Willie Doherty

Derry UK 1959, lives and works in Derry

Without Trace (Hidden)
c-print mounted on aluminium
120 x 160 cm (in lijst)

This photograph is one out of the series Without Trace. They are all views of Zurich’s snow-covered outskirts in winter. They were taken on several visits to Zurich that Doherty undertook in the winter of 2012, an unusual move for an artist whose work has mostly focused on his native Northern Ireland. And although locals will easily recognize some locations, in particular those taken near the two rivers that run through the city, the large-format prints also look like they could have been taken anywhere in continental Europe. The peripheral places they show seem generic and anonymous—the snow-covered bank of river, concrete modernist buildings, a highway overpass in the woods, a panoramic view of the city on a grey day, dish antennas next to some modular temporary housing. The sky, save for one image, is gray, the light even and fallow. The snow eliminates details and colors, making the sites even more indeterminate. The strict composition of the photographs, often emphasizing a central perspective, underlines their severity. This seems to be a documentary series about the margins of the city where the built environment and nature intersect, often in a jarring contrast.

A wall-sized video projection is also part of the series. The video includes views similar to those in the photographs, yet the temporality of the moving images makes the sites appear more still, more forlorn. A female voice with strong foreign accent, seemingly Eastern European, tells the story of a man who had decided to spend a winter in Zurich. It’s not the photographer, as the viewer might have surmised, but instead a construction worker who has disappeared without any trace on the morning of December 12. A number of notebooks found in his apartment indicate that he felt increasingly isolated in the city. The narrator intones, “He had given up his construction job and spent his days wandering,” and he seems to have spent most of his time in places like those shown in the photographs and the video. An increasing sense of paranoia and dread had gripped him. He had sensed that the city harbored dreadful secrets, and only the rivers and the snow offered him solace. One day, he simply disappeared. The video ends with views of a frozen lake in the woods, while the woman relates that she dreamt “last night” that his corpse was lying in a frozen lake, waiting to be uncovered by the spring sun.