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

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. The nature sentiment complicates things. It could well be shared by both sides. It could be the common ground that both are fighting for and over. Or it could come from a tourist board, trying to put the Troubles out of the visitor's mind.

A lot of things are noticeable by their absence. No violent action is represented, only its results, in high finish, close-up, colour photos of a car's bullet-holed bodywork, or blown-out french windows, or a burnt out van left by the roadside. These things are taken out of context; specifically, taken out of the context of dramatic reportage, presented absolutely flat. Indeed there's very little human incident at all in Doherty's work - no images of paramilitaries, or security forces, or parades, raids, stand- offs, funerals, or any of the well known "sights" (with their well known emotional incitements). You get a lot of unpeopled views of town and country, where the human presence is only in the viewpoint implied - as in photos titled At the Border - Walking towards a Military Checkpoint (a leafy lane in perfect perspective with nothing else visible) and Critical Distance (a townscape at night, as seen from a surveillance camera).

And if you wonder where Doherty stands himself, it seems to be a matter of negatives. He observes a studied neutrality as between loyalist and nationalist causes. He is deeply sceptical of all the standard languages: mediatic, political, security or terrorist. He insists on everybody's blank incomprehension of everybody else. He's scrupulously down-beat. As for the emotional charge of the work, I'd almost call it an intense boringness. Obviously that sounds rude, but I take this effect to be deliberate, and to involve various motives: careful avoidance of anything flashy or sensational in the presentation; stern discouraging of all stock responses; creating a sense of depressed inurement, of the wearing everyday anxiety of check-points, barriers, surveillance, outrages; and a sense of the rigid entrenchment of all positions. And it is a real intensity.

Whether Doherty's work has, in addition, a margin of quite gratuitous boringness, I'm not sure. But a more important issue is its apparently inflexible pessimism. And an obvious point, of course, is: so what about now? The peace process and the Good Friday agreement? How does Doherty deal with that? Well there's only one piece from 1998, a complex video installation, Somewhere Else, which would need about 500 words to describe - but suffice to say that no breakthrough seems to be registered here either. Nor would you really expect that from an art that's been till then so spectacularly unmoved by hopes of any sort.

Least of all the hope that it might make much difference to anything. Indeed, one can think that Doherty's work holds its place within the art gallery just too securely. For isn't its take on its subject exactly the artistic position? Our art loves deadlocks, hates breakthroughs. (What a let down if, on the fiftieth repeat the road-block was gone and the car kept going...) At any rate, making the Troubles so strongly into art, Doherty makes you aware how very remote the contemporary artistic virtues - a laconic irony, contradictions held in resonant stasis, brooding menace - are from those of the negotiating table.

Willie Doherty - Somewhere Else: Tate Gallery Liverpool, Albert Dock, Liverpool; until 4 October; admission pounds 3, concs pounds 1.50

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’


Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'


Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from


Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Arts and Entertainment


These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Daenerys Targaryen, played by Emilia Clarke, faces new problems

Sek, k'athjilari! (That’s “yes, definitely” to non-native speakers).

Arts and Entertainment
Polly Morgan

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

    'You need me, I don’t need you'

    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
    How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

    How to Get Away with Murder

    Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
    A cup of tea is every worker's right

    Hard to swallow

    Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
    12 best children's shoes

    Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

    Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
    Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

    Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

    Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
    Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

    Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

    Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Let's talk about loss

    We need to talk about loss

    Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth