There are so many ways an image can move. Cinema being one. Memory another. We write a story, add a title. The camera moves through places to illustrate it. Willie Doherty doesn’t.
“I always start with exploring a landscape, not with the script.” This twice Turner Prize nominated installation artist is speaking with collaborator and esteemed cinematographer Seamus McGarvey at an EIFF presentation of his work, Ghost Story.
A place extends in time. It contains memories. Ghost Story explores memories evoked by one who knows these innocuous looking scenes from Northern Ireland well. A wooded lane, a car park. Memories of the Troubles. Of blood. Of horrible death. After adding the narrative, Doherty added a title. Then a ‘ghost story’ (with a wraith, a mythological figure) to wind it all into a composite whole.
I first saw Ghost Story as an installation piece. I was ‘doing the galleries’ with a friend, a photographer. A day out (after we found we’d got the wrong date for a lecture). We walk into a soundproofed opening, little grey corrugations softening impact as we stumble along a passage that gets increasingly dark. Into blackness. I glance back at my friend. “Hey! You’re a ghost!” Colette is outlined by strange light from the entrance. We swap places so she can dig it. Then she disappears. I stumble forward. A sharp turn. The passage opens into a viewing room. Ghost Story, the film, plays in a loop.
Unprepared for the references, we sit and watch. Our brains are on hold as the voiceover moves on hypnotically, seemingly at odds with the gentle scenes back-projected. Entering in the middle, we are less captive to the ‘narrative’ than a cinema audience (which watches from the ‘beginning’ to the ‘end.’) The clash of image and words is a pleasing aesthetic puzzle. Creeping paranoia and no easy explanation.
I revisit the gallery for a talk on Doherty’s work by visiting academic Jean Fisher. She calls it Fragments Of An Anxious Landscape. The title seems perfect. Fisher explains how Northern Ireland, like Palestine and Cyprus, has been a territory divided by competing narratives and exacerbated by divisive British colonial policies. She traces the dynamics that lead disenfranchised minorities, denied voice and political agency, into violent resistance.
“The typical response of the ruling elite is then to demonise violent dissenters as criminals or ‘terrorists’ rather than as political actors, reinforcing the cycle of alienation. This is not to condone violence, but to point out that its roots lie in the failure of political discourse: in intolerance, or blindness, to difference and indifference to justice – in short, an inability to see and listen.” Doherty’s work looks at blind spots. How the N.I. amnesty might have succeeded politically, yes; but without healing the private space. The cultural memory.
In Ghost Story, the spectres of the past surface through memory, infusing the landscape with images we can’t see. Real and imagined become blurred. Fisher suggests there can be ‘excess of memory’ – a compulsive incapacity to forget (something that has also been suggested by Godard). From this pathological state, there is a need to reach some perspective. An ability to reflect, but somehow distanced from it all. Like the young woman’s gaze in the film perhaps.
Doherty uses a steadicam in Ghost Story, with the operator on a platform which is slowly pushed along a deserted road. It tracks the undergrowth to one side. Then looks ahead. Then back to the undergrowth. It never gets to the end of the road. Doherty says he likes the way that the hovering steadicam gives a ‘disembodied’ feel. As if examining the landscape ‘forensically.’ He speaks of the landscape as a ‘container of unfinished business.’
The way we approach art in a gallery is different from the more linear experience of going to the ‘movies’ and Doherty’s work benefits by comparing both. Moving image art recontextualises cinema. In a gallery setting, the viewer is no longer in a fixed seat. No longer a ‘voyeur’ in the darkness but a participant. There is the freedom to move around, both physically and at different time intervals. Movement of the image is an a priori at a cinema. But in the gallery it is implicitly experienced in relation to art that doesn’t move. This can invite us to approach and interpret it in novel ways. The non-linear or ‘static’ nature of the moving image is emphasised, for instance, in Doherty’s work Re-Run in which we stand between two screens. One shows a man running towards us. The other shows the same man running but from behind, so he is running away from us. Here it is the relationship of the image to the spectator that is paramount rather than any sense of narrative traditionally associated with the moving image. The jump cuts in Ghost Story also suggest the non-linear nature of memory.
Looking at Ghost Story in the context of Doherty’s other work can reveal further treasures, especially considering his more blatant devices that compare the psychological impact of a given image when labelled with different words. This psychology and its political background has been documented by award-winning Guardian journalist David Beresford (Ten Dead Men) and is not just an artistic imagining. Doherty does not preach a message to us, or take sides. He merely makes us aware of the process by which we observe. Draw conclusions. Rely on ghosts. Or not.