SEEING BEYOND THE PALE The Photographic Works of Willie Doherty
1In a recent discussion of his photographic work, Willie Doherty remarked that his aim was ‘to try and reflect the way the terrain creates an understanding of the place’. 2 The ‘place’ named in much of the work in this introduction is Derry, the artist’s home town. But we soon see that his evocations of the city and its environs do not quite subscribe to the pictorialism of orthodox urban landscape photography or to the familiar spectacle of documentary reportage. In Doherty’s work, representation is a question of positioning: the camera in relation to the object, the text in relation to image, the viewer in relation to the physicality of the photographic installation. 3 ‘Place’ is not simply a named topographical entity. It is a position from which I see and am seen: a relation that is both specular and spatial, and which produces an image of myself through the ‘other’ of my gaze. The terrain that Doherty maps is a labyrinth of complex relations with this ‘other’, through whose narratives of the social and the political, the psychical and the historical, the human subject constructs its sense of identity.
The Walls, 1987, is a black and white photograph presenting a panoramic view of the Bogside from immediately inside the city walls. The composition is severely symmetrical: a pale cloudy sky; mid-grey tones of the rising slope of terraces that form the picture’s horizon; the dark band of the wall pressed close to the picture plane. There is something faintly oppressive about the way the buildings are squeezed between sky and wall – perhaps because the position occupied by the camera takes in neither a background nor the downward slope that would connect the wall to the terraces in the middle distance. The focused clarity of the latter gives it an intimate proximity to the viewer which is belied by the scale of the houses, rendering distance ambiguous. The absence of ‘transitional’ spaces reflects the unnegotiable nature of the inscriptions overlaying buildings and wall: ALWAYS / WITHOUT in green lettering on the former (a colour emblematic of Nationalism), WITHIN / FOREVER in blue lettering on the latter (a colour emblematic of Unionism). Whilst the picture’s emphatic horizontality forces the eye into a lateral scanning movement, the camera’s position – which is reproduced by that of the photographic work on the wall – gives us a commanding view of the terrain. We are caught in the act of surveillance.
As we imagine that, with powerful lenses, we could penetrate the interiors of the facing windows, so we also become aware that those ‘eyes’ may see us. Indeed, were it not for the presence of this ‘gaze of the “other” ’, we should not be able to assume the sovereignty of power that this position affords us. The ‘seeing / being seen’ dyad is a question of both position and disposition: I see you in the place I am not. However, what The Walls brings into relief, is that this narcissistic relation between oneself and ones ‘other’ beyond the given boundary, is inscribed with a profound uneasiness.
Our gaze in The Walls is ‘illegal’, unauthorised, insofar as it sees from the political place in reality we / Doherty are not. We are invited to mimic or usurp the position occupied symbolically by Unionism, and literally by the surveillance machine of the British security forces, in its relation to the Catholic community. Derry, with its video-masts overseeing the Bogside, its checkpoints and house searches, is a place in which, at least for the Nationalist ‘other’, there is no private domain that is not penetrated by public forces of control. This disciplinary mechanism governing Derry’s spatiosocial relations bears an uncanny resemblance to Michel Foucault’s description of a panoptical formation of state power. 4 The panopticon is a spatial model of surveillance dependent (like the photograph, one of its primary instruments) on light and visibility, and whose efficiency and effectiveness is based on the fact that one only need put in place the apparatus of surveillance for the individual to assume that he is potentially under constant observation. For the observed at least, as Foucault comments, ‘visibility is a trap’.
In the philosopher’s reflections, the prototypical structure instrumental in the formation of panopticism was found in a military archive outlining the strategies to be implemented in the event of an urban plague. ‘Underlying disciplinary projects the image of the plague stands for all forms of confusion and disorder.’ 5 It is the concept of disorder that interests us here since it is its imminence in Derry that prevents a disciplinary mechanism from remaining covert. However, the disorder implied is not ‘terrorism’ which is, at best, only a symptom. More to the point is that for a hegemonic apparatus ‘disorder’ is a disturbing heterogeneity within its notion of a healthy homogeneous social body – it is what cannot be legitimated or, in representational terms, what cannot be made over into a recognisable and repeatable sign. For British colonial power, heterogeneity and the ‘contagion’ it threatens, has historically been those components of indigenous Irish culture that could not be assimilated to British belief structures.
