A tale of two exhibitions

Sharon Heal, 10.12.2013
Sharon Heal looks at two sides of Derry-Londonderry
Before this year Derry-Londonderry was known for two things: shirt-making and as the site of Bloody Sunday, one of the most notorious incidents in the Troubles.

These two elements of the city’s history have been brought together at the City Factory Gallery’s retrospective of Willie Doherty’s work, part of the City of Culture programme.

The gallery is housed in a former shirt-factory close to the Bogside where Doherty was born. Doherty witnessed the Bloody Sunday killings from his bedroom window aged 12, and the incident and the impact it had on the city has inspired his work.

I visited the show when I was in Derry recently and was struck by the force of Doherty’s images. It’s the first major retrospective of the artist’s work in his home town and its proximity to the Bogside and the sites where some of the photographs were taken is powerful.

The title of the show, Unseen, refers to Doherty’s role as an unnoticed recorder of the changing landscape of Derry-Londonderry. His most recent work documents the sites of punishment shootings and kneecappings, a reminder that despite the Good Friday agreement there is still an undercurrent of violence on the streets of the city.

The most shocking and moving piece in the show is one of Doherty’s most recent works. The video Remains shows a burning car in a gloomy post-industrial landscape. The narrator describes three incidents of knee-capping; as the story unfolds the realisation slowly dawns that the victims are from different generations of the same family.

Doherty says he is interested in contributing as an artist to public debate. The challenging material in Unseen provides a sharp contrast to the Turner prize exhibition also showing in Derry-Londonderry at the moment.

It seems significant that you have to cross the water, from the mainly Catholic Cityside to get to the Turner Prize show at Ebrington Barracks on the mainly Protestant Waterside.

Across the Peace Bridge the Turner Prize seems tame in comparison to Doherty’s work. Tino Sehgal’s Exchange provides the most food for thought.

In a bare gallery an invigilator approaches and tells visitors that in exchange for sharing their views on the market economy they will receive £1.

It doesn’t matter what you say as long as you have an opinion. I chatted to one of the invigilators – Connor – who told me that most people had accepted the challenge and that a majority who spoke to him thought the system didn’t work but couldn’t come up with a viable alternative.

It was only on the way downstairs to collect my £1 from the reception desk that the penny dropped. I had just sold my opinion - that the market economy is fundamentally flawed and iniquitous - for £1, therefore the market economy works...

This thought-provoking piece was my favourite, although it lost out to Laure Prouvost’s Wantee in the prize.

Doherty has twice been nominated for the Turner Prize but never won.

After seeing his show in his native city I wondered if it was because it his work is too challenging, too real, and raises too many questions.

The Turner Prize is often accused of using controversy to generate publicity. On this occasion the really thought-provoking work is in the City Factory Gallery.


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Stephen Snoddy
Director, New Art Gallery Walsall
29.01.2014, 16:25
agreed - Willie is the most important artist to emerge from the period spanning 'The Troubles'.

why oh why are the barracks being turned into offices?