Willie Doherty

Derry UK 1959, lives and works in Derry

Since the 1980s, Willie Doherty has been a pioneering figure in contemporary art film and photography. At once highly seductive and visually disorientating, Doherty’s artworks tend to begin as responses to specific terrains (most often mysterious isolated settings; places, we suspect, with a troubled past) and evolve as complex reflections on how we look at such locations — or on what stories might be told about their hidden histories.

The primary point of geographical reference for Doherty during the three decades of his remarkable career has been his native city of Derry — a city famously defined and demarcated according to the traumatic divisions of the Northern Ireland ‘Troubles’. From early conceptual photo-text works — focusing on the impossibility of establishing any ‘objective’ perspective on this territory of sectarian segregation and military surveillance — to dyptich and serial works in film and photography that set contradictory points of view against each other, Doherty has returned again and again to Derry as source and subject, revisiting and re-viewing familiar places from alternative positions. (A key work in this regard is his Turner Prize nominated film Re-run from 2002). Doherty’s has been an art of unsettling, uneasy mediation on landscape — purposefully frustrating the establishment of any straightforward position, any single authoritative view.

Over the past decade Doherty has offered lingering, anxious views of post-conflict settings in Northern Ireland, asking us to wonder, as the narrator of his 2007 film Ghost Story proposes, “about what had happened to the pain and terror that had taken place there”. But recent works have also attended to alternative locations, or proposed less specific points of reference (an important 2005 film, shown in the main exhibition at the Venice Biennale, was tellingly entitled Non-Specific Threat). Secretion (2012), a film commissioned for Documenta 13 in Kassel, for instance, was developed as a disturbing fictional response to the industrialized landscape of central Germany, obliquely addressing the effects of a traumatic past on the landscapes of the living present. The concerns and characteristics of Secretion are consistent with those of Doherty’s career to date, but they demonstrate further ways in which the forensic gaze of his art might be newly applied.