The significance of Doherty’s ‘usurpation’ must therefore be understood in the context of a city that still bears the imprint of a colonial structure of power which represents the Irish Nationalist as ‘other’ at the same time as it actively prohibits it access to the means of representing itself – in effect, of the freedom to construct its own identity as an equal speaking subject. 6 As Doherty indicates in The Walls, cultural difference is marked by two (absent) locations: the space between the site of power (inside the walls) and the place of the ‘other’ (the Bogside), and the space beyond the horizon of the visible or recognisable: unnegotiable or untranslatable zones that resist the signifying demand of colonial power. In topographical terms the ‘beyond’ might be described as the ‘hinterland’ of the colonial centre. What is truly ‘beyond the Pale’ is that which is outside the jurisdiction of the law – and for the privileged gaze of Northern Ireland the physical reality of this is a profound heterogeneity not only within its borders, but a matter of a few miles beyond Derry’s westerly and northern boundaries.
Any assumption that this privileged gaze is in control of what it sees is undermined in two installations, Undercover / Unseen, 1985 and Fog: Ice / Last Hours of Daylight, 1985, each comprising a pair of large-scale photographs positioned on the wall such that the viewer can imagine her / himself ‘in’ the view. In the former work, the left-hand panel, inscribed, UNDERCOVER, presents us with an image of a footpath through tangled undergrowth located by the river; the right-hand panel, UNSEEN, is a view of a bend in a seemingly featureless road leading to the border. If, at first glance, these images seem innocuous, banal even, they soon take on menacing overtones (informed, in part, no doubt, by the expectations that media representations of Northern Ireland have instilled in us). In neither case is it possible to see what is ahead; nor is it possible to penetrate the dense thicket of the one or the blind corner of the other. The legends, BY THE RIVER and TO THE BORDER, give the images a dual reading depending on the position from which one is speaking. Thus on the one hand they hold the promise of a passage to freedom, and on the other, precipitate a paralysing uncertainty regarding what may lie ahead. For the privileged gaze invisibility is a trap; seeing here conjures up a paranoid sense of blindness and vulnerability, of being seen without seeing.
In Fog: Ice / Last Hours of Daylight, this blindness is conveyed through atmospheric conditions. The compositions are similar in the two photographs. In the cold wintry scene of Fog: Ice we are positioned on a frost-glazed slope overlooking the city which, as the text tells us with a disarming ingenuousness, is obscured by a SHROUDING and PERVADING mist. We follow the trace of footsteps down towards the buildings only to lose it in the blanketing whiteness. In Last Hours of Daylight, we are closer to the city, overlooking a terrace of houses, but here, the view beyond is veiled by a pall of coal-fire smoke. The text, STIFLING and SURVEILLANCE, evokes a sense of entrapment that, like Undercover / Unseen, has a dual component. The veil that encloses the city’s population in a claustrophobic silence, is also the veil that frustrates our desire to see.
This play on illegibility takes on more specific nuances in Doherty’s single black and white ‘landscape’ photographic work, The Blue Skies of Ulster, 1986, which is inscribed with the legend ‘WE SHALL NEVER FORSAKE THE BLUE SKIES OF ULSTER FOR THE GREY MISTS OF AN IRISH REPUBLIC’. The legend, a familiar Loyalist sentiment, was found by the artist graffitied on a Waterside wall. The photo work, conceived in the manner of an 18th century ‘conversation piece’ to be displayed over a mantlepiece, throws the political world into an uncomfortable proximity with the domestic domain. The image is a view of the River Foyle both of whose banks, as well as the horizon itself, are all but obliterated by a heavy mist. There is no visible bridge so that the river becomes a ‘dead’ zone, or ‘no-man’s land’, between the banks. In this case, the political perspective of the viewer – whether he / she is of the west bank (predominantly Nationalist), or east bank (predominantly Unionist) – conditions the position from which one might interpret the work. If there is a humorous irony in the contradiction of the phrase ‘blue skies’ with the image of a (typical) misty grey day in Derry, it soon plunges us into the abyss of language. For here is a mythic speech that represents ‘Ulster’ as the imaginary site of clarity and order as against the Republic, and all that it signifies historically in terms of Irish identity, as precisely a hinterland of grey and incoherent ‘otherness’.
Doherty’s image of an (almost) anywhere-in-particular lacks those specific signs that would enable an identification between place and spectator. The featureless roadside, riverside, housing estate or scrubland typical of the edge of urban centres, are wastelands of undecidability marking the limit of the organised control of the city, and by implication a limit of legibility in the relationship between the ‘other’ and the imaginary unitary self. This uncertainty turns on the problem of visual representation itself in its assumption of an equation between seeing and knowing. Doherty’s blindspots, veils and absences, the opacity of the view and its refusal to surrender its contents to the controlling gaze of the camera, reveal the inadequacy of the photograph. Here, contrary to the common belief in the photograph’s pure transparency, something eludes the eye, exceeds the focus or frame of the image.
