Invisible Matter: On Willie Doherty’s ‘Ghost Story’ (2007)

Willie Doherty’s stunning film Secretion (commissioned for Documenta 13) has just opened at the Irish Museum of Modern Art. I’ll be inconversation with Willie about this work at IMMA on June 20th.

The text below is on the earlier film Ghost Story. This film was one of three works shown in Willie’s solo exhibition (representing Northern Ireland) at the Venice Biennale in 2007. The essay was written for the accompanying publication.

Invisible Matter

Video still from Ghost Story by Willie Doherty, 2007. Photograph: Courtesy of the artist, Alexander and Bonin, New York, and Matt’s Gallery, London

Video still from Ghost Story by Willie Doherty, 2007. Photograph: Courtesy of the artist, Alexander and Bonin, New York, and Matt’s Gallery, London

‘At first it was a form. Or not even that. A weight, an extra weight; a ballast’ (Banville, 2001, p.3). Here, in the halting opening moments of John Banville’s mesmerizing and melancholy ghost story Eclipse, a seeming manifestation of the supernatural is described in terms that, curiously, relate less to ‘spirit’ than to physical presence — the unsettled narrator stressing substance over shadow. And yet, in this unearthly visitation, the material conditions of empirical reality are, of course, transgressed. Accepted states of being are disturbed. ‘I felt it that first day out in the fields,’ the speaker recalls, ‘It was as if someone had fallen silently into step beside me, or inside me, rather, someone who was else, another, and yet familiar’ (2001, p.3). A disconcertingly intimate connection is made; a fleeting possession takes place. Instantly in Banville’s tale, this otherworldly interloper in everyday reality is made ambiguously worldly: its ontological status is insistently uncertain. As such, it is a cause of creeping confusion between the corporeal and the ethereal, breaching the boundary between inner and outer existence, challenging the perceived autonomy and integrity of the self. In this fragment from a haunted life (as we presently learn, Banville’s protagonist is an ageing actor who must confront the ghosts of his past and the agonies of the present when he makes a long-postponed return to his childhood home) there are discreet intimations of the profound anxieties prompted by allusions to spectral phenomena. The figure of the ghost frightens and bewilders through its impossible merging of being with non-being, of past with present; but in an obvious way too it momentarily excites (and perhaps consoles) through its disruptive capacity to transcend mortal limits: it could be confirmation of an afterlife, signalling that those once lost may yet return, that the dead may speak again. From either perspective, ‘time is out of joint’ and lived space loses some of its sturdiness and definition. The arrival of the spectre therefore implies an abrupt undoing of customary distinctions between presence and absence — as Derrida reasoned, the spectre is ‘some “thing” that remains difficult to name: neither soul nor body, and both one and the other’ (1994, p.6) — and so it may open traumatic or productive spaces of uncertainty, troubling us psychologically, philosophically, or even politically.

