Willie Doherty: excerpts from a file

by Donald Goddard

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The forty photographs represent an aimless journey through Berlin at night. They were shot from a parked car and are mostly black, paralyzed in darkness, with the available electric light carving out details of urban infrastructure, but no person or other living thing. This is a very hard reality with a smooth surface. It doesn't have the luxury of a comforting larger context, except that of blackness--there are no horizons. The eye is carried only to the next frame, so that what does appear is crucially, even desperately, important. One is invited, by doorways, windows, stairs, and streets, by residential nameplates and numbers that provide directions, but just as often one is blocked, by fences and gratings, and ultimately by darkness, into which one moves, laterally, without knowing what is there. Still, the road is there to be followed.

Doherty's usual site has been on the edge of Europe, in Derry, Northern Ireland, where he lives. Berlin is in the center of Europe, like the center of an atom, a structure connected by pathways to the outer edges, but more intensely lacking in nature, fringes of trees, fields, flowers, and water. In a sense, the Berlin photographs are clarifications of his earlier work, illuminations of his psyche, and a strange inversion of time and space. Northern Ireland is a place of walls, of rivers that cannot be crossed, of the clutter of conflict, destruction, and abandonment that gets in the way of seeing anything else. Doherty doesn't allow you to remove yourself from any of this, and he often incorporates words in his large color prints and narration in his videotapes to bind you to his images of deserted factories, onrushing car traffic, and bodies found on country lanes. His 1997 panoramic view of Derry might be picturesque, but is titled Critical Distance.

Neither is there escape in Berlin, which is, after all, the center, the core of modern western civilization, the place from which power radiated and then returned to destroy itself. Culturally or spiritually, like Ireland, it is also an island, or has been one. There is no place to go, except on the roads that exist. And so the darkness is a kind of freedom, a purification, a way of focusing on one or two things at a time, of breaking up the larger, overbearingly compacted scenes of Northern Ireland into smaller, more manageable rectangles bearing simple, almost alphabetic information in light, to the extent that one photo is completely black, interrupted only by a small double window of light near the lower edge. Graffiti appears in a couple of scenes, and litter in another, but these are minor blemishes, ephemeral archeological evidence rather than obstruction. In no apparent order, except an aesthetic one, the photographs proceed from one place to the next, through the dark, with darkness as a medium.

It is a curious act, this driving around in the dark. The oppression of Doherty's earlier vision is not lifted but transformed through intimacy. In the dark, and in the center of modern alienation and demolition, he is drawn to light that illuminates where people live, their names, fences that can be seen through, passages leading elsewhere. There are forty photographs, but there could be more. There could be an infinite number, and perhaps even the possibility that the sun might rise.

(Unfortunately, I was not able to obtain pictures to accompany this article.)

Donald Goddard © 2001

The exhibition was on view at Alexander and Bonin, 132 Tenth Avenue, New York, NY 10011.

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