Like Undercover / Unseen, the dual Protecting / Invading, 1987, reveals this gaze to be disturbed. The impenetrable scrub vegetation and twisting lane depicted here camouflage the place of the ‘other’ while precipitating a paranoid anxiety in the position held by us / the camera. That this is anxiety of chaos and death is clear if the work is read literally in the context of paramilitary violence in Northern Ireland; but it is also a psychosis that haunts the imaginary relation between ‘self’ and ‘other’ in colonialist discourse.
Faced with an incomprehensible ‘otherness’, the coloniser has the option of accommodating it either in terms of identity or difference. David Cairns and Shaun Richards point out that whereas the Norman English invaders may have responded to the indigenous Irish in terms of similarities and correspondences with their own self-image, following the Elizabethan search for English nationhood and overseas dominance, Irish identity became drawn in terms of difference. 7 Englishness and non-Englishness, superiority and inferiority, civilisation and savagery, rationality and irrationality: ‘Irishness’ was to become the negative term in a series of positional oppositions trapped in the libidinal economy of the imaginary and characterised by a misrecognition of the self. For in order for the colonial self to take control, to justify dispossession and exploitation, it must make the world over into the mirror of an ideal self. This is a move that entails projecting its own ‘disorder’ onto the ‘native’ while simultaneously disavowing the latter’s ‘real’ coherence or identity. But as Abdul JanMohamed points out, ‘ … the gratification that this situation affords is impaired by the [coloniser’s] alienation from his own unconscious desire. In the “imaginary” text, the subject is eclipsed by his fixation on and fetishisation of the “other”: the self becomes a prisoner of the projected image. Even though the native is negated by the projection of the inverted image, his presence as an absence can never be cancelled. Thus the colonist’s desire only entraps him in the dualism of the “imaginary” and foments a violent hatred of the native’. 8
What is finally discomforting about the blindspots, veils and absences in Doherty’s work is their lack of a reciprocal gaze. These images are not mirrors by which I might secure my identity through a narcissistic recognition of and by an ‘other’. Rather, the ‘other’ is evanescent, concealed, present in its very absence. Lacking points of identification, we are caught in the trap of a gaze that, turned back on us, freezes us in its glance.
If Irish identity is seen as unknowable in the colonial relation it is not because it possesses an essential opacity; there is no ‘Irishness’ outside the rhetoric that engenders difference. Rather it is because the colonial gaze constructs it through the mirror of disavowal and projection. However, as Doherty’s work proposes, the contested terrain of identity has more turns than a Celtic knot; and in this regard we must pay attention to the constant doubling – of the gaze, of the formal structure, of interpretation itself – that characterises his work. Doubling implies ambivalence, and the path of speculation that this draws us towards is that, contrary to the wilful demand of the ego for a fixed and ideal self, the nature of identity is essentially provisional. The Blue Skies of Ulster has already offered us two clues: firstly, that the fantasy inscribed in mythic speech ‘misrecognises’ or contradicts reality; and secondly, that the two opposing river banks are more or less indistinguishable. In other words, as Terry Eagleton has suggested, ‘there comes a point… at which ‘pure’ difference merely collapses back into ‘pure’ identity, united as they are in their utter indeterminacy.’ 9
The duplicity of identity and difference is posed in a two-part photo-installation, Stone upon Stone, 1986. Designed for a narrow corridor-like space, the photographs face each other such that the viewer cannot see both in full view simultaneously. Each photograph is almost, but not quite, a mirror image of the other: near symmetrical views of the west and the east shores of the River Foyle. The former (Nationalist) is stony and barren compared to the latter (Loyalist). The photographs are inscribed with symbolic signs of Republicanism and Loyalism respectively: ‘TIOCFAIDH ÁR LÁ’ (OUR DAY WILL COME), in green lettering, accompanies THE WEST BANK OF THE RIVER FOYLE, whilst ‘THIS WE WILL MAINTAIN’, in blue lettering, accompanies THE EAST BANK OF THE RIVER FOYLE. Despite their compositional similarity, the two positions are separated, not only in terms of space (their positions on the gallery wall) and temporality (the future in one, the past in the other), but also of language itself. At the same time, if the phrase stone upon stone alludes to the layered accumulation of cultural identity, what we are given to see in both images is its disintegration to ‘nature’ or chaos.
