JOURNAL OF CONTEMPORARY ART
willie doherty


Tim Maul: You live in Northern Ireland, in Derry.

Willie Doherty: I'm living in Derry. I moved back to Derry in 1984, having spent a few years away in college. I think when I moved back I really wanted to make some work there, so the work became partly influenced by the images that already existed about the place, this is a cliché, but Derry has been called one of the most photographed places in Europe, for obvious reasons. I was interested in making a contribution to that body of images.

Maul: A laboratory for every kind of surveillance method.

Doherty: Yes, it was a little bit like that, except I felt that I had a slight advantage that I was actually from the place. I had a different kind of knowledge of the place than most photographers, I wanted to try and use that insider information and try and work around the existing images. So at that time I also had to make a decision how to position the work, I didn't want to be a Journalist and I didn't want to try and make work for newspapers or magazines and I felt that if I could find a position within the art world it might be more interesting place to have some kind of debate or discussion, and to allow the work to be part of it.

Maul: Your work has an obvious superficial resemblance with Richard Long and other romantic narrative British artists from the seventies. Had you seen them anywhere?

Doherty: Yes, I was very aware of that work and I made a conscious decision to try and place the work within the art world, so in a sense I appropriated that language and used it as a device that would allow me to have a level of participation before I even started. I subsequently got rid of it but it was useful device at the time, it was very easy for an audience within the art world to locate this work somewhere.

Maul: Yes, certainly a way to enter into these pictures.

Doherty: But that was a very deliberate policy on my part.

Maul: Where did you go to art school?

Doherty: In Belfast, it was kind of interesting time there, I studied sculpture. I suppose when I look back at it, one of the important figures there was Alistair MacLennan, who was making performance and a certain amount of installation work as well. One of the good things that Alistair did was that he used to make a piece of work every week in the college; performances and installations. It was very good in the sense that as students we were watching another artist and seeing his process.

Maul: Not an academic, but a working artist.

Doherty: Yes, he was teaching through actually making the work. He had a very rough time, his work was maligned and misunderstood, and people thought he was kind of crazy; "What's this performance stuff," "What's this guy doing?" but he consistently kept on doing it which was a very good discipline especially for me, maybe I responded to it.

Maul: I had a similar experience at the School of Visual Arts, which had a tradition of hiring working artists and not academics and I think they still maintain that tradition. You saw the good and bad of that life.

Doherty: What was interesting about it for me was that it was an example of someone just making the work by just getting on with it, there's a relationship to making a photograph as well; that involves you getting out of the studio, getting on the streets, there is no way that you can make the work until you actually get off you ass and actually lift the camera and get outside and take it from there.

Maul: Yeah, its real life.

Doherty: Yes, it's part of the process and until you actually get up and do it nothing is going to really happen.

Maul: Prior to your being at school, did you visit the Orchard Gallery in Derry?

Doherty: The Orchard Gallery opened in 1978. This was just when I started art school, so up to that there hadn't been an visual art center in Derry. When I was growing up there was very little visual art experience around and most of the information was second hand, through reproduction or art history books.

Maul: Magazines . . .

Doherty: Yes, the Orchard played a very vital role not just for me but for most of the other young artists who were around at that time because it was a very active period.

Maul: Were you able to see John Hillard's work?

Doherty: Yes, I saw John Hillard's show, it was a show of his black and white landscape photographs.

Maul: It was work about borders?

Doherty: Yes, it was an interesting show, shortly after that then I think he began to move in a different direction, he began making large color works.

Maul: Right, heavily art directed. They became mini-cinema's . . .

Doherty: Which is a way of talking about the cinema. Increasingly, the cinema has found a place in my work. Maybe this goes back to the earlier issue of a body of images that existed about Derry that I responded to, there's also cinematic work that I've responded to. The installation, "The Only Good One is a Dead One" refers to something like the road movie, this idea of the road as metaphor, as journey.

Maul: In your "installation" the viewer is suspended between victim and assassin. There's really no where to go and besides being really beautiful looking, it's done very inexpensively and low tech. It refers to grand historic painting on one level, and I also see it as a kind of compressed cinema.

Doherty: Yes, again one of the things that interested me about the making of "The Only Good One" was that at the time I was making this work the Northern Ireland Office was running a series of public information films; which were asking people to help the police by passing on any information about so-called terrorist crime. They were very strange little pieces of cinema in the sense of how they were made and how they used a couple of really very quick edits-for example a situation where you see the police on the street checking cars, the police walking along a high street looking after people and suddenly there's a quick edit of someone being shot or a car that has just being blown up. I felt at the end of the day what these videos were about was not about asking people to help the police, but more about confirming our status as victims. The implication being that if we didn't help the police we were basically fucked, that we were next. And this was at a time when a series of random sectarian murders, especially around Belfast, had the population in general feeling very victimized, and I felt that these . . .

