerned with vision and viewpoint and observation. His desire to consider the whole business of looking historically took him to army surveillance points around the city – the unseen watcher looking for the unseen watched.
Malignancy emerges from such scenes featured in the exhibition. Threat comes from both sides, mingling in the air and pervading every street and pore. The viewer is invited to pick a side, but lines blur, like the edges in the mist-touched houses in Doherty’s pictures of the city. Viewpoints, sides, borders.
In 1985’s 'Undercover/Unseen', one photograph shows a footpath – a track by the river, hidden from view, sharp, bare, winter branches encroaching, a safe route and a place of ambush – and the other photograph has the road leading out of Derry~Londonderry, out of the Bogside. The road disappears round the bend, as all the roads seem to do.
The scene is grey, forbidding and murky. The words on the photograph read 'TO THE BORDER'. The viewer must decide if the border holds refuge or threat, protection or invasion. The skewed vision is there in 'The Other Side' also. It is a view taken from the Waterside. A ploughed field banks down; the Cityside emerges. The country’s crazy compass tells you 'WEST IS SOUTH EAST IS NORTH'.
'Re-Run' is shown on two giant screens. Here, a man is shown running across the lower deck of the Craigavon Bridge, which links and separates the two sides of Derry~Londonderry, separated by the River Foyle. The red-white-orange night light is harsh and glaring. On one screen the camera is behind the running man; on the other, it is ahead of him. He is attacking and escaping, running from danger into safety and from safety into danger.
In some works, the lines seem to be drawn more clearly. In 'Stone upon Stone', for example, one photograph of the Foyle, taken on the west bank, declares 'TIOCFAIDH AR LA', while the other, on the east, promises 'THIS WE WILL MAINTAIN'. There are walls, barriers, roadblocks, burning cars, burnt-out cars, tales of knee-capping. Walkways end in blackness, from which escape or attack is offered.
Born in the city, shaped by the city, of the city, this exhibition is evidence to be presented to a purposeful enquiry by Doherty into the city's past and present. While outside on the streets they are currently filming an episode of Hollyoaks, UNSEEN reminds the people of Derry~Londonderry not to forget, to beware of amnesia, lest the past become the future.
But it is not just a message to the city. This exhibition should not be viewed through pure Derry eyes alone. One of Doherty’s most recent works is 'Secretion', a video shot in Germany, with a narrative of trees dying due to contamination by effluent flushed from detention centres in Kassel. This is not shown in UNSEEN, but the exhibition takes on broader implications if the film is considered alongside it.
The colours in 'Secretion' are disturbing and unnatural, and those same qualities can be seen in Doherty’s use of colour here. His photographs and video art works can be vivid and matt at the same time.
'Border Road' was created in 1994. Brutal slabs of concrete, blackened by fire, stand in the road, like icons of a dead civilisation, their meaning never to be known. At the side of the road is a barbed wire fence. In the distance, beyond the road blocks, just as the road begins to bend, sits a car. They look like the futile weapons of a petty war. From the roadside verge, in Doherty’s strange colour, grow pink and yellow wildflowers.
This is a brilliant, icy exhibition by a major artist, born in the city, shaped by the city, but not of the city alone.
UNSEEN runs in the City Factory, Derry~Londonderry until January 4, 2014.