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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
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