One Place Twice: On Willie Doherty’s Photo/text/85/92

This was a text written for an exhibition of early photographs by Willie Doherty staged last year at Matt’s Gallery in London and Alexander & Bonin in New York. Some of the photographs discussed here are also featured in Unseen, an outstanding retrospective of Willie’s work (organised by Matt’s Gallery and the Nerve Centre) currently on at the City Factory Gallery in Derry as part of the UK City of Culture programme.


ONE PLACE TWICE: Willie Doherty’s Photo/text/85/92 at Matt’s Gallery & Alexander & Bonin, 2012

Often, when we pose our gaze to an art image, we have a forthright sensation of paradox. What reaches us immediately and straightaway is marked with trouble, like a self-evidence that is somehow obscure. Whereas what initially seemed clear and distinct is, we soon realize, the result of a long detour — a mediation, a usage of words. Perfectly banal, in the end, this paradox. We can embrace it, let ourselves be carried away by it; we can even experience a kind of jouissance upon feeling ourselves alternately enslaved and liberated by this braid of knowledge and not-knowledge, of universality and singularity, of things that elicit naming and things that leave us gaping. . . . All this on one and the same surface of a picture or sculpture, where nothing has been hidden, where everything before us has been, simply, presented. — Georges Didi-Huberman, Confronting Images, 2005

I retraced my steps along paths and streets I thought I had forgotten … — Willie Doherty, Ghost Story, 2007

Here are two images of the past from Willie Doherty’s early work: pictures from more than two decades ago that we are now looking back on, but that at the time focused on the complexities of facing the road ahead.

Undercover / Unseen (1985), black & white photographs mounted on aluminium framed, diptych (3/3), 122 x 183 cm / 48 x 72 in each. Image courtesy Kerlin Gallery, Dublin.

Undercover / Unseen
(1985), black & white photographs mounted on aluminium framed, diptych (3/3), 122 x 183 cm / 48 x 72 in each. Image courtesy Kerlin Gallery, Dublin.

The first, Undercover, shows a desolate country lane, a trail through god-knows-where, with not a soul in sight. The way forward along this path (to where exactly?) is impeded by unruly brambles and scrawny, wintry branches. And just as movement through this lonely terrain seems likely to be slow and unsure, so too our view is obstructed. What can be perceived of the meagre track stretches onwards in a short curve from the bottom edge of the image — so beginning at a point that leads directly from the position at which we would stand and look at this large picture — before the lane becomes lost to us in the weedy tangle at the dead centre of the photograph. Simultaneously, then, this is a scene suggestive of curious here-and-now locatedness — presenting a limit, holding us in a static position, frustrating our progress — and of dislocating lostness. The image takes us to a remote, undefined location and leads our gaze — directing our searching attention — towards a space of obscurity and uncertainty.

The second image, Unseen, is a shot of an empty road at the city’s edge. Captured here are the terminal points before the urban turns into the rural: the last of the streetlights, the end of the pavement, the final petrol station. In the middle distance, as the road starts to bend out of sight, ‘national speed-limit’ signs are just-about visible on each side: small but meaningful markers of the urban boundary, of a specific alteration in territorial regulation at this designated frontier. From here, certain town-and-city restrictions no longer apply. From here (and from one point of view) a certain form of freedom seems feasible. Yet again, the road at the centre of the composition leads precisely ‘nowhere’, concluding in a zone of visual indistinction. At the central critical juncture between the city and its outside, photographic clarity begins to fail; the image loses its definition, its grip on detail. Thus the medium of representation also, in a sense, reaches its outer limit. As our eye travels halfway into the perspectivally-divided space of the photograph, countryside begins to appear, but just as it does the distinguishing features of this changed setting also disappear. Fields and trees, hills and farmhouses, all are only evident as faint photographic presences, shrouded by a grey and grainy mist. Everything beyond the signs of the city margin gradually fades from view. The studiously observed landscape edges into invisibility.

In a manner typical of Doherty’s art, there is within each of these individual black-and-white photographs a set of carefully poised tensions and controlled contradictions. Feel the push and pull, for instance, between freedom and restriction, or between the power of the visible and the anxieties of the invisible. Yet as we actually encounter these two images — brought together as the photographic diptych Undercover/Unseen (1985) — the tensions between separately-visualised landscapes become equally vital. As in other diptych works by Doherty (such as Protecting/Invading from 1987, two images that offer unnervingly correlated views both of and from the city’s rural fringes), the side-by-side photographs seem to attract and repel each other at the same time. In straightforward terms, a connecting similarity is proposed: both parts of Undercover/Unseen present somewhat restricted routes from one position to another. But the pictures are also binary opposites: a rough, uncared-for rural pathway in one, a managed, suburban traffic route in the other. Repeatedly, here and elsewhere, there is sympathetic pairing and there is discordant paradox, there are complementary and competing elements, all in the composition of any ‘one’ work.

