Willie Doherty

Matt's Gallery, London, UK

East London is an appropriate place to encounter Willie Doherty's seven-monitor video installation Retraces (2002). The piece was recorded in Northern Ireland but its depiction of dull, dark car park corners, patches of damp grass and tower blocks recalls the sprawling labyrinth that is London's East End. W. G. Sebald's description in Austerlitz (2001), of a visit to Mile End - the present location of Matt's Gallery - exactly matches Doherty's images: 'I see again a low block of flats like a fortress standing on the corner of a street ... a cast-iron fence round a patch of grass on which you might think no one had ever trodden; and the brick wall on the right, about 50 yards long.' This author's eye for the apparently inconsequential detail and his snapshot recollections of the fragmentary and marginal form a micro-compendium of ignored or forgotten spaces of precisely the kind that Doherty selects, records and relays.

Doherty placed his monitors at different heights on the wall, disrupting the implied narrative of the otherwise aligned screens, the close juxtaposition of which might readily have suggested a left-to-right reading. In fact, at any given moment the viewer is confronted with seven different images from a repeating catalogue of 30 or 40 discrete video shots, played on each monitor in a fixed sequence. Looking across the display, one realizes that images first seen on one monitor reappear on another, are retained for 30 to 60 seconds, then replaced by another picture, a staccato cycle that continues indefinitely. Meanwhile, these recorded moments emerge elsewhere, reinforcing their repetitiousness through yet further acts of recurrence. Although the imagery is predominantly urban, in between the drizzly tower blocks, motorways and rough tarmac edges an occasional burst of nature asserts itself: a shiny wet rectangle of scraggy grass, for example, or, more poetically, a thicket of fat branches bearing proud red berries. Two rivers, one taped at sunset, the other after nightfall (and with the lights of cars glinting between trees), also offer a contrast to the industrial forms. These 'primal' waters recall panoramic Romantic paintings or the intense quietness of Piet Mondrian's early landscapes. In another reading one might think of the natural features found in recent Godard films, the sporadic patchworks unearthed by the Boyle family or the cuts, shifts and slow pans employed in Victor Burgin's recent video works. Retraces, as its name suggests, triggers connections across and between the specific imagery used within it, but also to contexts somewhat removed from its immediate aesthetic or political concerns.

Although short subtitles appear now and then on the screens - vague pointers such as '10 minutes later' or 'the last time' - the structured repetition itself appears to do most of the work, scrambling narrative time (as in the films of Andy Warhol or Alain Robbe-Grillet) through the careful aligning of the loops of tape. Passing cars and mirrored puddles, caught as if by the indifferent 'eye' of a surveillance camera, are the provocative props in a story without coherent resolution. Roadsides and footpaths, the generic concrete corners of the modern but shabby city, a murky but light-emitting T-shaped tower, all in greys, browns or muted orange, mark out what is for English - or Northern Irish - inhabitants a mundane perspective. Those glowing sunsets and cordoned-off berries are in tune with the grim mood of what Doherty presents, but also oppose it. Are we witness here to a nature held in check by the miserable but inexorable city, or are these signs of life meant to be vital proof that the industrial jungle has finally failed to suppress the rough, insistent force of nature itself?

Retraces is a quietly emphatic reiteration of Doherty's earlier overtly political tracing of urban space, but in this case politics is measured, remembered and mapped by other means. A kind of psychoanalysis of the city is seriously carried out in this work and the four related photographs also on show at Matt's. The viewer, purportedly outside the picture and apparently at some distance from it, is easily trapped in the game, agreeing - enthusiastically or indifferently - to partake in the exchange.

Issue 66

First published in Issue 66

April 2002

Most Read

Ignoring its faux-dissident title, this year's edition at the New Museum displays a repertoire that is folky, angry,...
An insight into royal aesthetics's double nature: Charles I’s tastes and habits emerge as never before at London’s...
In other news: Artforum responds to #NotSurprised call for boycott of the magazine; Maria Balshaw apologizes for...
At transmediale in Berlin, contesting exclusionary language from the alt-right to offshore finance
From Shanghai to Dubai, a new history charts the frontiers where underground scenes battle big business for electronic...
Hauser & Wirth Somerset, Bruton, UK
Zihan Karim, Various Way of Departure, 2017, video still. Courtesy: Samdani Art Foundation
Can an alternative arts network, unmediated by the West's commercial capitals and burgeoning arts economies of China...
‘That moment, that smile’: collaborators of the filmmaker pay tribute to a force in California's film and music scenes...
In further news: We Are Not Surprised collective calls for boycott of Artforum, accuses it of 'empty politics'; Frida...
We Are Not Surprised group calls for the magazine to remove Knight Landesman as co-owner and withdraw move to dismiss...
Paul Thomas Anderson's latest film is both gorgeous and troubling in equal measure
With Zona Maco opening in the city today, a guide to the best exhibitions across the Mexican capital
The question at the heart of Manchester Art Gallery’s artwork removal: what are the risks when cultural programming...
In further news: Sonia Boyce explains removal of Manchester Art Gallery’s nude nymphs; Creative Scotland responds to...
Ahead of the India Art Fair running this weekend in the capital, a guide to the best shows to see around town
The gallery argues that the funding body is no longer supportive of institutions that maintain a principled refusal of...
The Dutch museum’s decision to remove a bust of its namesake is part of a wider reconsideration of colonial histories,...
At New York’s Metrograph, a diverse film programme addresses a ‘central problem’ of feminist filmmaking
Ronald Jones pays tribute to a rare critic, art historian, teacher and friend who coined the term Post-Minimalism
In further news: curators rally behind Laura Raicovich; Glasgow's Transmission Gallery responds to loss of Creative...
Nottingham Contemporary, UK
‘An artist in a proud and profound sense, whether he liked it or not’ – a tribute by Michael Bracewell
Ahead of a show at Amsterdam’s EYE Filmmuseum, how the documentarian’s wandering gaze takes in China’s landscapes of...
In further news: Stedelijk explains why it cancelled Ettore Sottsass retrospective; US National Gallery of Art cancels...
With 11 of her works on show at the Musée d'Orsay, one of the most underrated artists in modern European history is...
Reopening after a two-year hiatus, London’s brutalist landmark is more than a match for the photographer’s blockbuster...
What the Google Arts & Culture app tells us about our selfie obsession
At a time of #metoo fearlessness, a collection of female critics interrogate their own fandom for music’s most...
A rare, in-depth interview with fashion designer Jil Sander

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

October 2017

frieze magazine

November - December 2017

frieze magazine

January - February 2018