Maul: Added to the victimization.

Doherty: Yeah, they certainly added to it and I think in a very cynical way manipulated peoples fears and in a very graphic way visualized our fears for us. And for me there was an interesting thing between cinema and that. Most people haven't shot another person. Most people haven't been shot; our only experience of it is a cinematic one or televisual one. How would we know what's it like to wait for someone by the side of a road to ambush someone? How do we know what's its like to be attacked? "The Only Good One" drew on those cinematic clichs of the assassin and victim but attempted to not create a character but to try and assimilate or look at the mutual dependency of both of these positions.

Maul: When I saw your work first one of the things that struck me was that it often forced the viewer into taking a position one way or the other. One of my first experiences with it was through a Noraid event, placed in the context of Republican graffiti and street art. The works still forced you into some kind of decision. But both sides could claim the work as being sympathetic.

Doherty: I didn't know that the work was presented in this context.

Maul: Yes, it was an interesting evening and it was unusual to see contemporary art among the usual Northern-Irish agit-prop.

Doherty: Yes, I think what I tried to do with that earlier work was not so much force the viewer to take a position but more a case of presenting the viewer with a number of options, so it was about making a choice where I always felt in fact there wasn't a choice but the work proposed that it was a possible to look at something from two positions simultaneously.

Maul: Which I believe is a really European thing. One of the problems I had in the eighties with American Art was the complete lack of that choice, Art was actually about no choices, it was about been read and translated one way and being easily identified as part of a certain movement. A "one-look" art experience. A lot of European work tends to be more multi-faceted.

Doherty: I don't know why, it certainly was important for me at the time that the work engaged the viewer in some kind of dialogue, some kind of process, that it was also very related to geography of the place and trying to get a look at the way that was implicated, so it wasn't simplistic, there was always more than one possibility.

Maul: In Northern Ireland you always know where you are. You always know what part of town your in, there are signals and coding in the landscape, in the architecture, you always know precisely where you are.

Doherty: The work was often very much about that process. About looking at those codes, how they worked, of always knowing where you are in relation to something else became almost like second nature. That kind of checking things out, checking the other person out, looking at the finer sides so you know exactly where you are. You know what you can say safely and what you can do.

Maul: Were you at any personal risk in taking the tools of surveillance and turning them around? I get the feeling that driving around Derry at night with a camcorder isn't the safest thing.

Doherty: Yes, there is a certain degree of risk in that; I mean that's an interesting part of making the work, in order to get the kind of images I want I have to put myself in that position. The way that surveillance operates in Northern Ireland as well as anywhere else is about positioning the camera in relation to what's being observed. My work is often about getting the camera into a particular position to understand the power relationship. So there is a certain degree of risk in getting the camera in that position because you actually have to go there you've got to do it; the only way I could make 'the only good one' video was to actually get in the car, get the camera and go and do the driving, there's no other way I could have done it.

Maul: In your community do people know that you are an artist?

Doherty: Yes, increasingly. It's something that in varying degrees makes me feel uncomfortable in a sense that part of making the work has always meant that I'm invisible. I go somewhere discreetly make the photograph I want to make and leave. There's no big deal about doing that, it could be just another person walking around. I use to always carry the camera in a plastic bag, invisible.

Maul: I hate being seen with my camera.

Doherty: That's really important. In making the work you have to have that kind of unintrusive relationship. This is also related to what I was talking about earlier, the body of existing photographs. Most of the photographs that were made in Derry and other parts of the North were made by journalists who were here for a few days wandering about with cameras around their necks.

Maul: The classic work being Ireland: A Terrible Beauty , by Jill Uris. It crystallized the North photographically for the entire world.

Doherty: Absolutely; my work was very much about being the opposite of all that, having a very different working principle and also feeling that I was part of this community. I wasn't there to spy on it or take advantage of it or manipulate it. People were outraged and angry about how events that they witnessed had been turned around. I suppose the best example for me is Bloody Sunday in Derry, where as a 12-year-old boy, I witnessed thirteen people being shot and then to be told afterwards it didn't happen. It was an incredibly influential experience, and it was important for me because it was very clearly crystallized that all those photographs were unreliable.

Maul: Now we're seeing the end of the photograph as a truth telling device, computers will eventually produce any image that someone wishes to see.

Doherty: Yes, I understand what your saying, that kind of relationship is really at the center of these color photographs that I'm showing here at the moment. They are very much about their status as a truthful documents if you want.