The Other Side, 1988, alludes to the paradoxes of identity through the topography of Derry. It is a panorama of the Foyle valley taken from a cultivated hillside on the east bank, and overlooking the west bank housing estates, extending as far as the hills that mark the border with the Republic’s Co. Donegal. Both east and west territories occupy approximately equal areas although, as in The Walls, the zone that separates the two territories – in this case, the River Foyle – is obscured. The larger inscription, the other side, sited on the east bank, renders the positions of the viewer ambiguous; are we seeing from ‘the other side’ or are we looking at ‘the other side’? Spatial orientation is further confused by the inscriptions west is south and east is north, which refer to the paradoxical dislocation between the political and geographical boundaries of the territory. 10 Derry itself is more than a geographical anomaly; having been claimed by Northern Ireland by virtue of its symbolic value to Loyalism, this monological voice has progressively been displaced by Nationalism (although this has not substantially altered the balance of power).
Whilst the conundrum of positionality that Doherty sets up in this body of work alludes to the geopolitical inequalities of Northern Ireland, it also raises the problem of co-dependency in the relation of ‘self’ and ‘other’; as with Stone upon Stone, both sides are trapped in the same symbolic structure to their mutual detriment. Both sides are engaged in a mutual misrecognition in which the search for identity remains tied to what Edward Said has described as the ‘metaphysics of essences’ that have their origins in the hegemonic effects of colonialism:
‘ … it is the first principle of imperialism that there is a clear-cut and absolute hierarchical distinction between ruler and ruled. Nativism, alas, reinforces the distinction by revaluating the weaker or subservient partner. And it has often led to compelling but often demagogic assertions about a native past, history or actuality that seems to stand free not only of the coloniser but of worldly time itself… to accept nativism is to accept the consequences of imperialism too willingly, to accept the very radical, religious and political divisions imposed on places like Ireland … by imperialism itself. To leave the historical world for the metaphysics of essences like … Irishness … is, in a word, to abandon history.’ 11
Whilst Loyalism is equally trapped in a metaphysics of essences, it is the ‘nativism’, or ‘Celtic twilight’ sentiment, haunting Irish Nationalism that Doherty interrogates in a body of work relating to Stone upon Stone.
As in The Blue Skies of Ulster, a heavy mist pervades the scene of Home, 1987, in this case, of a stony hillside. The inscriptions lost perspectives, ancient stones and home appear to be a reverie on the Fenian search for an essential Irish identity in the pre-historic, pre-colonial mythic past. ‘Home’ (identity) here, however, is a barren and unyielding place wreathed in mist. The mythic Irish past offers no solace; the ‘perspective’ that is ‘lost’ is, to take up Said’s point, an historical dimension that would address a present reality.
The pathos of mythic symbolism forms the subject of the two-part Longing / Lamenting, 1988, depicting on the one hand an almost cloudless blue sky, and on the other a patch of desiccated grass littered with dead leaves. 12 The work alludes to the phoenix theme of death and resurrection that has given meaning to the romantic sacrifice of Fenian nationalism from the United Irishmen to the provisional IRA, 13 and which found its most enduring and eloquent expression in Patrick Pearce: ‘Life springs from death and from the graves of patriot men and women spring nations… They have left us our Fenian dead, and while Ireland holds these graves, Ireland, unfree, shall never be at peace!’ 14
Believing, 1988, also alludes to the promise of renewal; but the hope signified by the rosy dawn is countered by the deadening unkempt elements in the picture that return us to the bleak indifference of the outskirts of Doherty’s city. This work has close affinities with the single-image Mesh, 1986. Like the rosy dawn of Believing, the frost-limned leaves scattered on the ground allude to an Irish poetics echoed in the accompanying legend, derived from the stained-glass window of a local church: ‘Crowded full of heaven’s angels is every leaf of the oaks of Derry’. And yet the frozen beauty of dead leaves, far from reflecting the tree that gave Derry (Doire Cholmcille, oak grove) its name and spiritual vitality, suggests stasis, suspended life, which like the mythic speech of Ireland itself is enmeshed, entrapped, outside time and the historical process.
