This new exhibition at Matt’s Gallery in east London shows rarely exhibited photographs from artist Willie Doherty from between 1985 and 1992.
The work began in a period when the Irish Republican movement was entering into political negotiations with the British government over the future of Northern Ireland. The images offer us a glimpse into this process, contrasting the simple black and white photographs with short bites of text – “undercover”, “unseen”, “protecting”, “invading” – creating tension for the viewer.
Alone these images give us an abstract view of a conflict that affected millions, setting scenes of unknown landscapes in a constantly changing environment in which everyday life met revolutionary struggles.
Though abstract, the photographs will feel familiar to anyone who has spent time in Ireland. In At the Verge and Remote Control (1992) desolate streets are enclosed by high walls and barbed-wire fences – images that brought back my own memories of visiting family in Ireland as a young boy. The stories of repression and slaughter by the British state as told by my grandparents, aunties and uncles, as well as that lived by my cousins, their families and friends, always seem to have unfolded in estates surrounded by these same dividing walls.
Doherty, who is from Derry, has clearly been affected by the conflicts around him, and the way that they have been portrayed in the media and by the state. At twelve years old, the young Doherty witnessed 13 people being shot on the streets of Derry, followed by lies and distortions in the mainstream media reporting of the event.
When he was asked about Bloody Sunday in an interview with the Guardian, he said, “It was an incredibly influential experience, and it was important for me because it was very clearly crystallised that all those photographs were unreliable.”
It is these experiences which have shaped Doherty’s work. In the film Ghost Story (2007), which has been shown in exhibitions around the world as well as the Prince Charles Cinema in London, the camera explores lonely, deserted country paths as the artist provides a voiceover recollecting his own experience of the Troubles.
The images themselves are amazing to gaze at. Large-scale photographs with text, mounted on aluminium, fill the minimalist space of Matt’s Gallery, engaging the viewer instantly. Although they are displayed with no contextual information, visitors are provided with a pamphlet which includes a short essay about the artist and the work.