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This book is the catalogue for an exhibition at the Dallas Museum of Art. Willie Doherty is known for his cinematic photographs and video installations often touching on themes related to the Troubles in Northern Ireland. The works here are all about place -- people are hardly shown in whole figure, although there are some close ups of a person's eyes and a shadowy figure in another image. There are many pictures taken from the 15-minute video "Ghost Story" but it is still difficult to get much sense of what the original work was like.
The photographs, made in the 1990s, show roads near the border. The images themselves may reveal very little. For example, one has a tarmac road with white lines down the middle and unkempt hedges on both sides. On its own this is an extraordinarily dull picture. So it relies on its title "At the border (walking towards a military checkpoint), 1995." Another shows a similar road at dusk, with the luminescent reflection of the twilight from patches on the road -- again, hardly an inspirational image. The title "At the border IV (the invisible line), 1995" gives it more meaning, since we understand that it shows an important transition from south to north, with no physical markings to indicate the political boundary. There are several pictures of the side of the road, where all we see are woods or weeds, and it is not clear exactly what Doherty is trying to point out. The emotional tone of these images is dark and for the most part despondent. "Incident, 1993" shows the remains of a car on the side of the road, after it been in a fire -- we don't know what happened, but it looks like someone probably died in a bomb blast. The most hopeful images is another image at dusk, "At the border III (trying to forget the past), 1995)," which shows the road in the foreground but beautiful countryside in the background.
The video features similar roads, but also shows other areas, looking very run down and ugly. There are night scenes and some anxious faces, and some images of a car alone in a parking lot with its lights on and someone in it. There's some text by Doherty, in the form of a first person narrative, maybe recreating some of his own experiences, although it is cryptic. The viewer gets a strong sense of anxiety and gloom from the video images, but the political content is extremely muted -- it would be referring to almost anything.
Seen against Doherty's larger body of work, this is an interesting document of the progression of his project. But the images from the video are no substitute for the video itself, and it is increasingly common for art books to include a DVD of the artist's moving image work, so it is disappointing that we can't see it here -- especially since it is also not available online. Similarly, the photographs are reproduced in a small scale, considering that they were exhibited at the size of 48 x 72 inches. There are probably details we simply are unable to see reproduced in the book that would make the works more interesting to examine carefully. On its own, this book of photographs is not inspiring.
© 2010 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York.