Maul: You don't retouch them at all like Thomas Ruff's recent things? It's a question I think people will ask because of the clarity.

Doherty: Also, because they look as if they could have been staged. So I'm interested in that conflict or that paradox. "It's got to be manipulated, it's got to be staged, you couldn't just find that" in someone saying.

Maul: As soon as I get off the plane in Ireland I feel as if I'm walking around in some big photograph; maybe its been photographed to death or something. I believe something can be photographed out or away from reality. In Ireland I find it very easy to take pictures because there's a picture everywhere you look, and not in the kind of sentimental, aspect of beauty, but it's in the way things are ordered and how time has stopped things in a peculiar way.

Doherty: I agree with you that there is this kind of quality there that's a little hard to define. You feel as if you've seen this before, you know it as a photograph even though it doesn't exist as a photograph. My photographs are very much about what we expect a photograph of Northern Ireland to look like. I'm interested in that gap, in what they are and what we might hope that they might be and I find it especially interesting showing them here because people have such a strange perception of what Ireland is, a lot of people haven't been there but have this bank of images from somewhere.

Maul: Most Americans don't know that Northern Ireland is a different country.

Doherty: But they have these very strong images of what they think it looks like. I'm interested in the work encountering those expectations.

Maul: Getting back to "The Only Good One is a Dead One," over here that phrase generally refers to American Indians or Nazis.

Doherty: I heard it used in a similar way. I have actually heard people say when a Catholic or Protestant has been murdered, "Well that's one less" . . . "The only good one is a dead one" . . . I've heard it used by both sides. I think what that also implies is that there is no status for the innocent victim. There is always some degree of blame, that this person deserved it. Another expression that I've also heard used in relation to that use is "There's no smoke without fire." If someone has been murdered there must have been a reason for it; this person was involved in something and they must have deserved it on some level.

Maul: No one is innocent. How was the piece received in London at Matts Gallery?

Doherty: It was received very positively on different kind of levels. I think people responded to the work very well on a formal level because of what was happening in the space with the imagery and the way the images worked with the dialogue. I think people found a certain kind of formal resolution there that they could respond to. I also think it told them something about the situation in Ireland that they hadn't been aware of.

Maul: Dan Cameron noted the resemblance of some of your work to Warhol's "Ten Most Wanted Men." I thought of that when I saw the advertising campaign here for In the Name of the Father , with the image of Daniel Day-Lewis, which was like a glamorized mug shot.

Doherty: But again that's one of the stark images that we carry around with us, what we think Ireland is about and there's this mug shot, part of this series of images. So for me that's where the center of the work is at the moment, working with this pre-existing language. Language in general has been stifled by the conflict there. But maybe with the cease-fire we can begin to find new words and images to describe the situation. Unfortunately, most photographers when they come to Ireland come with the images already in their head and those are the ones they want to find.

Maul: They show up right away. Generic.

Doherty: What interests me is actually working with this notion that these images pre exist and that I'm not the sole author of this work.

Maul: I think it's something we've always shared. We were talking before about things being "stopped." I tend to photograph things that have been stopped for a long time, it's just as matter of "taking" them as opposed to "making" them. Taking on the role of photographer! There's a big difference between your recent color works and the earlier black and white pieces. Wim Wenders said that the "world is in color but black and white is more realistic."

Doherty: I think I understand why someone would make a statement like that. In a sense black and white is the color of documentary and it's about the gritty realism and the terrible beauty all these kind of things. I think to some extent that is why some of my black and white works were quite successful, people could respond to them because they conformed to this notion of one gritty reality of Northern Ireland.

Maul: Did you print any yourself?

Doherty: No, I didn't.

Maul: The poster of the burnt-out car you did for the Venice Biennial, do you remember what kind of car that was?

Doherty: I think it was an Austin Metro.

Maul: I wonder because I was watching MTV during U2's Zooropa Tour and their logo for the tour was a similar car.

Doherty: They used a Trabant, a little East German car.

Maul: Yeah, it look almost like a toy car.

Doherty: Yes, it looked like a toy car, an awful useless car.

Maul: Somehow I made this association.

Doherty: Apparently, in the former East European countries people saved for ten years to buy this little car. Now its out of production, but I think U2 were using it as this icon of the cold war and the collapse of Europe; the collapse of the wall.

Maul: But you weren't using it as that.