This taut and teasing bilateralism — evident in each single image, emphatic in the use of two images — is also then ‘typical’. It is an approach that is representative of what Caoimhín MacGiolla Léith has identified as an essential tendency, traceable across all modes and manifestations of Doherty’s practice, towards ‘dual articulation’(i). To borrow a term from Fredric Jameson, this is a commitment to a form of ‘stereoscopic thinking’(ii) on Doherty’s part that is, MacGiolla Léith says, ‘radically contestatory’ and ‘anti-authoritative’. The focus on creating self-reflexively ‘insufficient’ and conflicted individual photographs asserts the inexorably partial condition of the photographic image in general, and of the ostensibly ‘objective’ documentary snapshot in particular (partial itself having a dual implication, meaning both incomplete and tendentious). Each image indicates a lack, each position points to other observed but unseen alternative positions. Doherty’s recurring interest in strategically combining discrete places in his work creates a dislocating, decentring imperative to compare and contrast, to look beyond the limits of the frame. There is, again, an implicit contesting of the coherence, the representational credibility, of a straight, single view of landscape — and, indeed, of the cultural form of Landscape as a straight and single view.

Already well-documented is the stabilising fact that this disconcerting multi-perspectival aesthetico-political ‘position’ arises out of the fraught local ground of Doherty’s native city. Doherty’s photographs of the 1980s and early 1990s are very much of and from this particular place: of and from, that is, the city of Derry, a city that is also, from the historically-asserted perspective of colonial authority, the city of Londonderry. It is a terrain of two names, a ‘home’ designated differently according to political positions, a ‘landscape’ of paradox that may prompt us to wonder, as the poet Paul Muldoon asks in another context, if it should be seen as ‘two places at once […] or one place twice’(iii). (Today, in Northern Ireland’s still-uneasy ‘post-conflict’ era, this one-place/two-place city is sometimes referred to as Derry/Londonderry — a ‘parity of esteem’ partnering of divergent, incompatible place-names that is nevertheless akin to the purposefully clashing titles of Doherty’s Troubles-era diptychs.) In the 1980s, the divided discourse and the confrontationally-segregated spaces of Doherty’s unhomely home town thus posed clear challenges with respect to its representation. Modifying and interrogating existing conventions of picturing territory became necessary. Writing in 1990, around the time that many of these works were first produced, Jean Fisher commented that Doherty’s ‘evocations of the city and its environs do not quite subscribe to the pictorialism of orthodox urban landscape photography’(iv). In his photographs, Fisher wrote, ‘representation is a question of positioning […] ‘‘place’’ is not simply a named topographical entity [but] a position from which I see and am seen: a relation that is both specular and spatial’(v). Contrasts between possible points of view are therefore fundamental: ‘the terrain that Doherty maps’ Fisher says, ‘is a labyrinth of complex relations’(vi). It is undoubtedly in the many inner/outer, east/west or urban/rural interfaces of Derry’s defensive built environment that this heightened concern for positionality and relationality begins. The photographs are, Doherty has said, the product of ‘detailed local knowledge’(vii): they draw us into spaces carved up along strict and oppressive sectarian lines, often showing us the imposing walls and ubiquitous fences that have crudely defined specific areas during the many decades of discord, tension and trauma in Derry. So, for example, works such as God Has Not Failed Us (1990) or Last Bastion (1992) present obstructed, partial views outwards from the boundaries of the city’s Fountain Estate, a small, confined, working-class and exclusively Protestant housing development on one side of Derry’s historic walls (seventeenth-century structures first built to both keep out and, crucially, observe, the inconveniently rebellious Irish). Or, alternatively, At the Verge (1992), a claustrophobically narrow perspective from a ‘squeezed’ position on a tight terraced street, takes as its subject that same Protestant estate, only this time the camera is on the outside, showing us a thin vertical ‘slice’ of this fenced-in section of the city as it is perceived from below and ‘beyond’ the high dividing and protecting partition. It is a photograph, like so many others made by Doherty at this time (for instance, the hemmed-in view along the dilapidated pathway at the top of the city walls in Shifting Ground from 1991) that brings to mind the nineteenth-century novelist Walter Scott’s often-quoted comment on an earlier era of conflict in Ireland: ‘they have such narrow ground to do their battle in’(viii).