Such anxieties are deeply felt in the subtly disquieting visions of Ghost Story, a strange, understated film in which ongoing thematic concerns — the complexities of place, identity and memory, the fraught relations between experience and representation, between reality and illusion — are extended and transformed within a spectrally-inflected narrative context. Here, as in Banville’s Eclipse, we encounter a narrator who is mysteriously ‘assailed in the midst of the world’: haunted by distressing memories, harried by vague presences. Crucially, the settings for this lone figure’s fretful reflections are both superficially mundane and highly charged with threatening possibility. They are ambiguous spaces, unpopulated terrain vague on the fringes of the city, generic marginal territories of a kind that has been studied before in Doherty’s films and photographs, but that here take on renewed hallucinatory intensity, the manner of their depiction sitting restlessly between document and dreamscape. We see, first of all, a long, narrow path, bordered thickly on each side by bushes and tall trees. The sky is overcast; there is only low, dusky light along the deserted route. Any facts that can be gathered about this location remain faint (twice in the first three sentences the narrator employs this word: ‘Through the trees on one side I could faintly make out a river in the distance. On the other side I could hear the faint rumble of far away traffic’). Movement on the track is slow and more-or-less steady, but there is a certain disorienting wooziness to the view: Doherty’s use of a Steadicam allows for a gliding, ghostly, disembodied form of motion, yet there remains discernible resistance, a slight sense of nervous searching around, perhaps; the gravitational pull of what remains invisible acting as a drag on our easy progression. For what is hidden from our view is, we quickly learn, unnervingly out of the ordinary and yet powerfully ‘real’: ‘I looked over my shoulder and saw that the trees behind me were filled with shadow-like figures. Looks of terror and bewilderment filled their eyes and they silently screamed, as if already aware of their fate.’ Immediately, our anguished narrator recognizes these tormented, fantastical forms as resembling ‘faces in a running crowd that I had once seen on a bright but cold January afternoon’ — so returning us, as we might quickly deduce, to the harrowing scenes of Derry’s Bloody Sunday in 1972, devastating events that to this day loom large in both private and public memory. These recollected moments (so extensively mediated and modified over time) are described in evocative, sometimes lurid, terms — victims were tossed into ‘frosty air’, troops ‘spewed’ from an armoured vehicle — but any definitive, clarifying information is withheld. And, fundamentally, of course, we see nothing. The camera continues its quiet journey through ostensibly ‘empty’ spaces, the screen failing to satisfy our fearful craving for action and visual evidence.

As Hal Foster has said of Danish artist Joachim Koester’s occult explorations of specific geographies, ‘an essential enigma remains, one that can be used to test the limits of what can be seen, represented, narrated, known’ (Foster, 2006, p.213). And indeed as in Koester’s practice — with its frequent combination of unrevealing-but-intriguing documentary photographs of obscure, unspectacular places and intricate accounts of repressed historical narratives or unacknowledged connections — Ghost Story keeps us suspended between text and image, between now and then, and between the visible and the invisible. At every stage, however, there is the sense that whatever lies out of sight may finally surge into view, that there will be an eruption of long-repressed energies. There is an always-intensifying mood of unease, as if the ‘unconscious’ of these scenes will rise to the surface at any second. Indeed, for Doherty’s narrator, this alarming process has already begun: he wanders the forgotten margins of the changing city, contemplating how the painful, unresolved past is buried beneath the monuments to a glowing present, but finding in back streets and desolate laneways traces of ‘invisible matter that could no longer be contained.’ Anxiously moving along one gloomy alley, he describes this spectral ‘substance’ — this ‘pseudo-materiality’ — in language that becomes increasingly characterized by Gothic excess: ‘it seeped through every crack and fissure in the worn pavements and crumbling walls’; it is ‘a viscous secretion’ that ‘oozed from the hidden depths’; he smells ‘ancient mould’ mingling with ‘the odour of dead flesh’. Again, the superficial normality of the scenario is startlingly transformed, the initially presumed realism of the representation becoming overwhelmed by irrational associations. Meaningful ‘reality’ loses its solidity, its structure, under pressure from a nightmare return: ‘The ground was often slippery under foot as if the surface of the road was no longer thick enough to conceal the contents of the tomb that lay beneath the whole city.’ There is a discomfiting, abhorrent liquidity to these imaginings: an unpleasant ectoplasmic slipperiness and stickiness, inevitably at odds with our presumed psychological and social need for stable forms. Placed in relation to recent political progress in Northern Ireland — the essential, but not exclusive, context for the film’s themes — these liquid moments undoubtedly play on concerns about current stability and respond ambivalently to the impact of long-standing and newly proposed structures within this society. On the one hand, an understandable dread of disintegration at a time of widespread optimism could well be detected; yet on the other, these volatile elements may not be entirely malevolent or unwelcome: they register as after-effects of all that has been overlooked and undervalued during decades of brutality, tragedy, and secrecy. No single meaning applies: the ‘invisible matter’ is both a subversion of solidity and a materialization of the immaterial. The narrator’s words warp the space we wander through; we are set adrift between the real and the imagined. But this perturbed and absurd account of shifting, fluid forms may also incidentally remind us of other more depressingly static structures in the cities of the North: the still-unyielding ‘peace lines’ for instance, imposing physical barriers that are, as one journalistic commentator has noted, ‘mini Berlin walls’ that nevertheless remain ‘popular on either side’. These formidable features of the urban landscape, fixed in place for the time being, are ‘a measure of the deeply embedded sectarianism still running like a geopolitical fault-line under the surface of a prosperous, peaceful society’ (McDonald, 2006).

