At first sight, Willie Doherty’s recent photographs – included, along with works from throughout Doherty’s career, in the exhibition Disturbance, currently at the Towner Art Gallery in Eastbourne – are beatiful if somewhat bleak images of a desolate landscape. But like all Doherty’s work the subject matter is Northern Ireland and even that basic level of knowledge – coupled with the titles of works such as Dead Pool II or Seepage – means that the photographs carry a very different resonance.
The power of this work lies in no small measure in the simplicity of the photograps and in the way picture and title work together to trigger a response in the viewer, well in this viewer, anyway. The colour palette is sombre thanks to both the weather and the landscape, much of it peat bog. Were one to ignore the political resonances that emanate from the conested nature of the north of Ireland and the decades of sectarian violence over its status, these would still be troubling pictures; the scarring of the landscape in other parts of Britain where peat has been cut is similarly disturbing.
Here though the possibility of violence is never far below the surface and it’s hard not to scan the shadows for signs of trouble. The countryside – very far from the pastoral idyll that word can conjure up – is barren and remote. There is a sense that if anything were to happen here it could go undiscovered for a very long time. Perhaps forever, given the land’s ability to assimilate the evidence.
As with much of Doherty’s work – and yes, I’m always saying this, but I think it’s inevitable I’ll be writing about this subject again – there are narratives, both suggested and real, buried in these pictures. The degree to which we choose to unpick them is up to us, between title and photograph we have tantalisingly little to go on. In giving so little away, Doherty is allowing the anxiety of suspicion to work its way under our skin. In the end, I think it’s this that makes his work so powerful for me.
I haven’t lived my life in a contested space, so my understanding of the relentlessness of living day to day in the long shadow cast by conflict is inevitably limited to say the least. And, as very much a city person, understanding the pull of the landscape doesn’t come easily for me. Nonetheless, there is something extraordinary – primal, even – about Doherty’s pictures that gives me more to go on than I get from most other sources.