Believing… waiting… dreaming… longing… lamenting: there is a melancholic fatalism in Republicanism’s mourning for a lost past which disables the future itself. As Luke Gibbons has argued, ‘A revolutionary movement obsessed with symbols exists at one remove from reality…’ 15 If the Irish landscape is one of Nationalism’s primary symbols, it may be understood in terms of a common preoccupation among colonised peoples with the reclamation of lost land, in which, as Said maintains, recovery first takes place in the imagination. 16 It is imagination that Doherty appears to be alluding to, not only in the use of participles like ‘believing’ and ‘longing’, but also in his recent use of colour to signify the unreality of folkloric photographic depictions of Ireland.
Dreaming, 1988 and Waiting, 1988, play ironically on the image of Ireland as a pastoral idyll nurtured both by touristic representations and Republicanism’s desire for a united nationhood. Instead of dramatic skies over green rolling hills and picturesque crofts, however, Doherty presents us with GOLDEN SUNSETS written over Rossville Street looking towards the ‘Free Derry’ gable wall, and CLEAR HORIZONS over a panorama of the city with [empty] factories in the foreground. The rolling hills that symbolise Republican aspirations – ‘WAITING’, ‘DREAMING’ – hover inaccessibly on the horizon. Doherty’s allusions to ‘acceptable levels of violence’ and unemployment concealed by British ‘normalisation’ policies in the North are also comments on the cynicism of this hegemonic apparatus:
‘ Undoubtedly the fact of hegemony presupposes that account be taken of interests and the tendencies of groups over which hegemony is to be exercised, and that a certain compromise equilibrium be formed – in other words that the leading group should make sacrifices of an economo-corporate kind. But there is also no doubt that such sacrifices and such a compromise cannot touch the essential.’ 17
It is their inability to ‘touch the essential’ that underlines Doherty’s critique of representations of Northern Ireland, whether they subscribe to the conventions of romantic idealism or realism. Such conventions collude with the old imperialist drive to dehistoricise the ‘other’ in its justification of cultural superiority and exploitation, and to gloss over the social realities below the surface of appearances. That this also reinforces stereotypes of Irishness is nowhere more obvious than in the predominance of images of violence in media reportage. The prevailing representational genre here is spectacle, whose ideological implications are not far removed from what Gibbons has to say about Irish Victorian melodrama:
‘ The overpowering effects of stage scenery on dramatic action provided a useful popular support to the view that political violence and ‘agrarian outrages’ were not a product of colonial misrule, or any social conditions, but emanated instead from the character. The fact that Irish landscape was defined in terms of wilderness and disorder, and that the weather was gloomy, turbulent and subject to fitful changes, made any suggestion of a strange osmosis between climate and character all the more attractive.’ 18
Under English rule, the ‘wilderness’ and ‘disorder’ of the Irish landscape and character were to be controlled by imposing the rationality of an imported architecture. Whilst Palladian-style residences of the landed gentry dominated the Irish hinterland, it was the Georgian elegance of Dublin itself that embodied the ‘civilising’ English presence. Neglected for decades following independence as the symbol of colonial power, the fair city has now been resurrected as a touristic spectacle without, however, substantially changing the stereotypes of ‘Irishness’ that inscribe its history.
Playing on familiar picture-postcard views of Dublin doors, Doherty’s three-part vertical photo-installations Evergreen Memories, 1989 and Fading Dreams, 1989, focus on details of the facades and surfaces that characterise the city in the eyes of the visitor. In an image placed high above our heads, we discover an Irish harp – it is part of the stonework surrounding a clock. EVERGREEN MEMORIES, in the green lettering accompanying all these images, announces a temporal bond. But if the photograph transfixes time, so does the ivy-covered facade of Fading Dreams. Both image and building are destined to become no more than trace memories of a fantasised past.
The harp reappears on a door overlaid with a cryptic double inscription: HOSPITABLE refers to what the doors clearly signify – fabled Irish hospitality; but DEPRAVED is a reminder of the irrationality of Irishness’ that is the unspoken underside of touristic messages. The clock, and the robust door embellished with rose mouldings of RESOLUTE PSYCHOPATHIC, are parts of the neo-classical facade of the General Post Office in O’Connell Street. As with so many aspects of Irish culture, this one-time monument to the colonial administration’s sense of order and permanence underwent a paradoxical shift in meaning following the Rising of 1916, to become a principle icon of a rebellious and victorious Republicanism. What is psychopathic here? Irish attachment to the ghosts of a fictionalised past perhaps; but also English hallucinations of ‘Irishness’. At our feet, a view through a stone balustrade of the River Liffey points to UNKNOWN DEPTHS beyond surface appearances; a detail of a cobbled street is marked with the legend CURSED EXISTENCE as if the very stones were a trap to seduce the unwary visitor by his own romantic fantasies. In Doherty’s Dublin, it is the undead – the wraiths of metaphysical essences – that stalk its streets.
In some respects, the more negative ‘primitivist’ connotations of the ‘wilderness’ – that the view cannot render up to vision a tangible or holistic meaning – have shifted from ‘nature’ to the decayed or anonymous ‘alien’ urban ghetto. But, in any case, such a perception is one constructed by the ‘misrecognition’ of the outsider. Doherty is fully aware of these potential misrepresentations, not only with respect to others’ images of his home, but also his own images of elsewhere. It is an awareness that informs his more ‘objective’ photoworks from Dublin and Belfast.
By contrast to Derry, the distribution of Nationalist and Loyalist communities in Belfast is topographically more diffuse, ‘… it subordinates both individuals and their natural environment from the outset to a sense of place, to a social engagement with landscape as historically contested terrain’. 19 As with the Derry work, these photo-installations reveal how the panoptical strategies of regulation and disempowerment subtly inscribe the fabric of the city. In Fixed Parameter, 1989, a single-image work, we are positioned on a derelict industrial riverside site from which, in the distance, we can just see the business centre of the city. A similar relationship is defined in the two-part Commitment / Investment, 1989. In Investment, we are excluded from the commercial centre by a continuous wall, whilst in Commitment, we are situated in the site of a disused gasworks that has been planted with a few spindly trees. If, like Dreaming or Waiting, this speaks of the cynicism of ‘normalisation’ policies that aim to attract business investment, like Sever / Isolate, 1989, it reveals that these policies are coincidental with others which deliberately exacerbate the deep conflicts in Belfast society. Sever is a shot of the Westlink highway which, in effect, separates the Catholic Lower Falls area from the city centre. The only solely pedestrian access is the footbridge depicted in Isolate.
The effect of limiting organic movement among peoples, or of isolating them from the functions of modern urban life, produces a vicious circle – or circle of viciousness – whose sense of futility is reflected in the brutalising architecture described in these works. Closed Circuit, 1989, shows the Sinn Féin Advice Centre in Short Strand. Not only is the corner of the street lined with high corrugated metal barriers, but the building itself is barricaded and fitted with a video-camera – a modest replica not only of the security forces’ own methods of self-protection, but also of their ‘siege’ mentality. The aim in Closed Circuit, as is apparent in all Doherty’s work, is neither to sentimentalise nor to idealise, but to enable us to engage with a critical reading of the complex rhetorical positions that constitute a sense of selfhood in this region. This is not to say, however, that Closed Circuit, as its title suggests, does not also reflect upon the pathos of an Irish Nationalism forced to internalise and reproduce the same signs of paranoid militarism as its antagonistic other, to collapse its own difference into the expression of sameness. The problem with nationalism is that it is a symbol which, like ‘landscape’, is trapped in an imaginary realm, proposing the existence of a unitary subject conterminous with an autonomous collective identity. This concept of selfhood is limiting: ‘Any emancipatory politics must begin with the specific… but must in the same gesture leave it behind. For the freedom in question is not the freedom to “be Irish”… but simply the freedom now enjoyed by certain other groups to determine their identity as they may wish.’ 20
Clearly, it is possible to read Doherty’s Belfast work in fairly literal terms as the failure of Northern Ireland’s Anglo-Irish relations. But on another, more subtle level, these images of barriers of various kinds imply the inaccessibility of difference to the eyes of the visitor or stranger; the sense of estrangement induced when the ‘other’ remains opaque. If the intense scrutiny of Northern Ireland by dominant culture persistently fails to provide any enlightened solutions it is due in part to the fact that this imperial gaze is blinded by its own assumptions and prejudices. As one of the Bogside murals states, ‘Many have eyes but cannot see’.
Over and above its specific references, the power of Doherty’s work is its fundamental concern with the languages of representation as they work to construct identity. As the work under discussion here makes plain, for the suppressed Irish Nationalist community of Northern Ireland this is a complex matter, involving profound contradictions. Doherty’s attentiveness to language is characteristic of the post -colonial subject severed from its mother tongue and where cultural difference in the language of dominance is represented as an inferior version of the same. 21 It is, as Sivaramakrishnan pointedly states, a matter of survival for the ‘other’ to know the language of dominant culture, while the latter remains ignorant of his / her. 22 It is the consequences of this ignorance or blindness that gives rise to the misrecognition of the Irish ‘other’; and it is to Doherty’s challenge to those representations by outsiders that perpetuate this misrecognition that I should like to address the closing commentary on his work.