Doherty: No, it was different car. I was using it for a different reason. Again it was one of those images that was just already there, one of the images of Ireland. The image I was thinking of at that time was a Benetton poster, they had a image of a of burning car, exploding on the street, I think it was in Italy. It was interesting for me to make this piece of work in Italy where there's also this history of terrorism and one of the weapons of the campaign was the car bomb so it was an image that was going to be available in Italy. I wanted to slip this in there somewhere.

Maul: I think the Benetton reference is fascinating because I think in the next few years the real competition with contemporary art will be that kind of advertising. Getting back to John Hillard, there's one Benetton advertisement that looks just like one of his; with the black and white hands handcuffed together. It really resembles contemporary photographic work of the seventies and eighties. I think there's a real parallel of ideas going on in both areas right now.

Doherty: For sure, certainly in the way that a campaign like Benetton would seek to make this image that would have this imagined universal meaning. It's like their images can travel the world and people get it everywhere. The notion of particular readings in particular places has broken down, all these images are proposed as available for everyone everywhere. This is one of the things I'm interested in doing with the color work to make images that work on that level, that play around with these presumptions and ultimately undermine them. The images also become destabilized. That's why the image of the burnt out car interested me because it was one of those icons, what terrorism everywhere looks like.

Maul: Right, you see a burnt car anywhere and you drive a little faster.

Doherty: What interests me about the poster was its availability. With "The Only Good One" I wanted to find similar kind of images, the image of the road at night was an image we already knew through cinema. A few people come to me and said, "That road really got me, either reminded me of a particular situation or when I was a kid or driving a car and feeling slightly out of control . . ."

Maul: Its a real labyrinth. Was that the city of Derry glittering in the background?

Doherty: I shot the video on roads near the border just on the outskirts of Derry. Over the hills above Derry. I was really just looking for a very typical country road that people immediately recognized as a road in Ireland. The image on the street was like another image where people can make a very quick association. A car parked on a street watching someone else.

Maul: The size of the projection and the low-tech production gave the images a percolating, undersea quality. You were alerted to any slight change, particularly in the street images.

Doherty: Yes, it's a contrast of two images, one is apparently still and not moving and the other is constantly moving. I guess if you actually stay with it there is quite a lot of movement within the still image.

Maul: There was this element of discomfort that I couldn't put my finger on. Like a tug-of-war. The difference between seventies and recent video art is that in the seventies there would be two little monitors in the room, and now through projection this work can really compete with paintings or cinema.

Doherty: In my case it was more about having this physical thing happen where the viewer was given two apparent choices, again this work seems to propose two choices, the victim and the aggressor, but also two choices where the viewer positions himself in the space. The work is about having to look from one to the other, having to choose. It's about physical movement and not just about passively viewing the screen.

Maul: The viewer has to make up their own mind. Literally take a position. As someone who visits Ireland a lot I notice that authoritative roles are heavily scrutinized and viewed rather cynically. Perhaps this is due to its recent colonial past. Time and time again in your work the responsibility of interpretation is handed over to the viewer.

Doherty: This interests me that maybe there are these dynamics within the work that I'm not so conscience of as a result of living in this particular conflict. It's interesting that maybe it's more possible for someone outside to see those.

Maul: Would you have ever moved your family into the Republic when you were teaching in Dublin?

Doherty: I started teaching in Dublin for a term and it became two terms then it became a year, then they asked me to do another year. At that time it was actually very good because I had became involved with the other practitioners in a very open way. I also needed the money. In the last year I've been so busy I had to make a decision. Do I really want to work as an artist, or be a teacher? I felt I couldn't be both so I packed it in and now I'm trying to make it work a an artist. In terms of moving the family it's very difficult. Our eldest children are at school, they like the school and are well settled, that makes it more difficult for me. But also in terms of work at the moment, it's a good place to be even though I think my work is becoming less specifically about Derry as a place. It's actually useful to be there because it's like having this thing you can focus on, you can look at and get involved in it.

Maul: Final question: If the peace process, which has begun in the last few months, continues on, will it affect your work?

Doherty: Invariably, yeah, I don't know in what way, but I mean . . .

Maul: You must have thought about it?

Doherty: Of course I have, but I mean I'm not unhappy that it happened. I think its actually a very positive development. I've come to realize that the basis of the work is language, and that's something that's going to continue to be around.

Maul: I worry about the permanency of the cease-fire.

Doherty: Seriously, the British Government at the moment refuses to enter dialogue with Sinn Fein until they can be assured that the IRA cease-fire is permanent. I find this interesting because what is permanent? It's an impossible demand, I mean the only way that we can actually develop and build a peace process is by actually doing it. Having the dialogue and developing the language, developing the means to move forward. This also could be an analogy for much of my work.


Text: © Copyright, Journal of Contemporary Art, Inc. and the authors.