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

With the 12th edition of the itinerant European biennial opening in Palermo, what do local artists, curators and...
In the age of Brexit, why Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s pledge to return the ‘stolen’ Parthenon marbles has never been...
The museum director, who resigned last year, acted with ‘integrity’, an independent report finds
In further news: study finds US film critics overwhelmingly white and male; woman sues father over Basquiat
With the government’s push for the controversial English baccalaureate, why the arts should be an integral part of the...
From Bruce Nauman at the Schaulager to the story of a 1970s artist community in Carona at Weiss Falk, all the shows to...
Sotheby’s and Christie’s say they are dropping the practice of using female-only staff to pose for promotional...
For the annual city-wide art weekender ahead of Basel, the best shows and events to attend around town
For our second report from BB10, ahead of its public opening tomorrow, a focus on KW Institute for Contemporary Art
The curators seem set to ask, ‘how civilized is the world’s current state of affairs?’
In further news: declining UK museum visitors sees country fall in world rankings; first winner of Turner Prize,...
The Icelandic-Danish artist’s creation in Vejle, Denmark, responds to the tides and surface of the water: both artwork...
In further news: Emperor Constantine’s missing finger discovered in the Louvre; and are Van Gogh’s Sunflowers turning...
The opening of a major new exhibition by Lee Bul was delayed after one of the South Korean artist’s works caught fire
The LA-based painter’s exquisite skewing of Renaissance and biblical scenes at Stuart Shave/Modern Art, London
Lee Bul, Abortion, 1989, performance documentation. Courtesy: the artist and PKM Gallery, Seoul
In a climate of perma-outrage has live art self-censored to live entertainment?

A tribute to the iconic New York journal: a platform through which founder Andy Warhol operated as artist, hustler and...
A distinctively American artist who, along with four neighbourhood contemporaries, changed the course of US painting...
From Assemble’s marbled floor tiles to Peter Zumthor's mixed-media miniatures, Emily King reports from the main...
From Ian White's posthumous retrospective to Lloyd Corporation's film about a cryptocurrency pyramid scheme, what to...
Kimberly Bradley speaks to ‘the German’ curator on the reasons for his early exit from the Austrian institution
In further news: #MeToo flashmob at Venice Architecture Biennale; BBC historian advocates for return of British...
German museums are being pushed to diversify their canons and respond to a globalized world – but is ‘cleaning up’ the...
Sophie Fiennes’s new film Bloodlight and Bami reveals a personal side of the singer as yet unseen 
‘At last there is a communal mechanism for women to call a halt to the demeaning conventions of machismo’
The German artist has put up 18 works for sale to raise money to buy 100 homes
The novelist explored Jewish identity in the US through a lens of frustrated heterosexuality
Artist Jesse Jones, who represented Ireland at last year’s Venice Biennale, on what is at stake in Friday’s Irish...
‘I spend more time being seduced by the void … as a way of energizing my language’: poet Wayne Koestenbaum speaks about...
To experience the music of the composer, who passed away last week at the age of 69, was to hear something tense,...
In a year charged with politicized tensions, mastery of craft trumps truth-to-power commentary
In further news: women wearing rainbow badges beaten in Beijing’s 798; gallerists Georg Kargl and Richard Gray have...
‘Coping as a woman in France is a daily battle: the aggression can be subtle, and you always have to push harder to...
Toyin Ojih Odutola’s portraits of a fictional aristocratic Nigerian family push toward an expanded definition...

On View

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

April 2018

frieze magazine

May 2018

frieze magazine

June - August 2018