WITH the border having once again become a hot topic in Ireland in the Brexit era, Willie Doherty O opened up just at the right time to encourage much needed thoughtful reflection about the lines that divide us.
This recently opened retrospective at the Ulster Museum features a large selection of the photographic and video work of the Derry-born visual artist, two times Turner Prize nominee, from the mid-1980s to the present day, all sharing the common theme of borders ‘real and imaginary’.
Having witnessed Bloody Sunday and growing up during the worst of the unrest, the constant presence of British security and surveillance in the city of Derry and along the Derry / Donegal border has informed much of Doherty’s work, which saw him nominated for the Turner Prize in 1994 and again. in 2003. Most recently, the Donegal-based artist traveled to the United States to produce a piece focusing on the US-Mexico border during Donald Trump’s presidency.
Organized in collaboration with the Fondazione Modena Arti Vive in Modena, Italy, OR includes a brand new video installation titled Where / Dove (“Dove” being the Italian “where”) commissioned for the retrospective which uses the British border in Ireland – now in its centenary – as a point of reference to understand the issues of nationalism, immigration and exclusion that divide at international level.
The retrospective was originally scheduled to open here in March after debuting at Fondazione Modena Arti Visive last year as Doherty’s first major Italian retrospective. However, although the exhibition’s Italian run and Belfast opening may have been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, the issues OR the addresses remain unfortunate topicality.
“Before the pandemic happened, one of the things that weighed on most people was the whole border situation, obviously because of Brexit and the kind of border reshaping, but also migration – especially in Italy “, explains Doherty of the ORgenesis of late 2018 and early 2019.
“At one point, their right-wing government created a huge mess on migration and allowed people to access Italian ports and transit through Italy. So it seemed very common at the time.
“And obviously, living in Derry on the border with Donegal, I had been working around this from the mid-1980s onwards. So it seemed appropriate to shape an exhibit around this theme.”
During the unrest of the mid-1980s, anyone taking pictures around the border would quickly have attracted the attention of the RUC and the British Army. It looks like young Doherty is no exception, as he explains.
“I really wanted to not be recognized as a photographer or journalist or even a tourist with a camera,” he tells me of his early days in Derry.
“At this point in the mid-80s to early 90s, I used to carry my camera in a plastic bag and just walk the border roads rather than driving.
“So it was possible to be a little more low-key – but I was arrested several times by the army and the RUC. I remember once in Derry the army pulled the film out of my camera. because they thought I was getting too close to some kind of army infrastructure or whatever.
“Most of the time I tried to keep a low profile. When I think back to this job, I think there is a certain degree of my own paranoia around feeling embarrassed with a camera, but also the wider paranoia around the border at I feel that kind of tension and reluctance.
“I used to walk from the city of Derry to the border along Letterkenny Road and always felt there was some sort of covert watch along the border – so I always felt like I was being watched.
“And the thing with a camera is that you then have the ability to ‘look back.’ But you also participate in this process of using a camera to look in a particular way at a place. “
Doherty received a rather warm welcome from border security during his visits to the US-Mexico border in 2017, where Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers seemed amused by his interest in an area then. newly politicized by the xenophobic hyperbole surrounding Donald Trump and his madman promising to “build the wall”.
He says: “In some ways the dynamics of borders are obviously very specific to where they exist, but there is also a shared experience among people who live in border situations and understand the emotional tug between one side and the other. the other – there is an “us” and them there, but also a connection too.
“I first spent some time in El Paso, Texas, where the border fence runs through the city, much like the Peace Walls in Belfast. Further out of the city, the border is demarcated by the Rio Grande river – again, not too different from the border here at home.
“I’ve been arrested a number of times by the guys at ICE, who were all Hispanic, which I found very strange although it actually makes perfect sense in terms of the work they do.
“On one of the photographs I took [At the Border, In-Between (Walk Softly, Breathe Gently)], you can see a tire. It was actually taken inside the border wall: when I told one of the guys at ICE that I was curious how similar their border was to ours, he said “Do you want to see it?” And I just opened the door to let myself into this kind of no man’s land.
“He told me that every other day they hang the tire on the back of their jeep and drive along the border. The tire smooths the sand so that when they return they can see the footprints of whoever has come to try to break through the wall.
“This very crude and simple device reminded me of how border checkpoints here have always had a sort of ‘ad hoc’ feel about them.”
Of course, OR is not only interested in the physical aspect of borders and border “policing”. As Doherty explains, we often build walls inside our own heads.
“I’m kind of interested in the broader mental, emotional, and psychological aspects of living with a border and trying to navigate and negotiate borders, as well as how we sort of create borders for ourselves- same, “he told me.
“In this part of the world our identities are very invested in ‘place’, so I think that aspect of the border is very interesting – how we ‘identify’ in relation to where we are, which side of the border we are on. are and what it means to cross the border.
“There is everything about how borders exist in our imagination. I have often heard people in Derry talk about how they ‘breathe a sigh of relief’ every time they cross the border from Donegal: This idea that leaving the north behind means ‘freedom’ and that the further west you go in Ireland the more you escape the oppression of the north, I think that’s still a very powerful image in our heads.
“So I hope the exhibition gets rid of that a bit. It doesn’t offer any solution, but what I hope is that the individual works create a small space where people can consider or reflect on different aspects of the way we co-exist with boundaries. “
Willie Doherty WHERE runs through September 12 at the Ulster Museum, Belfast. Entrance to the museum and exhibition is free but prior reservation is required via nmni.com