Malcolm Dickson considers the work of Willie Doherty.



Permanent curfews

Willie Doherty’s photography explores the politics of surveillance, based upon his experience of Derry. Malcolm Dickson previews his exhibition.

The situation of artists in Ireland is polarised between those in the Republic and those who have lived more acutely with the tensions in the North. This is bound to reflect upon the art. The Irish art magazine Circa deals with the range of ideas surrounding the issue of regionalism in art, oftrying to capture a sense ofplace in an indigenous visual culture. This debate might easily descend into parochialism. but should also open up ways of entering into a larger discussion ofcontemporary art and the issues surrounding it of cultural domination. for example. of media representation and local identity.

Photography is perhaps the most problematic

of media for the Irish artists, since (as Brian McAvera says) ‘nearly two decades of photo—journalism and television coverage has inbred a distrust ofthe photographic image; its capacity to massage the complex into simplistic formulae; its vulnerability to being hi-jacked for political ends’. When we on the ‘mainland’ receive pictures from Northern Ireland they are already ideologically permeated reportage that overtly serves the British state. reinforces difference and marginalises the ’other’ the nationalist in the Irish context.

Willie Doherty deals with this barrier of experience and perception in his photo-text work. As Jean Fisher points out in the catalogue, it is all to do with positioning— in relation to the turmoil in the north, as distanced outsiders to other’s experience. In Doherty‘s work we find ourselves watching that which is under constant surveillance within its own walls. The private is under public forces ofcontrol and the public becomes private misery. A sense of paranoia and anxiety pervade the work.

Doherty is from the frontier city of Derry. His exhibition is being shown in three cities identified with national culture - last month Cardiff. this month Glasgow, next Derry. The blending ofthe local with the universal is what gives his work broader appeal, and similarities are suggested between these ‘outposts of Britain‘, in their

different ways marginalised by a centralised power.

Although the exhibition includes work made specifically for the Cardiff and Glasgow showings, it is at its most powerful in its specificity. The images Doherty uses seem at first neutral and tranquil: pathways by rivers, fog-filled fields, scrublands and images of wastelands and housing estates such as found in the photo-journalism on Northern Ireland. Over these scenes, however. Doherty places texts which fill these images with menace and an underlying sense of violence; all the more so when viewed in the light of the wars raging in Northern Ireland. The mediated photographs parallel the idea ofurban and rural landscapes mediating power. ‘Closed Curcuit‘ hints at the all-pervasiveness ofsystems ofcontrol. ‘Last Hours of Daylight‘ (seen recently in Glasgow as a bill-board work) included the words Stifling and Surveillance over the image of terraced houses shrouded in mist and chimney fumes the camera and our gaze become that of the surveillance machinery scanning the neighbourhood. The Situationist‘s comment that ‘all space is occupied by the enemy‘ takes on a renewed implication. Unknown Depths: the photo works of Willie Doherty, at Third Eye Centre 301un-29Ju1.

The List 29 June— 12 July 1990 69