On a formal level, Doherty’s work takes on board diverse photographic conventions, among them, the British landscape photo-text codes of art practice during the 1970s. Their tendency to seek out seemingly uninhabited ‘wilderness’, as if marking what Gibbons calls ‘the blissful moment of creation’, 23 has since been perceived as retreading the path of colonialism. 24 The implicit nostalgia in this work for a mythic pre-modern past in which a unified transcendental self is neither threatened by cultural difference nor contaminated by the effects of modern industrialisation, is at a considerable remove from Doherty’s resistance to globalising abstractions. When he speaks of unfamiliar terrain it is not to present resolutions to its contradictions but to deliberate on the imperfect knowledge that vision offers us. Doherty’s landscape is never a blank page, a ‘virgin’ territory; it is always and already a cultural text, inscribed with the social, the political and the historical. There is no ‘real’ space anterior to, or outside, the processes of signification.
In this respect, Doherty’s work is in marked contrast to the liberal humanist tradition of photography. 25 This tradition seldom fails to transcend what Roland Barthes calls ‘the effect of the real’; or what Edward Said described in relation to broadcast news as ‘no background, but only a moving foreground’: ‘ They give you simply: we were there yesterday, we’ll go back tomorrow, so you don’t have to worry about what happens between then and now because we’ll be giving it to you in a thirty-second slot tomorrow, should the crisis continue.’ 26
The problem with this genre is that it frames the object in both senses of the word. It gives priority to the symbolic function of the sign privileging resemblance: an analogical relation between signifier and signified. In reference to the symbol, Barthes states that ‘its form [is] constantly exceeded by the power and movement of its content. The symbol is much less a (codified) form of communication than an (affective) instrument of participation.’ 27 As we have seen, Doherty’s work does not privilege the symbol; content is thoroughly bound with the formal structure of the work: both its site of transmission and its site of reception. We are consequently encouraged to engage not with affective content (sentimentalism is absent), but with the process of seeing and its instrumental role in the fabrication of identity. Above all, what Doherty’s work makes clear is that representation is a construction that mediates the self’s sense of itself. The inscriptions of The Walls, ALWAYS / WITHOUT and WITHIN / FOREVER, may conceivably describe the ambivalent relationship between the camera and its object, between the viewing subject and the object of his / her vision, between the ‘self’ and its ‘other’: a seeming intimacy yet marked by an unbreachable distance.
In attending to its deep structures rather than its surface signs and effects, Doherty radically politicises the urban landscape; he reclaims it from the priority of vision, which tends to construct a transcendental or idealist self, and returns it to its place within the circuit of language. We might suggest further that Doherty’s work politicises vision, enabling us to reflect upon the implications of what Liz Curtis dramatises as a narrative of misinformation in the reportage of Northern Ireland politics. 28 Official denials of the colonial accountability of the conflict, the criminalisation of dissent, the outlawing of Sinn Féin’s political voice and the right to silence, are strategies that violate the right of a constituency or individual to represent itself, and that render difference undebatable. As a consequence, the complex voice of Irish Nationalism is trapped in a closed debate while it continues to be represented from the outside through the old colonial myths of Irish savagery and irrationality: as a fetishised, depoliticised and dehistoricised ‘other’. As Doherty’s work is at pains to point out, ‘Irish Nationalism’ is a sign now so overdetermined by all sides in the conflict that it has become emptied of any productive value. But if ‘place’ remains a historically and politically contested territory, so also are the identities of all who dwell in it. For Doherty, identity is a question of constructed positions and need not be trapped within stereotypical closures. Perhaps his own ‘position’ may be likened to that of Frantz Fanon who, with equal passion, refused to be a slave of the past: ‘In the world through which I travel, I am endlessly creating myself.’29
- 1. This text was first published in Willie Doherty: Unknown Depths, Cardiff: Ffotogallery, in association with the Orchard Gallery, Derry and Third Eye Centre, Glasgow, 1990, unpaginated. ‘The Pale’ was a fortified boundary around Dublin, constructed by the first English settlers to mark their jurisdiction from that of the ‘wild’ native Irish. The term ‘beyond the Pale’ has come to refer to transgressive behaviour.
- 2. Willie Doherty in an interview with Christopher Coppock, ‘Colouring the Black and White’, Circa Art Magazine, No. 40, 1988, p. 26
- 3. In contradistinction to the convention of hanging photographs on the wall according to an ‘ideal’ viewing point, Doherty installs his work accordingly to the viewing position from which each shot was taken. In this way, the viewer is invited to share the artist’s orientation in relation to the view, and to be aware that this position is neither ‘neutral’ nor ‘ideal’.