If it is useful to take account of such local ‘knowledge’ — registering significant aspects of the intricately delineated sectarian geography that underpins these images, but that may be largely invisible to non-locals — the changes in position, the shifting ground that Doherty forces us to experience may also mean that we must contemplate these photographs as studies in the impossibility of knowing a place. These are works that arrive at a condition of representational indeterminacy, ‘knowingly’ working their way towards the unknowable. Again and again, they are characterised (to paraphrase Ihab Hassan’s literary critical definition of textual indeterminacy) by the delaying of closures, the frustrating of expectations, the sustaining of a ‘plurality of perspectives’ and by an ongoing effort, in exploring the ‘ground’ of Derry, to ‘shift the grounds of meaning’(ix). Fundamental to these unsettling effects is a feature of Doherty’s art that has thus far been concealed from view within this discussion. In fact, the slightest glance at his early work will take in the one thing that has been left ‘unseen’ until now — which is, unmissably, the persistent but ambiguous presence of ‘text’ itself. For in attempting to mediate Doherty’s early photographs in language here, there has yet to be here an acknowledgement that this is a process self-referentially undertaken — and also, paradoxically, undermined — with great formal and conceptual force in the works themselves. The work of this period sets up disconcerting interplays between photographic imagery and overlaid text, creating a critical tension between the visual and linguistic construction of ‘reality’.

It is worth recalling, of course, that related strategies of image-text art-making had previously been developed in the work of pioneering British Land(scape) artists Richard Long and Hamish Fulton. Corresponding forms of ‘scripto-visual’ photo-conceptualism have also been important to artists such as Allan Sekula, Martha Rosler and Victor Burgin, for whom the dialectic of text and image has often worked to undermine any straightforward pre-ideological reading of the photographic image, especially in its documentary mode. As it evolved in the 1980s, Doherty’s art was undoubtedly engaged in a dialogue with these important bodies of work. But just as his exacting and idiosyncratic experiments with landscape photography are unavoidably and anxiously informed by Derry’s divided territories, Doherty’s approach to adopting and adapting a recognisable neo-conceptual, anti-realist art of pictures-plus-words is also crucially inflected by the particular characteristics of Northern Ireland’s contested spaces. His work of the 1980s and 90s draws on the ways in which the disputed territories of the Troubles become diversely meaningful according to the requirements of rival rhetorical and political positions (his texts often employing vocabularies of defence and dominance, or freedom and oppression, but scrambling the associations of often highly-charged terms). In this way, as Jeffrey Kastner has suggested, Doherty’s scripto-visual statements are arguably more ‘edgily specific’ in their approach, and perhaps more challenging in their address to the viewer than some earlier examples of this mode of art practice(x).

Indeed, to return to the idea that momentum towards a form of productive and disruptive ‘unknowing’ of place is achieved through the prioritising of plural, incommensurate perspectives, it is worth adding that the view articulated by Ian Hunt in an essay entitled ‘Familiar and Unknowable’, that there is a ‘radically indecipherable’ dimension to these early works(xi), seems now, perhaps somewhat paradoxically, central to an understanding their ‘edgy specificity’. Doherty’s strategy of superimposing cryptic texts onto anxious images of Derry has partly developed in a ‘site-specific’ way, but it results in an unfixing of meaning from site rather than working towards a revelation of an alternative political ‘truth’. As Jean Fisher has noted, citing Adorno on Beckett, Doherty’s is an art that ‘puts meaning on trial’(xii). Paradox is pivotal. In these works, words and phrases are printed onto each stark black-and-white image in a manner that not only has an elegant simplicity and consistency (each time using the same, unadorned, sans-serif script) but also an unforgiving, assertive severity. From one perspective, the texts provide powerful indications of an immediately available meaning or message, appearing at first to provide clarification of the visual content. But this is, to cite Georges Didi-Huberman, ‘a self-evidence that is somehow obscure’(xiii): very quickly, each of these ostensibly legible signs creates a conundrum, a puzzle about the precise relation of the labelling terms to the places in the photograph. So, for all that the words initially appear to add information, they also insinuate themselves within the frame in such a way as to discreetly obliterate part of the image from sight. These are texts that could be said to get in the way of a clear view, but for the fact that in Doherty’s art, the images often have multiple built-in impediments to such liberated vision. The closer we get to a clear view (and to an unobstructed space) the more this possibility recedes: in a work such as 1990’s False Dawn there is a suprising shot of ‘open’ sky but the photograph is also interrupted by Doherty’s foregrounding of the title’s expression of disappointed hope, along with the extra word ‘endless’— an either despairing or sublimely accepting addendum. Everything here is not quite, or very nearly: it is an image that is neither wholly one thing nor another, not fully ‘positive’ or ‘negative’, neither liberating nor restricting, in its associations. It is almost a clear sky; a scattering of clouds partially obscures the sunlight. There is a dominant and bleak statement of failed progress, and yet the sky appears to show recognisable signs of change. Despite the expanded field of vision, the paradoxes of the text-image combination finally refuse any resolution, any stable signification. (It should be noted that along with the many subtle shifts Doherty traces at ground level, fluctuations in the sky above — and in how we might read an image such as the sky — have also been occasionally recurring subjects of his photographic work, and this is an area of aesthetic analysis that he has returned to recently in Out of Body (2010), the first new series of text-image photographs he has developed in almost two decades).

