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.
First published in Issue 66