The tension created in Ghost Story between lingering images of apparently real locations and repeated, chilling allusions to otherworldly forces is consistent with the traditions of the ghost story itself: a form that was popularized in the nineteenth century ‘as realism’s uncanny shadow’ — a highly fraught mode of modern story-telling that sought to present a ‘definite idea of reality’ but that caused ‘gentle tremors along the line separating the supernatural world from that of Victorian empirical and domestic order’ (Botting, 1996,p.126). Doherty’s compelling meditation on matter and memory is therefore knowingly affiliated to a cultural form that gained extraordinary strength during emergent modernity — eager readers drawn again and again to the irrational underside of social and scientific progress — but Ghost Story also connects in intriguing ways with complex efforts to think through the relevance of the spectral in more recent times. For instance, in responding to Jacques Derrida’s controversial Specters of Marx (undoubtedly the key intervention in this area, but controversial in its close coupling of Marxism and deconstruction) Fredric Jameson has employed terms that strongly correspond to recurring tropes in Ghost Story. ‘The central problem of the constellation called spectrality,’ Jameson argues, ‘is that of matter itself’ (1999, p.35). The spectral, he says, upsets our common sense belief in ‘the stability of reality, being and matter’, forcing supposedly secure structures of experience and understanding ‘to waver visibly’ (1999, p.38). Derrida’s infamous manoeuvre in challenging any foundational ground to being is, of course, to shift from ontology to ‘hauntology’, outlining a fascination for ‘spectral’ possibilities in philosophy, poetics and politics — proposing a principle of undecidability that has little, ultimately to do with the paranormal. Rather, Derrida’s interest is ‘straightforwardly’ deconstructive: ‘to haunt does not mean to be present, and it is necessary to introduce haunting into the very construction of a concept. Of every concept, beginning with the concepts of being and time. That is what we would be calling here a hauntology’ (Derrida, 1994, p.202). The figure of the spectre alerts us, then, to how, as Jameson writes, ‘the living present is scarcely as self-sufficient as it claims to be’ and so ‘we would do well not to count on its density and solidity, which might under exceptional circumstances betray us’ (1999, p.39). Such cautionary words resonate revealingly in relation to the haunted, corroded ‘substance’ of Doherty’s film: uncanny sensations make the world of these images unsteady, spectral effects distressing the seamless surface of the present.