- 4. Foucault’s description of Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon might apply to Derry: The enclosed, segmented space, observed at every point, in which individuals are inserted in a fixed place, in which the slightest movements are supervised, in which all events are recorded, in which an uninterrupted work of writing links the centre and periphery, in which power is exercised without division, according to a continuous hierarchical figure, in which each individual is constantly located, examined and distributed among the living beings, the sick and the dead – all this constitutes a compact model of the disciplinary mechanism. See Foucault, Michel, Discipline and Punish (trans. by Alan Sheridan), New York: Pantheon Books, 1977, p. 137.
- 5. Ibid. p. 199.
- 6. Policies to prevent Irish Nationalism from representing itself range from the active discouragement of photography in Derry by the British security forces to the government’s prohibition of Sinn Féin’s voice on broadcast media.
- 7. Cairns, David and Richards, Shaun, Writing Ireland. Colonialism, Nationalism and Culture, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1988, p. 2.
- 8. JanMohamed, Abdul R., ‘The Economy of Manichean Allegory: The Function of Racial Difference in Colonial Literature’, in ‘Race’, Writing and Difference, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (ed.), Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985, p. 78.
- 9. Eagleton, Terry, ‘Nationalism: Irony and Commitment’, Field Day Pamphlet, No. 13, 1988, p. 15.
- 10. The cardinal points west and north are part of the Republican South despite the conventional use of ‘The North’ to mean ‘Ulster’, which in turn is a misnomer referring to only six of the original nine counties.
- 11. Said, E. W., ‘Yeats and Decolonisation’, Field Day Pamphlet, No. 15, 1988, p. 14.
- 12. The photographs were shot in Creggan Cemetery.
- 13. Kearney, Richard, ‘Myth and Terror’, Crane Bag, Vol. 2, No. 182, 1978, p. 125.
- 14. Patrick Pearse’s speech at the graveside of O’Donovan Rossa in 1915, quoted in Jackson, T. A., Ireland Her Own, London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1985, p.404.
- 15. Gibbons, Luke, ‘The Politics of Silence’, Framework, No. 30 / 31, p. 2.
- 16. Said, E. W., ‘Yeats and Decolonisation’, op. cit., p. 10.
- 17. Gramsci, Antonio, Selections from Prison Notebooks, (trans. Hoare and Nowell Smith), London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1971, p. 161.
- 18. Gibbons, L., ‘Romanticism, Realism and Irish Cinema’, in Rockett, Kevin, Gibbons, Luke and Hill, John (ed.), Cinema and Ireland, London: Routledge, 1988, p. 211.
- 19. Ibid., p. 235.
- 20. Eagleton, T., ‘Nationalism: Irony and Commitment’, op. cit., p. 10.
- 21. Fisher, Jean, ‘Other Cartographies’, Third Text, No. 6, 1989.
- 22. Sivaramakrishnan, Arvind, ‘The Slave with Two Hearts’, Third Text, No. 7, Autumn, 1989.
- 23. Gibbons, L., ‘Romanticism, Realism and Irish Cinema’, op. cit., p. 207.
- 24. Araeen, Rasheed, quoted in Artscribe International, No. 74, March / April, 1989, p. 74.
- 25. One of the principal genres of this tradition is social documentary. Its tendency is to select and frame an object that would stand for the ‘human condition’ it seeks to reveal – rural or urban poverty, the horrors of war, racism, etc. – but the result often merely aestheticises the problem. It is a form of anthropological panopticism which assumes an objectivity on the part of the photographer. Its historical roots may be traced to the early use of photography in medical pathology, criminology and ethnology.
- 26. Said, E. W., ‘In the Shadow of the West’, with Crary, Jonathan and Mariani, Phil, in Wedge, No. 7 / 8, Winter / Spring, 1985.
- 27. Barthes, Roland, ‘The Imagination of the Sign’, in Barthes: Selected Writings, London: Fontana Press, 1989, p. 213.
- 28. Curtis, Liz, Ireland and the Propaganda War, London: Pluto Press, 1984. It should be pointed out that Curtis’s text is an example of investigative journalism. Whilst it gives an account of the media’s complicity with state propaganda on Northern Ireland, it is not a critique of the structure of journalistic representations.
- 29. Fanon, Frantz, Black Skin, White Masks, London: Pluto Press, 1986, p. 229.