In Unseen, half of the diptych ‘panel’ with which we began, the title appears low on the image in large black capitals, accompanied further down by the elaborating phrase ‘to the border’. What we read here, against the photograph of an edge-of-city urban-rural interface, may push our thoughts in the direction of a mysterious story, the words offering a hint of narrative, perhaps concerning — given the wider context of Troubles history and given Derry’s geographical proximity to the border of the Irish Republic — a surreptitious race on the part of some unidentified protagonist beyond the security controls of the Northern state, beyond the gaze of British military power. But, as in so much of this work, the text also speaks twice, and speaks against itself: the primary word we see is ‘unseen’, and yet we expect to ‘see’ something in the photograph, we yearn to ‘see’ something in it. However much we seek to ‘see’ the work, it informs us that it remains unseen — an unseeing that extends, perhaps, all the way to the ‘border’ of the actual photograph itself. In such ways, Doherty’s art of this time can be viewed as productively struggling — to borrow once again from Didi-Huberman — to ‘[unravel] the nets of knowledge’ (xiv). It is a form of purposefully contradictory political art that ‘proceed[s] dialectically’ committing us ‘to the paradoxical ordeal not to know’, urging us ‘to experience a constitutive and central rift: there where self-evidence, breaking apart, empties and goes dark’ (xv).

Declan Long

(i) Caoimhín MacGiolla Léith in Willie Doherty: False Memory (London: Merrell, 2001), p.23

(ii) Fredric Jameson, Late Marxism: Adorno, or the Persistence of the Dialectic (London: Verso, 1990), p.28 MacGiolla Léith, p.23

(iii) Paul Muldoon, ‘Twice’, in The Annals of Chile (London: Faber & Faber, 1994), p.12

(iv) Jean Fisher, ‘Seeing Beyond the Pale: The Photographic Work of Willie Doherty’ in Vampire in the Text: Narratives of Contemporary Art (London: INIVA, 2003) p.92 This essay was first published as a catalogue essay for the Orchard Gallery in 1990.

(v) ibid.

(vi) ibid.

(vii) Willie Doherty interviewed by Aidan Dunne in ‘Exposing Memory’s Limitations’, Irish Times, November 11, 2002. Quoted in Maeve Connolly, ‘The Doubled Space of Willie Doherty’s Re-Run’, Filmwaves Issue 23, Winter 2004: 8-10

(viii) Quoted in A.T.Q Stewart, The Narrow Ground: Aspects Of Ulster 1609-1969 (Belfast: Blackstaff Press, 1997; originally published, 1977)

(ix) Ihab Hassan, The Postmodern Turn: Essays in Postmodern Theory and Culture, (Ohio: Ohio State University Press, 1987), p.73

(x) Jeffrey Kastner in Willie Doherty: Same Old Story (London: Matt’s Gallery, 1997)

(xi) Ian Hunt in Willie Doherty: Somewhere Else (Liverpool: Tate Gallery, 1998)

(xii) Jean Fisher, in the entry for Willie Doherty in the exhibition catalogue of The Experience of Art curated by Maria de Corrall, 51st Venice Biennale, 2005.

(xiii) George Didi Huberman, Confronting Images (Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2005), p.1

(xiv) ibid., p.7

(xv) ibid., p.7

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