The spectre is a ‘present absence’ — it is ‘nothing visible’, Derrida says (1994, p.6). In Ghost Story every detail of the passing world is scrupulously depicted in such paradoxical or in-between terms: everything is elusive and indistinct; everywhere is nowhere. We journey from the lonely tree-lined lane, to a dismal and dread-inducing urban underpass (here we encounter the aftermath of unexplained, potentially traumatic events: it is ‘a scorched corner where broken glass sparkled on the blackened ground’), slowly moving on to a wide expanse of open space with a cracked, uncared-for concrete surface — this strange, neglected zone may once have served some public or industrial purpose but its founding specificity has long been left behind. We travel in twilight or under late-night darkness; ghosts, we are told, are all around, touching everything: ‘They move between the trees. Caressing every branch. Breathing, day and night, on every flickering leaf.’ But if in these scenes an all-pervasive spectral energy undermines any trustworthy sense of location, worrying and confusing us about where in the world this is, there is an equal agitation about exactly when this is. The coming-and-going of ghostly figures throws chronology into crisis: these revenants are ‘memories’ from another historical moment that have inexplicably (and out of sight to us) gained material form in the present. Ghosts are emissaries from a vanished time, yet they are not quite ‘themselves’: the spectral apparition is something other than the person that it appears to represent; it is simultaneously a ‘return’ and an inaugural coming-into-being — existing in each of two eras at once, and in neither. In the face of this irresolvable contradiction, our standard apprehension of temporality seems suddenly insufficient, limited by linearity. As Ernesto Laclau has written, ‘anachronism is essential to spectrality: the spectre, interrupting all specularity, desynchronizes time’ (1995, p.87). Critically, the spectral distortions of time in Ghost Story are related to acute concerns about reality and representation in the contemporary world, signalling, in particular, apprehensions about memory and the public sphere. The film’s disturbing, puzzling ‘returns’ are not solely based on private grief; these are not pained recollections and reincarnations of lost loved-ones, but rather there is a significant sense of distance to these hauntings: the narrator seeing in the living present the faces of deceased individuals and finding traces of tragic events only known to him through media reports. At one point, he recognizes a man’s face ‘from the small black and white newspaper photograph that had accompanied the story of his murder’; at another, he remembers, ‘shapes and colours from a flickering television screen.’ In each occurrence, there is a necessary re-opening of closed cases, a re-imagining of horrors that may have escaped the formal record — the ghosts calling out for a revision of the past that must mean, as Jameson says, ‘a thoroughgoing reinvention of our sense of the past altogether.’

Yet as this unidentified narrator retraces his steps ‘along paths and streets that I thought I had forgotten,’ becoming gradually, overwhelmingly lost in his memories of ‘the minute details of photographs of people and places that I did not know,’ there are references to ways in which Willie Doherty has retraced his own steps, returning, as he so often and so assiduously does, to images and to places he has come to know with great, anxious intimacy. One memory begins, for instance, with ‘a car silhouetted against a grey sky …skewed awkwardly into a shallow ditch’ — a mise en scene not unlike one interrogated at an earlier stage in Doherty’s career (we might recall at this point the photographs Incident and Border Incident, from 1993 and 1994) but that here is subject to further scrutiny, prompting other, surprising elaborations. The details of the abandoned car are linked, via dreamlike association, to another hazily recalled and ‘faintly’ experienced incident: ‘At first, I didn’t see or hear the car. It seemed to appear from nowhere. In the evening twilight it was difficult to make out who was driving. The car slowed down and waited for me to approach.’ The initial echo of an earlier subject has unpredictable reverberations in this new, expanded narrative setting: our guide, no longer a mere observer, now seems somehow more implicated in events. But nebulous as the narrative landscape remains in these sequences, Doherty’s associative journey eventually takes us definitively beyond familiar territory. Though we stare once again into the trees that obscure the view from our isolated path, the ground continues to shift beneath our feet as we hear not just of lethal car bombings and of horrifying kidnappings but of grotesquely piled up bodies and of gleefully sadistic prison guards with snapping cameras. Beyond the well-trodden paths, therefore, beyond the local and the particular problematics of post-Troubles Northern Ireland, we can sense still more ghosts, revenants from across a global field, clamouring to have their say.

Banville, John (2001) Eclipse, London: Picador
Botting, Fred (1996) Gothic, London: Routledge.
Derrida, Jacques (1994) Spectres of Marx The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International, trans. Peggy Kamuf, London: Routledge
Foster, Hal (2006) ‘Blind Spots: On the Art of Joachim Koester’, Artforum, April 2006, pp.212-217.
Jameson, Fredric (1999) ‘Marx’s Purloined letter’, in Sprinker, Michael ed. Ghostly Demarcations, London: Verso, pp.26-67.
Laclau, Ernesto, (1995) ‘The Time is Out of Joint’, Diacritics, Vol. 25, No. 2, Summer, 1995, pp. 85-96.
McDonald, Henry (2006). ‘The Stomach for Armed Struggle is Gone’, The Observer, Sunday, May 6th, 2006.

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