Wednesday, 8 January 2014


Elements of Willie Doherty's vivid, haunting and awakening exhibition astound

Wandering into one of three video rooms at Willie Doherty’s UNSEEN exhibition in Derry-Londonderry's City Factory, the very first thing I see is a running man. Dressed as any typical businessman would be, and bathed in eerie red, he is constantly scurrying over the lower deck of the city’s Craigavon Bridge in what looks like a desperate attempt to escape from someone, somewhere, to the allegedly safer confines of the city side.

It is a sprint ad infinitum, filmed from several angles on two screens side by side on a thirty second loop. Titled "Re Run", it is emblematic of the pain and danger in both sides of Derry-Londonderry. Clearly the man will never reach his goal in the video itself, but does the clip not suggest, with his worried features and the crimson light very prominent, that he will never truly be safe no matter what side of the city he is on? Is it a clear symbol of schizophrenic divisions in the City Of Culture 2013?

This is one of numerous perspectives that we will be privy to in this deceptively one-note but in reality extremely vivid, haunting and awakening exhibition. Cast in an aura of gloom, Doherty's three decade old collection of photography and videos uses elements, artifacts, objects, light and people as an eye-opener to what he perceives to be the – yes – "unseen" aspects of this cultured city.

A series of simultaneously intriguing and frightening photos, some colour, some monochrome, re-imagine a "darker" side of Derry-Londonderry not as a wasteland, but as a bittersweet tableau with images of terror, regret and the odd glimmer of hope. Amongst the imagery, we see a drop of water resting on a plant, a long pathway adorned with roadblocks in the shape of gravestones, rock upon rock on the east banks of the River Foyle, a burning car, and a burnt out car on the side of a road that would otherwise shine with possibilities. Were you to consider these solely as art, they would approach vibrant, eye-popping beauty, but they bring with them the extremely troubling underbelly that some, or many, battles may be won but some "wars" – or conflicts – will never end. That reaping the fruits of our labours can be only a temporary reprieve.

Through 1997's "Out Of Sight", we see the gap and divide between hope and fear, the benefits of a service station positioned behind a brick wall that may well be more of a barrier than it seems. And in 1985's "To The Border", we immediately recognise the Letterkenny Road, but drained of all colour and present-day amenities. Black and white, not a soul in sight. Childhood memories of being driven down this twisting, turning road to Glenveagh Castle vanish when confronted with the stark realities of the past and present which Doherty has bravely documented.

"The Black Spot" video is what it is – an unsettling presentation of the dark, quiet mood cast over a residential area on the outskirts of the city. When placed alongside every exciting and colourful event that we witnessed last year, it takes on new meaning. For a while, we did not seem so aware of how creepy a city's suburbs can be, or maybe we just preferred not to think about them. UNSEEN unveils the Derry-Londonderry we forgot we knew – or, perhaps, the Derry-Londonderry we did not want to know, but feel more enlightened for having discovered, or rediscovered. A triumph.