In Focus

Willie Doherty, Ghost Story

Willie Doherty creates art that is at once unsettling and beautiful, an art shaped by the background of the Troubles in his native Northern Ireland but which communicates across all borders to any receptive viewer. Taking no sides in a highly demarcated face-off, Doherty has unstintingly portrayed through photography and media installations the intense, often crushing psychological and physical effects of that conflict and the part that words and images have played in those effects. Doherty's subjects are those who lived through and succumbed to the Troubles, the land on which the conflict has taken place, and the language and imagery that have been used to define, obscure, influence, and sway. Yet, for all its specificity, his art exists outside the boundaries of determinant historical conditions; it conveys states and places of mind and existence independent of any context save that of being human.

Doherty created Ghost Story as he did most of the media installations he has made since his first in 1990: he began filming specific sequences without exactly knowing how they would fall into place. Unusually for an artist working in this genre, Doherty's media practice does not involve his going from point to point, checking off scenes one by one. At the outset he does not know what the final work will look like, nor how it will progress, nor even what scenes it will entail in terms of image and text. Rather, he works as a painter would, or (more aptly, given his background) a sculptor, choosing passages he has filmed and constructing them as an entire work. Only after a set of sequences has been finished can he consider what to include or excise in a final succession of sections that are most often repeated as a single loop.

Ghost Story consists of a number of different scenes unified by the motif of a road by the side of a river, seen, at times, through a phalanx of trees. Moody and mysterious and suggestive of a northern German Romantic painting with an infinite one-point perspective, this road is the place to which the viewer always returns. The road and forms of trees on a riverbank act as a unifying visual motif for a series of other sequences: a face from which the eyes are peering back at the past, seeing the future, or witnessing events that we are spared; a series of urban settings in which vaguely menacing incidents unfold but do not reach a resolution. Accompanied by a subtly lyric yet potentially disturbing spoken narrative (written by the artist and performed by the actor Stephen Rea), describing apparitions, premonitions, and memories of trauma, Ghost Story provides a measured and tensely mesmerizing cinematic experience suffused with melancholic dread and a spectral beauty.

Despite its title, Doherty's Ghost Story does not overtly correspond to any of the broadly drawn traditions of the macabre, the occult, and the paranormal found in film and literature. More to the point, and closer to our age, many of the literary and visual images in Ghost Story take their cue from the conventions of the contemporary crime story that, in its infinite varieties, forms one of the major genres of popular entertainment. Crucially, however, Doherty refuses to honor that genre's (perhaps too easy) dependence on graphic spoken vernacular or even more graphic violence and splatter effects. Doherty's aim is not to pummel his audiences, but to induce a more concentrated state of sustained tension than popular entertainment ever allows. Here, narrative convention does not reach conclusion but is infinitely postponed: we must construct for ourselves what is around that corner, what that figure standing in the underpass will do, who is in the car we as viewers approach.

Springing from the Troubles, Ghost Story conveys some of the states of mind and emotion that such trauma can produce. It can be experienced on a profoundly deep level, even without any knowledge of the history of the conflict. Thus, in experiencing Doherty's art, one can simultaneously know and not know; a sense of opposites, of something at once unsettling and beautiful, of something not seen but felt is a condition at the heart of this artist's formidably intelligent and exacting practice.

The Troubles, which Doherty witnessed (he was at the events of Bloody Sunday on January 30, 1972, in Derry) and which subsided only relatively recently, began in the late 1960s but have their precedents in centuries of political conflict, periods of intermittent violence, and outright warfare between (depending on the histories one consults, and they are legion) English and Irish, Green and Orange, Catholic and Protestant, Ulster and Eire, South and North, Unionist and Republican. There are more of these pairs one could name, but it is worth noting that all of the adversaries are defined by who is on the other side of the "and." Always, they are locked in combat.

It is a challenge to try to approach the history of the ground from which Doherty's art has arisen, that of the Troubles, with the requisite distance so that, in the service of disinterest and objectivity, one neither overemphasizes nor underplays their impact and does not take sides or even appear to do so. Such hesitancy can overwhelm, however. Language implicates and likely will be misunderstood-one could express something the wrong way and be both true and false in describing a situation from afar. In light of what has happened in Northern Ireland, silence, then, can seem not unreasonable. These very notions are also there, in parts and at various moments, in Doherty's art, but his art is not silent. The work takes no sides but is has come into being and it is there for us to investigate.

The events of the past decades in Northern Ireland are at present being remembered within a radically changed context, that of the cessation of violence. The battleground landscape that can be seen in Doherty's photographs of the 1990s has largely disappeared, but questions now inevitably arise about the proper way to remember what happened there. In other words, what might an authentic ethics of remembrance be, and how intensely does the virulent past propose to lodge in the minds of those looking to the future? Ghost Story may be seen to reflect these very things: the fretful apprehension that the events, imagery, and words of the Troubles summon, the hazy uncertainty of memory itself, and the fact that many of those rendered invisible during the Troubles are yet with us in the present.

Ghost Story can be seen more generally as a narrative of looking back at something we would rather not see, and of recognizing how utterly lost one can be in the past amid invisible forces beyond one's ken. There is also a seductive quality to each of these scenarios that suggests an entirely different reading, testament to the work's range of associations: the attraction of the unknown and of the illicit; the suspenseful thrill of being where one should not be and seeing things one should not be seeing, witnessing the edge of an underground existence. Conversely there is depicted the thin edge between doubt and belief and of being made close to mad by sorrow and incomprehension, by seeing and hearing things that may not really be there. Yet, when we return to the road, we are brought back to the trappings of a grounded reality. We can venture forth only so far before we are back where we started and are yet again surrounded by unsettling recollections of a past imperfectly rendered yet still vividly alive.

Adapted from

Charles Wylie, "Requisite Distance," in Willie Doherty: Requisite Distance, ed. Frances Bowles (Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art; New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009), 32-37.