Visual Art: Towards a Perfect Monotony Willie Doherty's Political Artwork Has Avoided Both Propaganda and Emotional Indulgence for an Intense View of the Deadlock in Northern Ireland. by Tom Lubbock

By Lubbock, Tom | The Independent (London, England), September 1, 1998 | Go to article overview
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Visual Art: Towards a Perfect Monotony Willie Doherty's Political Artwork Has Avoided Both Propaganda and Emotional Indulgence for an Intense View of the Deadlock in Northern Ireland. by Tom Lubbock


Lubbock, Tom, The Independent (London, England)


I used to know someone, a member of the Socialist Worker Party, whose big put-down for those she called "post-modernists" was to say that, for them, the revolution was something that happened in art galleries. She had a point. You do find people - usually writing in art magazines - who seem to think that way. They fervently analyse, pro or contra, the political import of some artwork, without any practical reference to political life outside the gallery, without even noticing the omission. But then, what's the right way to think of the relation between what happens in the gallery and in the public world beyond?

Political art is liable to lose out every way. If it makes direct statements, it's called propaganda, and told that it's wasting its energy, or acting in bad faith, because the art audience is tiny and probably immune too. If it offers more oblique meditations, it's accused of indulgence, evasion and obscurity: what's wanted are clear declarations and commitments. And whatever it does, it's likely also to be judged by the most touchy standards, as if it really were going to make all the difference in the world. Political art often finds itself in a role which reverses that proverbially enjoyed by the press: minimum power, maximum responsibility.

And sometimes it knows this. At the Tate Gallery in Liverpool, Willie Doherty has a kind of retrospective, just opened and titled "Somewhere Else". Doherty is in his late-thirties and lives in Derry. His only subject, since the mid-1980s, has been the politics of Northern Ireland. His medium is photos with words, and videos with soundtracks. It's an art acutely - almost oppressively - conscious of its limitations and responsibilities. It never looks very hopeful either.

Here's an example, a video piece called At the End of the Day. In a small dark room, projected onto one wall, you see: view from a car driving along a hilly country road at dusk - out of the gloom, in a dip, suddenly, a border road-block - unmanned, just a blank metal barrier across the road - car stops, waits, some dark birds cross the sky - sequence begins again, repeated over and over. And each time the short sequence restarts, a monotonous voice on the soundtrack says "the only way is forward" or "we must forget the past and look to the future" or "we're entering a new phase" or some such phrase from the lexicon of political breakthrough ("at the end of the day...")

The idea there, and the irony, is I suppose pretty direct (breakthrough hits road-block again and again), but it has a characteristic twist of uncertainty too. Talk of "a new phase" might come from the Northern Ireland Office. It might equally refer to the armed struggle. Something the work often stresses is how the language duplicates - not only the language of either side, but also the language of peace and war.

Take another, largely audio, piece, They're All the Same. Here you see a still slide projection of a young man's face, accompanied by an again very monotonous voice-over, which delivers three sorts of statements alternately: 1. I am a crazy killer, for example "I am ruthless and cruel", 2. I am a noble struggler ("I am proud and dedicated"), 3. lyrical description of landscape ("The soft Atlantic rain which seems to cover the whole country adds depth and subtlety to its colour"). Of course, the last element is pretty important, because otherwise the piece would just say that one person's terrorist is another's freedom fighter.

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Visual Art: Towards a Perfect Monotony Willie Doherty's Political Artwork Has Avoided Both Propaganda and Emotional Indulgence for an Intense View of the Deadlock in Northern Ireland. by Tom Lubbock
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