Willie Doherty: Non-Specific Threat

by Donald Goddard

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Willie Doherty

Willie Doherty is one of the few artists whose work requires, or at least asks, that you come to terms with it. You're not just watching something, or looking at something, you are actually engaged, it is necessary that you are affected, that you make up your mind. It's funny, of course, because much of his work is about watching something or someone, looking at something and trying to figure out what is going on. It's complicated, because it is often dark and hard to see and to understand how things have gotten to where they are, just as it is difficult to understand precisely how things have gotten to the where they are in Northern Ireland, where Doherty was born and lives.

It is still dark, but now there is a single figure (a torso) confronting us, or confronted by us, in several large color photographs in the first room, and in a continuous loop video in the second room. The figure is a young man with a shaved head wearing a black open-neck shirt, denim jacket, and silver chain around his neck. His surroundings are different in the photos and video but basically the same in their worked-over, abandoned density (the graffiti would not exist without the walls). He is presented as a "non-specific threat," a skinhead, a gangster in a very lonely, dangerous place, someone who would seem or might be perceived to have no scruples about clearing the way for himself, or some group of himselves. In the video the camera circles around the figure in a continuous pan so that we see every aspect of his head and shoulders front to back, back to front. Of course, the background changes. It is totally black for much of the time that the camera is behind the figure, shows an abstract pattern of diagonals when the left side of the face is seen, pans by some graffiti at another point, and offers a glimpse of what appear to be trees, a perfectly reasonable representation of the world, or the solar system. The face twitches slightly but remains expressionless, grim, or perhaps meanly determined. A voiceover seems to express his thoughts and his power over the viewer, as the camera circles like a planet around the sun: ". . . I remind you of someone you know . . . You can be like me . . . I am any color you want me to be . . . I am real . . .You are my religion . . . There will be no water . . . I am invisible . . . There will be no art"

Non-Specific Threat

The litany continues for something over seven minutes, and then continues again. Everything that we see around the circle is concentrated in that human form, including the voice, which might be that of God. The language creates a confusion, or an identification, between the viewer and the subject, so that when the voice says, for instance, "You make me feel real," it is uncertain whether the words refer to subject or viewer or both. People are accustomed to objectifying, to assigning causes outside themselves, especially death, which this figure resembles. But, in fact, he is alive, and he seems to become more intensely so with each turn. The words begin to penetrate, both ways, and what seemed like twitches of composure and menace become emotional reactions to what is being said, and to just being there. What was outside--the worn walls, the darkness, the voice--is inside, but also what was inside is outside, in the form of another human being.

Donald Goddard © 2004

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

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