The Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh is currently showing, Buried, a solo exhibition featuring new and recent video and photographic work by artist Willie Doherty in conjunction with the release of a new publication by the same name. Doherty, who was born and raised in Derry, Northern Ireland, addresses his homeland’s struggle to come to terms with its haunting past of violence and loss. His work has universal resonance in its focus upon a site of contested nationality, the human capacity for violence, and the collective memory of such legacies.
Doherty was born in 1959 in Derry, Northern Ireland and his work originates from lived experience. Doherty’s life span has been aligned with The Troubles, a period of ethno-political and geographic conflict in Northern Ireland, typically dated from the 1960s to the Belfast Agreement of 1998. At its most extreme, this period was defined by the violent acts of republican and loyalist paramilitaries. Yet, as Bloody Sunday (which occurred 30 January 1972) proves, violence also infected the British government’s forces. At thirteen years old, Willie Doherty witnessed the atrocity of Bloody Sunday, in which British soldiers shot and killed fourteen unarmed, peaceful protesters. Since 1998, peace has largely reclaimed the region with only sporadic outbursts of violence remaining. Most recently, the Real IRA shot and killed two British soldiers in March of this year.
Despite the fact that Doherty addresses deeply personal subject matter, he maintains distance in his work. He never features his own image or voice, but instead employs actors to fill that role. The eerie, haunting, and typically reticent imagery found in this exhibition reference images and places that seem familiar to the viewing audience and are therefore quite relatable. This is particularly appropriate because the public’s memories of The Troubles are largely defined by the shared experience of reading newspapers and watching the evening news. The artist purposefully addresses this collective memory and its impact, which continues to haunt the present of even those who did not experience the violence firsthand.
The video Ghost Story (2007) has quite a personal feel, with an intimate narrative voice-over accompanying slow and deliberate camera work. Yet, even this narrative consistently references collective memory. Ghost Story‘s main focal point is a railway track that has been paved over to create a footpath. The path or track is a recurrent theme in Doherty’s work and it can be said to represent both the movement of time and the borders–both figurative and literal–which arbitrarily divide us. The camera returns to the path again and again as the narrative describes and the camera alternately illustrates terrifying memories. The video questions how we can ever fully move on when ghosts and memories continue to haunt our present.
Doherty’s strongest work in the exhibition is in video. The video medium is endowed with a temporality that marries well with Doherty’s exploration of memory and humanity’s relationship with the past. Buried (2009), is the the new work commissioned by the Fruitmarket Gallery (with support from the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation). It is a visualization of the memories that the Ghost Story narrative claims to continue to permeate every facet of contemporary existence. Similarly deliberate camera work focuses on a dark forest area as the camera discovers clues of past acts of violence. As it moves it uncovers items such as a jacket, rubber gloves, a lighter, and wire. A fire peters out–smoke and fog obscure the screen and contribute to the haunting quality of the imagery. The muffled sound accompanying the video, is commentary from a Bloody Sunday documentary that has been distorted by the artist.
The third video installation is the 30 second video loop, Re-Run (2002). Much different in tone and pace from the other two videos, Re-Run features two screens surrounding the viewer, both showing a man running frantically, at full speed across a bridge. Each screen simultaneously shows the same scene at different points in time. Constant jump cuts to different angles echo the frenetic nature of the scene. As the video constantly loops, it seems to evoke the continuing struggle to outrun and move on from the past.
The cibachrome print works Uncovering Evidence That the War is Not Over I (1995) and Bullet Holes (1995) focus in on evidence of past violence through illustrating remnants of an explosive device along with rusted bullet holes. Small Acts of Deception II (1997) returns to an image of a foot path much like that featured in the video Ghost Story, coupled with an image of a person’s lifeless foot. The images Last Occupant, Abandoned Interior II and III illustrate disheveled and decaying domestic spaces. These rather mournful and dark photographs hint at the lives and families torn apart by violence. Silver gelatin prints documenting spaces in Belfast devoid of human presence dominate the rest of the exhibition and evoke a sense of absence and loss. Donegal Lane, Belfast and The Westlink, Belfast are reproduced from images that date to 1988. They are hauntingly similar to the images from 2008, including Kent Street, Belfast; Franklin Street, Belfast; Footbridge, The Westlink, Belfast; and McKibben’s Court, Belfast. Through these images, we see a rather concrete continuation of the past into our present.
Doherty’s work is highly relevant to our contemporary world, where images of violence and tragedy inundate our media on a daily basis. Globalization means that information is shared almost instantaneously around the world and we therefore share in the tragedies of others more than ever before. Unfortunately, violent conflict in contested spaces, much like that of Northern Ireland during The Troubles, continues globally.
Willie Doherty lives and works in Derry and is represented by the Kerlin Gallery in Dublin. Doherty’s work, which addresses internationally relevant themes, has achieved acclaim since beginning his career in the 1980s. He won the 1995 Irish Museum of Modern Art‘s Glen Dimplex Artists Award and was shortlisted for the Turner Prize in both 1994 and 2003. Doherty represented Ireland at the Venice Biennale in 1993 and Northern Ireland at the Biennale in 2007.
Doherty is also currently featured in Willie Doherty: Requisite Distance at the Dallas Museum of Art.
Buried will be at the Fruitmarket Gallery through 12 July 2009.